Brittanie Richardson is in the backyard of a Bed-Stuy Brownstone on Kosciuszko Street kneeling before 16 women. A pitcher and a bucket of hot water sit to her left and her right.
What is happening? She is washing feet, saying “thank you.” The practice is biblical, ancient and remains widespread throughout most countries of Africa, where Brittanie has spent the last six years of her life.
In less than a week, 27-year-old Brittanie—originally from Atlanta, Ga— will be journeying back to Africa, Nairobi, Kenya to be exact, to continue her work of the last two years: rescuing young girls out of sex trafficking.
Her project is called “Art and Abolition,” an organization that uses the arts as a vehicle to bring healing to survivors of sexual slavery.
But before she leaves, she is thanking a group of 16 women in Brooklyn who have gotten behind her efforts and have vowed to organize and continue her work stateside.
They will fundraise while she does the harder part— risk her life trying to kidnap teenage girls and bring them back to their families, assimilate them back into their own communities, recapture their dignity.
“I do really dangerous things,” says Brittanie, her voiced lowered. She whispers the admission because she is on the subject of her mother, for whom she obviously feels a tinge of guilt:
“I know it freaks her out. And at first when I moved to Africa, she thought I was just going through something and would get over it. But it’s been a while now I’ve been doing this, and I think it’s finally sinking in with her that I’m serious.
“I don’t tell her, you know, I rescued a nine-year-old girl from a brothel yesterday. I just show her the pictures of me with the girls smiling to let her know I’m okay, and I’m doing good work.
“She’s supportive. But I know it’s hard, because I’m her daughter.”
A devout Christian, Brittanie doesn’t wonder whether what she is doing is safe or even logical. She doesn’t question the life she leads for one second, because she feels it is a Divine path chosen for her.
During high school, she was casted for a part in a play called, Soweto! Soweto! Soweto! with The Youth Ensemble of Atlanta. The play was about the Uprisings of 1976 and the role non-violent resistance played in ending apartheid.
“What brought me [to Africa] the first time were the stories. I’d learned about apartheid and injustices in South Africa during high school, and so I wanted to do something about it,” she said.
“And for me, that planted the seed,” said Brittanie. “I’ve always had a heart for peace. So I wanted to learn more about how you can tackle violence by using non-violence.”
As soon as she graduated from high school, she hopped on plane to S. Africa. The first time, she stayed for three weeks and then kept returning all throughout college for different lengths of time.
After college, while on one of her sojourns to Mozambique, she said, she had a spiritual vision: She saw a bunch of really young girls, they were all in cages. And in her vision, God gave her keys to unlock the cages and set them free.
Ironically, shortly after and out of nowhere, Brittanie met a Canadian woman in Mozambique. The woman began talking to Brittanie about the sex slave trade in Kenya. She told Brittanie she wanted to start a rescue home in a small rural village in Kenya called Mtwapa, notorious for its rampant sex trafficking, and she needed help.
So, on the same wing and prayer she rode from the U.S. into southern Africa, Brittanie moved to Mtwapa, to help start and manage a rescue home for young girls escaping sex trafficking.
“In Kenya, I learned that culturally, it’s kind of accepted that girls will do this to earn money after they go through puberty,” said Brittanie.
“A lot of times, the parents or caregivers will just tell the kids in the morning to go find money. And the kids will do it. But they don’t talk about how or where they get the money, and the parents don’t always ask.”
UNICEF had posters up everywhere warning people that sex trafficking is illegal. “So it’s definitely known,” Brittanie added, “but it’s also probably why it’s so accepted. It’s like the village feels, ‘This is what we do here.’”
“When I ask a girl ‘Why are you doing this?’ They say, ‘Mama Brittanie, I’m not in school. All I can ever be to earn money is a prostitute. So I just wanna start now.’
“It comes to a point where they’re really just doing anything to survive. It has created this false truth that this is all they can ever be. And when you think that it’s all you can ever be, your self-worth is non-existent.
“They relate to themselves as objects instead of individuals. So when you ask them, “What is your name?” their eyes light up as if to say, ’You want to know my name? You care about me and not just my body?’
Brittanie, along with a local woman named Joy Ndungu, began sneaking into into brothels, strip clubs and alleys, posing as prostitutes to sequester girls from unsuspecting “johns.”
The pre-teen and teenage girls were then taken to a support group that they organized called “Thursday Club,” where they would have food, counseling, ministry and eventually a pathway into school.
Over the course of two years, Brittanie and her network of community members have successfully mentored dozens of young girls, ages 11-20 and have enrolled six girls total into boarding school.
Brittanie says she’s learning that it’s not always about the end result but the impact she is able to make along the journey.
“A lot of girls I’m rescuing, maybe they’ll never love themselves enough to not sell their bodies for food or money or whatever… But if I can just get a little ounce of love into them, a little ounce of innocence back into them and a little ounce of you’re worthy of something more into their minds and their hearts, then it’s worth it.”
Brittanie is moving her operation out of Mtwapa into Nairobi, a much bigger city, where Art and Abolition will be accessible to many more young girls from villages all along the coast– girls looking for a central place to flee.
For the last four months, she has been in the U.S. to renew her Visa, complete some other paperwork and to fundraise. She needs to raise $69,000, which will pay to open the center, run the programs, employ staff, as well as house, feed and enroll 16 more girls into school.
In Central Brooklyn, she has found a network of professional women, of artists who have learned about Brittanie’s work and so have vowed to support her.
On March 22, 2014, the group organized a fundraiser and auction for Brittanie where they were able to raise $10,000. The rest, they are hoping they can get through a Kickstarter campaign, which will start in early May.
In the meantime, Brittanie will leave on April 6 for Nairobi Kenya, with $10,000 to find housing for herself and set up the new operation.
And what if she doesn’t raise the rest of the money? Is she not afraid she’ll be stuck in Nairobi with no funds? No support?
Of course not. She pulls girls out of brothels. If that doesn’t make a person fearful, not much else will.
“I believe that God is so much bigger, so I like to prove that,” said Brittanie. “At night on the streets when I’m out looking for these girls, I can feel darkness trying to intimidate me. But I’m like, ‘No! I have light inside of me!’
“And light always overcomes darkness. So I just go anyway.”