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This survivor overcame domestic violence and sex trafficking and is helping others do the same

Author Toshia Shaw inspires at-risk girls to find a meaningful life’s purpose through Purple W.I.N.G.S.

Sex trafficking continues to plague communities worldwide. The underground organized crime epidemic claims the innocence of young girls and boys every year. One survivor made a pact with God that if she were able to reclaim her life, she’d help others do the same.

Meet author, writer and motivational speaker Toshia Shaw.

She is a survivor who uses a hands-on approach to help women deal with traumatic events. She also advocates for women and girls through her Las Vegas nonprofit organization, Purple W.I.N.G.S. (Women Inspiring Noble Girls Successfully), which she launched in 2010.

“I give a voice to the voiceless because there are women who weren’t able to survive what I survived,” Shaw said. “They’re unable to tell their stories.”

According to the International Labour Organization, 20.9 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking and forced labor. Twenty-two percent of individuals are forcibly exploited for sex, 68 percent for private labor and 10 percent for state-imposed work, state military or rebel armed forces.

The 43-year-old activist identified a need and has worked tirelessly by lending a helping hand to her community. She believes she speaks for those who have died because of the trauma, the women who are incarcerated and those who have developed mental illness as a result.

Purple W.I.N.G.S. helps at-risk girls through mentoring and leadership development. The program mainly works with girls and teens of color who are living in poverty. According to its website, the organization’s victim services Angel program is deeply committed to mentoring women and girls who have been identified as victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence and stalking. Through this program, victims receive intense case management for at least one year. Girls participate in weekly two-hour supportive conversation circles, goal-setting programs, peer and adult one-on-one mentoring, and a variety of community-based activities.

Shaw herself is a victim of sex trafficking, but it doesn’t define her as the woman she is today.

“Having survived trauma myself, I made a promise to God that if I survive, then I will help other people,” Shaw said. “I believe that we’re placed on Earth to help someone else. I don’t believe that we’re here just to be selfish, to get all we can and forget our fellow man.”

At age 26, Shaw had two failed marriages, was a single mother and survived domestic violence. She was living in Memphis, Tennessee, with hopes and dreams of starting a new life for her and her son. The worst trauma in her life began one night when she met two men outside a nightclub.

“The driver urged me to skip the club and meet them for breakfast at a nearby restaurant,” she recounted. “Against better judgment, I agreed, and I jumped in my car and followed them.

“Once there, the conversation flowed. I told the driver, who I thought I had a connection with, all about how I had just arrived in Memphis, was looking forward to starting college and was looking for a job. He listened intently, and it was easy for me to open up to. I left the two men to excuse myself to the bathroom, but on my way back to the table I knew something was off. I ignored my intuition.

“When I returned to the table, the driver’s friend was nowhere to be found, and I became nervous. My new friend asked me to sit down. I was hesitant, and that hesitation quickly turned into panic when I realized I left my purse at the table. He sensed my worry and held up my purse in a sort of mocking gesture to insinuate that yes, I indeed had f—ed up and left it.

“This time he didn’t ask me to sit down — he demanded that I sit down. He scooted in so close to me I could feel his breath on the back of my neck, and the steel from the gun he had pressed on my thigh. He proceeded to tell me that I had found the new job I was looking for. I had walked into that restaurant a free woman, but I left as a sex slave. The cloak of victimization became heavier than ever before, and now I had taken victimization to a whole new level.”

Shaw escaped, but she doesn’t dwell on the specifics. “I made the choice to stand up for myself and refuse to continue with risking him making good on his promise that he would kill me or my family.”

Although her experiences caused her to contemplate suicide, she knew she had to be there for her young son. It took her years to get her life back together. She sought counseling and tried different avenues to help her cope.

Now she takes pride in her advocacy for women. She started Purple W.I.N.G.S. because there was a void in the Las Vegas area for mentorship to at-risk girls. Shaw went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in human services and an MBA from the University of Phoenix and is now an experienced human services professional who has gained vast knowledge working with at-risk youth, battered women and girls.

While interning at a local runaway shelter, which serves runaway and homeless youths, she noticed the staggering number of homeless and runaway girls entering the program. After extensive conversations with these young girls she noticed a pattern that involved the lack of communication and involvement in the lives of these young women by parents and responsible adults. The girls longed for direction, communication and something to do after school.

Thus, Purple W.I.N.G.S. was born. Shaw started out on a quest to fulfill most of the desires of girls like those at the runaway shelter. She enlisted the help of other professional individuals desiring to make a change in the community, including the Las Vegas Police Department.

“The effects of living in a hypersexual city can’t be ignored,” Shaw wrote on Purple W.I.N.G.S.’ website. “Girls see their likeness on billboards, in city newspapers, magazines, leaflets and pamphlets being portrayed as sex objects. They grow up knowing prostitution is legal in brothels only 90 minutes away from here; they understand that while prostitution is illegal within the city limits, there is an allowance of the conduct on the Strip.”

Purple W.I.N.G.S. has affected the life of 18-year-old Jasmine Williams, who was exploited at the age of 14.

“Purple W.I.N.G.S. has impacted it [in] so many different ways,” Williams said. “The main way my life was affected was just being able to speak out and have a voice. Women in the sex industry have their voices taken away from them. Purple W.I.N.G.S. gave me a platform to be able to speak my mind, gave me a place to be completely comfortable and open up about my past experiences and what I’ve been through, which allowed me to become more expressive and comfortable with talking about my past and helping me heal and move forward.”

Williams credits Purple W.I.N.G.S. for giving her the strength and courage to talk about her experience in the sex trafficking industry. She plans to open a group home to help young women and victims of the sex industry have a place to stay and feel safe, as Purple W.I.N.G.S. did for her.

“My life has changed tremendously,” Williams said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of an organization that really cares about me and my spirit. Toshia [Shaw] really cares where I end up in life, and it shows. She often checks on me and my family just to make sure I’m on track mentally and emotionally, and my goals she helped me set are being met.

“It really is a blessing to have her and other counselors from Purple W.I.N.G.S. a part of my life and available for me to reach out to and call. I don’t know where I would be without the positive impact [it] has had on my life. I am forever grateful.”

Shaw said that in the age of social media, it has become easier for others to be victimized. She said it has become extremely easy for pimps to recruit and find their victims.

“We have to fix it and realize it’s not just girls, women, who are victimized in human trafficking. Boys are victims too,” she said.

Shaw, a Memphis native, said she sacrifices herself for others to have courage to tell their own truths. She provides trauma life coaching for individuals through her program, The Pact. The author of three previous books, Shaw is currently working on her fourth book, titled The Pact, A Workbook to Get Unstuck and Awaken to Your Life’s Purpose, which will be released via Kindle and paperback on Amazon this summer.

Sharon Brown is a basketball writer and founding editor of All Heart in Hoop City's blog.