Stacie R. completed Yoga District’s 200-hour teacher training and has been teaching with us for about two and a half years. She is also a graduate of Georgetown Law School and the founder of an amazing legal organization called Amara Legal Center that provides free legal services to those whose rights have been violated through commercial sex. In contrast to the challenges of her legal career, Stacie finds solace in practicing and teaching yoga.
On May 9th, Stacie will be teaching a class as a part of our Yoga District Gives Back series to benefit Amara Legal. Learn about her inspiring story in this Q&A.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your organization.
The mission of the Amara Legal Center is to provide free legal services to individuals whose rights have been violated through commercial sex.
Amara recognizes that while different paths lead a person into commercial sex, many individuals face a common set of legal issues. Amara serves survivors of sex trafficking and any other individual harmed by commercial sex in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
We fight tirelessly to provide excellent legal representation to our clients, to connect survivors with vital social services, and to raise public awareness of the legal issues facing our clients.
As for me, I am originally from a small rural town in northern Nevada. During undergrad, I knew that I wanted to go to law school and to help survivors of sex trafficking. However, first I joined the Peace Corps and was able to work on Eastern European trafficking issues while there—and I also discovered yoga through downloading audible yoga classes with picture pose guides (this was 2008, LOL!). From the Peace Corps, I came to DC to for law school at Georgetown. It was during that time that I also got my 200-hour yoga teacher training from Yoga District!
What is your favorite part about what you do and why?
My favorite part is going to court and representing clients. Our cases are what some attorneys would consider very small level cases, such as restraining orders and low-level misdemeanor defense. But to our clients, this is their world. And it can be terrifying and often unjust without a lawyer on your side in the room. I am happy to get to be there and be a voice in a place that is scary and often not favorable to our clients.
Describe your personal circumstances or experiences that prompted you to start Amara Legal.
I knew that I wanted to work on human trafficking issues since undergrad and being in the Peace Corps bolstered that. I also went through some trauma of my own during law school. When the dust settled, I knew that I just wanted to start something to help people—and, to me, sex trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes in existence. I also wanted to specifically help people in DC, the city that I had grown to love and call home. I never did any of this on my own; I’ve had amazing board members, interns and some very faithful and sacrificial staff to make this happen. Nothing happened with just me working alone.
What advice do you have to others seeking to start their own organizations, especially those that serve the disenfranchised?
Get a good team of people to work with who believe in you—and also believe in the cause and that the group of people you are serving truly need the services that you want to offer. Then work together to narrow and define that service set. No need to do everything all at once. Start with a defined group of clients and then a specific set of needs that you will address. And then work with other community services who are also serving this group. Don’t replicate their services, but see if you can be a help to them. Join in a community of helpers to create a better safety net for your clients.
Please describe a challenging moment that you have experienced in your work, how you faced that challenge, and what you learned from it.
My most challenging moments have come when I feel like I need to do everything to save my clients from every problem in their lives and if I don’t do it, then I will have failed. When I have these moments, the best remedy is to go back to where I started: with the creation of a team of people all working with me towards the same goal. They are ready and willing to “pick up the slack” and call out to our community partners for help with the things we don’t provide, such as housing, food, case management, and therapy. The more I can see Amara as a part of the team—we provide the free legal services that our clients need, while these other partners provide other services—the more that I can truly help my clients, using the tools that I already possess from my professional training.
What aspect(s) of the Amara Legal Center makes those it serves feel empowered? Helps those it serves relieve stress? Please describe how you have seen this work with an individual or group.
We see this the most in interacting with the justice system. Most of our clients have a criminal record and we help expunge their records. It’s a simple process, but we can’t do it without working in conjunction with our clients. And the results are huge. After years of thinking that you’ll never be able to get a job, all of a sudden a client can apply for a job and not have to worry about her involvement with the law so many years ago, an involvement where she was the victim because she was likely forced by her trafficker (pimp) to commit crimes. Now she is empowered to live a life where she will no longer be seen as a criminal by society.
Please describe a service that the Amara Legal Center provides that those it serves really seem to appreciate the most and why. Have they made you see this service in a different light?
I think it’s the expungement that is the most appreciated. It’s about half of our client work. I have seen clients faces light up with joy, hair styles and attitudes change, after being free from their criminal records and/or warrants for their arrest. To be afraid to go outside, apply for a job, go to school, etc. all due to the shame of a criminal record—and have that changed to a new lease on life. Wow! It is really quite exciting for us and for our clients to see the transformation!
How has running Amara Legal affected you?
It has helped me learn how to better work with people in groups and on an individual basis. Every semester, we get a new batch of interns and I just love working with them, seeing what makes them light up as they do blogging, legal research, policy work. And then working with our community partners has been amazing—to walk into another organization as a helper, not as a leader or a changer. And then I have been able to observe best practices and things that I want to incorporate into Amara as we grow and have the ability.
On a more personal level, I’ve learned time and time again how important it is for me to just listen to my clients. Sometimes they call crying because of something they view as an eviction notice. After thirty minutes of talking, asking the right legal questions, I’ll often find out that this is not an eviction notice, there is no court date, but there is discrimination taking place between my client and the landlord. So this act of truly listening, asking my client to breathe a bit (using my yoga skills!) and then working together to get to the bottom of the story has been incredible. And through this, I am reminded that their struggles and perceptions of their situations are absolutely real and they need someone in their corner to help—just like my own struggles and perceptions are real and I need help, too. But it’s in the honest asking for help where the difficulty lies.
You also teach yoga with Yoga District. Can you tell us a bit about your journey towards teaching yoga and how this informs the work you do at Amara Legal?
I started with yoga during the Peace Corps and then moved to DC. One of my best friends Rajun, also a former Peace Corps volunteer and former yoga teacher with Yoga District, started going to Yoga District and invited me. I was hooked on the amazing studio spaces, the simple rooms, the warm teachers and students. Rajun went through her training and I lived vicariously. I saw an amazing change in her—an opening of her mind and spirit. I had to have it! So about a year later I went through my training! I have been teaching for about two and a half years now and I love it.
Through my work with Amara, I have taught some yoga to my clients at the community drop-in centers, and I love doing this. You can feel the mood in the room change—from frenetic energy to calmness—even the professional staff can feel it when they walk into the room when we’re doing yoga. A couple of times I’ve taught and afterwards I saw such a change in their eyes—just something more calm, safe, and relaxed. I want to do more of this kind of teaching.
What are you looking forward to most about teaching this YD charity class to benefit Amara Legal?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time for Amara! I want to be able to spread the message of Amara and what is really happening here in the DC area with sex trafficking. Many people believe it’s a phenomenon which only happens overseas or may happen here, but with foreign victims. The truth is that we’ve had over sixty clients, and of those only three have been from a different country. Over 90% are from the DC area and were bought and sold for sex against their will in this area.
How long have you lived in DC?
About four and a half years.
What is your favorite thing to do in DC?
I love the parks—Lincoln Park, Meridian Hill—and sitting by the fountain at Dupont Circle. I love jogging by all the monuments, especially at night. My favorite time of year has got to be May and June—warm, but not too humid yet.
What is your favorite thing about the DC community?
Community can be hard to find here—people are transient. When I first arrived here, I was so surprised to find out that everything was about credentials—I went to this school, have this job, I’ve visited this many countries, etc. I had never lived in a place like this before. So I found my community first with my Peace Corps friends who also moved to DC, then with my law school friends who are public-interest minded, then with the Yoga District community, and now with the service-oriented community. So people say community can be hard to find—I was one of them—but you just gotta find your tribe, it will exist in any place you go!
Yoga District is proud to have such an accomplished and inspiring woman as a part of our tribe of instructors, and happy to support the work that she does with the Amara Legal Center through this charity class.