“When You Stand For Good, People Will Either Flock To You Or Be Repelled. Don’t Take It Personally. It’s Not About You, It’s About Them.”
A Conversation With Elizabeth Melendez Fisher
“Naming what has become normalized and a part of our culture to be wrong, does not sit well with all. Especially the ones that still engage in the practice for their own enjoyment. I find people love me or find great distance. Let’s just say I have the keen ability and discernment now to see what lies within someone’s heart.”
I had the pleasure to interview Elizabeth Melendez Fisher President/CEO of The Selah Way Foundation and Founder/CEO of Selah Freedom. Headquartered in the Florida Suncoast, Selah Freedom is a national nonprofit that focuses on ending sex trafficking and exploitation. Fisher is passionate about protecting our own American children. Since Selah Freedom’s inception in 2011, she has led the organization with financial growth of over 200% annually. With her direction, Selah Freedom has launched four nationally renowned programs: Safe Housing, Teen Prevention, Awareness and Outreach, through which Selah Freedom partners with and trains the FBI, local law enforcement and States Attorney’s offices throughout the nation. Selah Freedom educates thousands on this issue every year including children, adults, community stakeholders, NPOs, government officials, school systems and more. Houston Police Department is one of many agencies that was trained by Selah Freedom in best practices prior to tackling the rise of sex trafficking during the 2017 Super Bowl. The organization serves thousands of survivors and at-risk youth annually through each of their successful programs. Accolades of the organization include being identified by the Attorney General and Governor’s offices of Florida as setting the highest standards and measurements statewide and being upheld as the model for best practices as an organization nationally. This ability to scale allows them not only to train countless other organizations, but to replicate their services and reach survivors from all over the country. Fisher oversees each programmatic arm of the organization nationally, incorporating hundreds of volunteers, faith partners and community leaders impacting the fight to end this crime and bring light to the root issue of childhood sexual abuse and trauma.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
I love to say, “We were all groomed for something”. Although, I never thought I would be able to say I was groomed to be the perfect spokesperson for Selah Freedom, anti-sex trafficking and this movement. But now that I have been with Selah Freedom for over 7 years, I can clearly see how the pieces of my life over-qualified me, I was perfectly groomed.
The root of sex trafficking in America is childhood sexual abuse. That shame then becomes the catalyst that spurs you on to make every poor decision possible from your adolescent brain and pain. I am the poster child of that! Sadly, yet fortunately, I am a survivor myself of childhood sexual abuse, rape and just straight up exploitation. They seem to be breeding grounds for each other. But I never would have named any of them. Rather, like most women, I was stellar at keeping my skeletons buried in my quest for worth. I had a successful career in my early days in Chicago advertising and after I was married, I went on to receive my Masters in Clinical Psych in case I wanted to return to the workforce. I spent a good decade as a stay at home mom of 3 precious ones in the beautiful bubble of the North Shore of Chicago.
Only upon launching and being one of the 3 founders of Selah Freedom, have I found my true voice. A voice that is fully rounded in power, compassion and humility. And I think having the full ability to name my wounds, makes me attractive to this new era of women who are realizing we need to speak up and forbid this nonsense from bleeding into the next generation. So, I believe my backstory is the perfect preparation for my platform today. Been there, have the wounds, but now have the exhilaration of knowing the strength that comes from naming our secrets.
If I were to sum up my backstory, I would say my past and the secrets that almost crushed me, now give me the authority to defend and fight for the countless who have not yet regained their voice and power. There is no greater privilege than leading a movement that ushers young ladies and women back into their true identity!
Can you share an interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
As far as an interesting story, there was a young girl that I met when we launched Selah Freedom. Keep in mind until this point, I had been learning, preparing for, reviewing the stats, but not yet encountering the true heart wrenching face of the girl the text book described. Her name was Abby and she found her way to us in the most divine way you could imagine, as though God and the universe lined up every detail to bring her home to healing and love.
Abby was a foster care kid taken from her mom after sexual abuse began at age 3, raped by her step dad at age 7, in which she contracted a sexual disease. No 7 year-old should ever encounter this in her lifetime! In foster care, she was abused, raped and used weekly. At 14, she found herself pregnant from a rape, yet something in her wanted to preserve that life and she entered a teen pregnancy center and encountered a counselor who for the first time felt like love to her. Short lived, she gave up that baby for adoption and returned to her life. Abby graduated from foster care and high school which was a huge accomplishment.
50% of foster care kids will never graduate from high school or obtain a GED. And only 15% of foster children, will attend college and fewer than 3% will earn a college degree. Abby, however, was exceptional and gifted. But upon graduating and wanting to leave her abusive foster care system, she looked for a place to go. Her friend, who had left the foster care system before her, assured her the home she found with some “great guys” who wanted to take care of them was the best option. To make this short, they loved on her for a few weeks, which we call grooming, then she was asked to dance at their buddy’s strip club to help with rent, which progressed to back room favors or abuse. And she found herself full out on the street, being sold for sex for these men.
That is when she tried to take her life and was Baker Acted. Upon her release, the social worker said there was nowhere to send her. You see, there are homeless beds, addiction beds, but very few homes for sex trafficking survivors. Thankfully, right at that time of hopelessness when she thought she would return to those men, her case worker discovered a new program had launched- Selah Freedom, and they treated sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking! She was amazed and hoped she would qualify.
That phone call Abby had to make to our first intake worker was a powerful story. The Selah Freedom Intake counselor who took Abby’s call that day was the very case worker who five years earlier, represented love to her at the teen pregnancy center. As she started to share her story, our intake worker, breathless and in awe said, “Abby, do you remember me? Its Allie!” After a few moments of shock, Abby cried and asked Allie if she can live with her. Abby was one of our fist residents. She now lives on the east coast and is graduating college this year with a Bachelors of Social Work defying all odds of foster care girls! She’s brilliant and resilient! Because of her time at Selah Freedom, she was able to be reunited with her daughter she gave up at 14! You asked for interesting and I think this story is beyond interesting, as I hope it educates about how a life can be impacted and changed and even more, I hope you are truly inspired!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Selah Freedom has become the nation’s leading service provider to young AMERICAN girls sold into sex trafficking. Needless to say, I am thrilled that we are able to help thousands of our own American kids and young ladies each year who have had so much stolen. I’m also excited that we keep growing. We now have the highest level of outcomes and standards in Selah Freedom’s safe housing, jail and court diversion programs. These programs literally remove unjust felonies from girls that were sold against their will and charged. We also now have a national prevention program to get ahead of it for boys and girls and have created a network of the BEST PROVIDERS in the nation.
When the other founders and I launched Selah Freedom, we knew we would create what is now known as the premiere standard of outcomes and measurement to truly impact sex trafficking, but we also had the clear vision that at some point, we would launch another foundation to be THE VETTED place to give to this movement to impact domestic sex trafficking. Donors care so much about this movement, yet they have a hard time discerning who is really doing the work, not just talking about their desire to do so. We get calls monthly asking us to train or take over programs that can’t steward with success the assets that have been given to them. We are asked to intervene. Which we love. NOW, I am thrilled that we are launching the Selah Way Foundation. https://www.selahfreedom.com/selahwayfoundation
The Selah Way Foundation is a network of leading anti-sex trafficking service providers dedicated to eradicating this issue on a global scale. By locking arms with well vetted, expert organizations in this movement, The Selah Way Foundation creates a solid system of care for survivors of sex trafficking. By the end of 2018, The Selah Way Foundation will reach its goal of raising $15 million (and by 2020, $55 million) to fuel its three initiatives: Prevention, Protection and Provision. These three initiatives will aggressively expand to eradicate sex trafficking on a global scale. I am currently in New Zealand right now educating and collaborating with their law enforcement, and we Selah Freedom is going to be training them to help protect, identify and intervene with the at risk runaways there.
This unique Foundation will fund the expansion and ongoing success of Selah Freedom along with other nationally-renown organizations, which will lock arms to provide the highest level of continuity of scope of services, outcomes and measurements. I could not be more thrilled, as this is truly creating a much-needed system to provide solutions and save lives exponentially!
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
J. Stuart Moore, Founder of Sapient Technology. Stuart asked for a meeting with me about two and a half years ago. He said he had been watching our organization and growth. We said we were like the “Google of Not for Profits” and he shared that Selah reminded him of how he built Sapient. You can imagine my surprise and delight when he said he wanted to mentor and invest in us, as we were about to launch our second market. He said over 90% of second markets fail and if we could nail our second market, we could have 50. He redid our business plan and put up a matching gift and the rest is history. He has been mentoring us monthly since then, investing in every aspect of our day to day operations and culture. It is inspiring to sit under someone that grew their business from start up to billions, who sees the same DNA in yours. I’m thrilled to say that we now have the ability to scale like a Starbucks, with the heart and soul of Selah staying intact. We have templatized all and provide the same stellar outcomes. Stuart’s investment has not only impacted our programming and effectiveness, but having him as our mentor and Advisory Board, Emeritus, speaks volumes in the realm of credibility. When a man like that puts his name on what you are building, you know you are exactly where you should be. We are blown away with gratitude for his commitment and guidance. I think one of the most rewarding thing is that we can see how his involvement moves him, as if growing us brings him back to the sweetest success of his life. His stories carry such emotion and it has become evident that his giving back to Selah has had major impact on his own life. We say we bring greater freedom and life to all, to see his joy in helping us save lives is one of the my most inspiring encounters.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1 . When you stand for good, people will either flock to you or be repelled. Don’t take it personally, it’s not about you, it’s about them.
This one took me a little time. The slogan, “Selah Freedom is bringing light into the darkness” is real. Some say prostitution is the oldest profession. One of my favorite law enforcement agents says they see it differently, rather “It is the oldest story of abuse.” Changing people’s perception and asking them to look again and not turning a blind eye to the fact that no little girl at 6 years old would sit on her father’s knee and say, “When I grow up I hope to be sold for sex to old men.” It’s just not a natural progression. But naming what has become normalized and a part of our culture to be wrong, does not sit well with all. Especially the ones that still engage in the practice for their own enjoyment. I find people love me or find great distance. Let’s just say I have the keen ability and discernment now to see what lies within someone’s heart.
2. Managing people is HARD work.
When I first started, someone shared anything over nine people is no longer fun. I didn’t know what they meant, but now I do. It’s a whole other realm. It’s been challenging launching the best programs for this movement, but operations and HR is an additional team and animal. I feel in the past seven years, I have earned my MBA in Not For Profit Management.
3. After you hire your 50th women, hire a man, you need some balance.
Selah Freedom has a culture of collaboration. There is no cattiness or competition and we typically thrive with almost a 100 women workforce. However, the balance a man brings is vital. We do have men on staff as well as male volunteers. We believe that the empowerment of healthy male role models, is just as important in this movement.
4. You will have to separate emotion from business, then turn that emotion right back on to impact others to support your business.
Maybe this one goes back to leading a team of ladies. I come from corporate America, where directives aren’t sugar coated or assured to not ruffle feathers. Rising up passion filled millennials and social work helpers, requires pushing them to think with a different part of their brain and to operate like a business. There is a time for the heart and a time to make sure the bottom line is right and ROI (Return of Investment) is strong.
Floating between the “get it done attitude” and the “needing to know when a heartfelt story is required to motivate and inspire,” is a great tightrope to walk. I’m thankful my world is full of those that err on the side of emotion yet are able to deliver the outcomes needed for success. This is the secret sauce for success and I’m grateful I have survived the learning curve.
5. Know when to turn it off!!
Working in your passion does not feel like work, especially when it is truly your calling. The best advice I give now to our new employees is to know when to turn it off. I know all of us could work 24/7 as it is a labor of love. But those in our lives want our attention, front and center. For the sake of spouses, kids, friends and family, know when to power down!
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
I would still say that Oprah has the most potential to impact and champion the work we are doing to save these girls! Regardless of her having a daily show and a network, she has become an international ambassador for good, especially for girls and women. I see her as the ultimate advocate and champion for the underdog. Her influence and passion definitely aligns with breaking free from secrets and shame. An intro would be fabulous! :)
“When You Stand For Good, People Will Either Flock To You Or Be Repelled. was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.