San Francisco coffee shop brews hope for trafficking survivors

Dignitá is a San Francisco coffee shop that serves as a job skills training ground for young women survivors emerging from what is often years of trafficking and abuse.

When she was just 14 years old, Danesha was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into prostitution. She spent years looking for an out and finally escaped the cycle of prostitution with the help of police and started looking for a job. Without any real work experience or a resume, this proved to be a tall order.

Danesha, whose full name is being withheld to protect her identity, is now one of 47 women aged 18-25 that the Half Moon Bay-based non-governmental group Not For Sale is helping recover from years of trafficking and abuse.

Started in September 2014, the Reinvent program provides counseling and four weeks of training in resume writing, interview practice and other job skills. They also remove tattoos from women who were forcibly marked by their former exploiters.

The classroom sessions are held in a shared workspace, dubbed the Invention Hub, nestled in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. It’s home to Reinvent and a handful of small companies and social enterprises that rent the space, along with Dignitá, a coffee shop Not For Sale launched primarily to be a training ground for the Reinvent participants.

“It’s startups; it’s investment capital; it’s a social café setting, and it’s girls being rescued from trafficking,” said Dan Parodi, head of Dignitá.

Following four weeks in the classroom, trainees spend 12 weeks working at Dignitá before graduating from the program and seeking full-time employment. The position is paid and provides relevant, real-world experience for women who may have never held a steady job.

“Some of those basic skills of professionalism and decorum are things that they don’t have any experience in,” Parodi said. “So when we take girls into Dignitá as part of a training program, it really is an extension of the four-week job-readiness program and training that they’ve already had.”

Darian Eastman, Reinvent’s Youth Employment Specialist, connects program graduates with potential employers in the Bay Area. The program says it’s had a 70 percent success rate in placing graduates in companies like meal-delivery startup The Town Kitchen, handcrafted cardmaker Good Paper, coffee stand Chai Cart and nursery SF Foliage.

“There’s many barriers that they go through. The first barrier would be charges on their record, or not having any work experience at all, really not knowing what it is or what it takes to be an employee,” Eastman said. “And so we’ve got to kind of start from the ground up with things like that.”

Venus Rodriguez, the director of Reinvent, emphasized the importance of “re-education” for these women about themselves. “But it’s really about empowerment; letting them know that they’re just as capable as anyone else,” she said.

In the last half of 2014, there were 219 known and 72 suspected survivors of human trafficking in San Francisco, 224 of whom were women, according to a report issued in August by the Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking.

Sex trafficking is defined as commercial sex involving “force, fraud or coercion” when the victim is 18 or older. If the victim is under 18, any commercial sex act is considered sex trafficking.

Program administrators declined to make trainees available for comment saying many still feared for their safety.

Rodriguez said she works hard to address challenges that her trainees face head on. Sometimes trainees are less employable because they lack things most people take for granted, like professional clothing, transportation or a bank account.

“I have the bank come here and open bank accounts for them. There’s no, ‘Oh, I didn’t make it,’ or ‘I couldn’t go,’” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to do it right here, right now.”

Grant Rosen, a barista and trainer at Dignitá, has been working there since early 2015. Interacting with the trainees has helped him to see the world in a new light.

“It’s such a big issue that there needs to be somebody there to help along each step, and I think that’s a huge part of it,” Rosen said. “Dignitá plays a huge role in that one step … trying to get out of the life that they’ve been a part of.”

And when the Reinvent graduation ceremony takes place, Dignitá stays open so “people that would normally just wander in for a cup of coffee” have the chance to hear the incredible true stories of women in their community.

“It’s not really our goal to cause our customers to cry,” Parodi said. “But to see them moved, and compelled, and made aware in a real heartfelt kind of way, that’s really the purpose of our café more than anything.”

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