We are taught to “never burn bridges”, which is true given the context. However, there is a reverse to this and there are bridges that need to burn, not only with toxic people but with ideals and beliefs that no longer serve to improve or aid in our growth/development. There are people who have made or still make us believe the worst about ourselves, and unfortunately we buy into it. Those are bridges that need to burn. Our oppressors, suppressors, abusers, enemies to our well being; those are bridges that need to burn. Our past or painful experiences from our past; those are bridges that deserve to burn. May those bridges burn and light the way to who and what we were born to be.
Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): How were you introduced to prostitution and at what age?
LaToya Richards (LR): I was 18 or 19 years of age and had no idea that what I had just done for money could or would be considered prostitution. I was not on the streets and I was not yet in what could be considered active addiction. I was just sitting at the bus stop, and a man offered me a ride home. Mid-way he propositioned me, and I accepted because I did not see anything wrong with it since I was promiscuous anyway. At 20 years of age I was actually involved in a prostitution ring and did not realize it because it was presented to me as the family I did not have, and the support that I needed.
EM: We spoke about some of the reasons why women and girls get into prostitution as well as what keeps them there. Can you reiterate those reasons?
LR: Some are forced, persuaded, or they lack knowledge as to this lifestyle is non-conducive to their natural lives. There are many different scenarios that can ultimately lead to women being in this industry, and believe it or not they fall under one or all three of these reasons.
EM: What are some of the uncommon circumstances women and girls become prostitutes? We talked a little bit about sex trafficking and women and girls being taken advantage of after natural disasters. Can you expound on that a little more?
LR: The industry is extremely complex and seeing it happen would depend on: (1.) Who you are and if you have the eyes for such activity, and (2.) Where you are, because they are definitely particular areas that are prone to high drug and prostitution activity than others. But you would have to be aware of that.
With that said, there are situations where you can clearly see that it is definitely sexual exploitation. Massage parlors, hotels, motels, chat lines, and as of lately the internet, have been the main place these women prefer to use as a platform, so to speak. There are even women who come from different countries with the promise of a better life only to get here and the person or people who got them here their entire life. Children are taken from different countries to be sex slaves through the means of adoption and even natural disasters, this happens more often than not.
EM: How do these men or women approach/trap/coerce girls into this life? Let’s use runaways as an example. I read that 1 in 6 runaways are more likely to be brought into or forced into sex trafficking.
LR: I would say it is easier to manipulate a woman who does not know any better into this lifestyle. Without a core set of values and principles conducive to the spiritual growth and development, it is quite easy to get caught up in the things of this world. Love, acceptance, drugs and or all three of those motivations can be used to drive a woman into this industry. There is no one way to go about doing this. I made a choice to use my body to get money and get high. There are people, men and women, who will use the promise of their love and affection or a better life to get women to do as they please, and this promise is tailored to the individual they are giving it to at that time.
EM: Looking back, what do you see you were missing, deep within yourself, that allowed the addiction to occur? Sometimes we don’t realize we don’t know our value.
LR: Self-love, self-acceptance as well as other skills like critical thinking, coping and emotional intelligence where a few of the things I found that I lacked. I also did not have the proper guidance or motivation necessary to strive for the absolute best and to see my truest and fullest potential. I did not have any emotional, mental, physical, and most importantly and spiritual support. There was no healthy identity nor belief system I had for myself. It had never been cultivated. I never had the proper foundation to build on.
EM: You mentioned that some of the men you were with would tell you that this wasn’t the life for you. What affect did their words have on you?
LR: The words of those people were a reminder of who I knew myself to be at my core. Those words affected me in a positive manner, but because those people would take advantage of me majority of the time right after those words had been spoken, I found it hard to take them seriously for a long period of time.
EM: How did substance abuse come about? Was it before or after the prostitution, or was it at the same time?
LR: Substance abuse came before the prostitution for me. However, when I left the drugs alone I continued prostituting, because I didn’t see anything wrong with it.
You can let go of the drugs but still be addicted to men; addicted to the approval, the “love” and validation because you are really looking to be told by a man that you are worth something. It’s natural for a woman to want a man. We’re raised from little girls to want a man in our life. We talk about the wedding and the wedding dress, but what happens when you don’t get that or see that happening in your life by the time “they” [society] say you should? If you’re not married or in a relationship by your 20s or 30s…then something is wrong with you? What society says is right isn’t always right.
If you listen to what these men [hip hop artists] are saying in these songs of how to keep a man, I say: “I’m good, I’ll pass”. The things they say to keep them are the same things they talk about you for.
We live in a world and society that tells us how to keep a man, what makes a man happy, and all these Facebook posts with photos of women with their men as if they [the men] are the prize. It’s this insidious way of the world telling us you’re nothing without a man in your life. Where do you go to find resolve for that? If you don’t like going inside of yourself, then there’s a problem.
EM: Do you know of any women and girls who lost their lives while in prostitution? I remember Faye who was in the same transitional home with you…I was devastated hearing about what happened to her.
LR: I don’t know of anyone personally, but I’ve heard of many. When I was in jail, girls I was in with were released and got back into the life and were killed.
When I heard about Faye being killed, it really woke me up and made me re-evaluate myself. I saw myself slipping back into old habits while in Angela House, and when Faye was killed – and I think she was really dealing with the wrong guy that ended up killing her – it made me snap into shape.
EM: How did you begin to feel the emotions such as loneliness, boredom, and anxiety without resorting to numbing out? How did you get to that space in your life where you learned that it was okay to feel those things and then have something healthy to do with those feelings?
LR: Meditation, reading, writing, and talking about my feelings. Getting out of myself and helping others. Setting goals and accomplishing them. I basically had to learn how to live again. I had to re-program myself with new thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that were in alignment with my core. I have to learn myself on a daily basis and incorporate it and/or adjust accordingly. It is truly a lifelong process.
EM: How did you ultimately escape from prostitution? Was it over a period of time or did something traumatic happen?
Pop Quiz: How many positive images of women in today’s entertainment, especially for young girls, can you come up with? Years ago I would’ve struggled with an answer, however, I’ve had the honor of working with one of them as a volunteer for the past two years. She is one of the most beautiful, selfless and passionate women I know who is fueled by showing young girls just how amazing they truly are, even if they don’t realize it.
Jillian “JJ” Simmons has over fifteen years under her belt in radio broadcasting. She has crisscrossed the country enthralling listeners from various cities such as Cincinnati, Dayton, New York City, Indianapolis and now Houston on the popular Hip Hop and R&B station KBXX-FM 97.9 The Box. Over the years she has interviewed countless celebrities and public figures such as President Barack Obama on “JJ On the Mic”. However, there is a lot more to her aside of her job as a radio personality.
JJ is the founder of the I’m Me Foundation, a non-profit organization providing positive social experiences, character building training and self worth to young women through education and entertainment. Due to her experience in music and media, she sees the influence that today’s industry has on young girls. “With girls not being able to see many positives images on TV or the media, we felt there was a need to expose these girls to amazing, positive women in the community”, she expresses on her official I’m Me Foundation website. After learning more about the “JJ’s I’m Me Tour” I knew that I wanted to attend her next event. To my excitement it was just days away and set to be hosted at Cypress Springs High School in Houston, Texas.
The moment I entered into the room I was greeted by her wonderful volunteer staff who were sporting the official “I’m Me” t-shirts. They were preparing to receive approximately eighty high school girls. I introduced myself to JJ, and I was pleasantly taken in by her warm, down-to-earth and confident spirit. Her smile is contagious! I informed her that I learned about her event by way of DJ Honey B and I wanted to support her efforts in inspiring young girls. She was delighted and welcomed me to do just that.
Toward the front of the main meeting room, where all of the girls would be, were pretty pink gift bags organized on a table; enough for each of the girls who would be present.
Within minutes the young ladies, who were eagerly waiting in the school cafe, were making their way into the room. Seeing them on a Saturday morning put a huge smile on my face. I said to one of the workshop facilitators, “Wow, how did they get…”, and before I could finish my question she said, “…all of these girls to commit to coming in on a Saturday”? I said, “Yes!” She looked at me and replied, “I have no idea”. It was certainly a beautiful sight, and it brought back memories of my high school days seeing a variety of girls who are still learning about themselves.
Once they were seated, JJ gave them a warm and enthusiastic welcome. She introduced each of the I’m Me facilitators and the workshop they would lead; Beauty/Style, Health/Fitness, Etiquette and Goal Setting. As I watched I thought to myself, “These girls will not only acquire tools for building self-love, but they will also see the proper way of interacting with each other”.
After the workshop facilitators were introduced, the volunteers began passing out the I’m Me Tour Passports to each girl indicating which breakout session they would attend. I decided to attend the Beauty/Style session first that was being led by JJ. This would be my first time hearing her speak in this capacity, and I was very eager to hear what she would share.
Once we were comfortably seated, JJ asked each girl to introduce herself and name one thing they thought was beautiful about themselves. For some, high school can be the most exciting years of our lives, yet, for others this time can be very scary. The first girl stood and softly said her name and, with slight hesitation, admitted that she didn’t know what was beautiful about herself. My heart paused for a moment. She had beautiful chocolate brown skin with a shy yet amazing smile. She had the most adorable dimples that appeared each time she laughed even if it was a nervous laugh. She had long black hair and was quite possibly an athlete. JJ said, “That’s okay. We’ll help you find something beautiful about yourself”. She asked the rest of group to name what they thought was beautiful about the young girl. Immediately hands flew up. JJ picked about three girls to share what they thought was beautiful about the young lady. You could see the change in her demeanor almost immediately. It was one of the most powerful demonstrations of girls building each other up. Again, the thought I had earlier crossed my mind that these young ladies will learn how to properly interact with one another as a result of attending this I’m Me event.
After everyone introduced themselves, JJ held up a total of three photos of female celebrities, one at a time. Her question for the group was,”What do you think people think about these women?” The first image was a very naturally beautiful Beyonce, with loose spiral curls in a sweater that fell slightly off of her shoulder. There was a positive response by the girls to this photo of Beyonce. JJ’s next question was, “If this was your doctor, what would you think?” Again, another positive response.
The next photo was of Nicki Minaj. The moment JJ held up the photo, the mood of the girls went from excited to displeased. Their response to Nicki Minaj was quite strong and not so upbeat. I was very intrigued by this. They immediately began discussing how inappropriate her outfit was. A couple of girls said her clothes would be okay for a club, however, the young lady seated in front of me said, “That outfit isn’t appropriate anywhere”. I think JJ was just as taken aback as I was by their remarkable comments. JJ asked the girls, “When a man sees this what does he think?” One girl said, “That she’s easy”. JJ’s said, “She could be a doctor, but would anyone take her seriously?” The girls gave a unanimous, “No!”
JJ explained to the girls that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. She could very well have a good heart, but her (Nicki Minaj’s) appearance may not speak very well of her and what may be on the inside. She continued explaining that people make judgments about us based on our presentation.
The final photo was of Oprah Winfrey. It got a little quiet. JJ asked the girls if they knew who she was and what they think when they see her. The top three thoughts the girls responded with were money, beauty, and “not like Nicki Minaj”. That last one tickled me! Although it began to materialize for some of the girls, JJ shared some of Oprah’s accomplishments. “Oprah is consistent in how she carries herself”.
I need to make a special note here that when the young girls were discussing each image the term “sexy” was used quite often. JJ said in her motherly voice, “Y’all don’t have to worry about being sexy right now”. I thought that was very commendable to redirect their thinking away from “sexy” especially due to how young they are.
After that exercise, JJ began sharing a little bit of her own struggle with her self-image when she was younger. She opened up about a unique skin condition she has called vitiligo, which is what Michael Jackson had. She told us a story about a relationship she was in where her boyfriend told her that he didn’t like her spots. He told her that she should get a tattoo to cover it. She held up her left hand and showed us the tattoo and admitted that it was, “the worst mistake I made, because it told me someone else’s opinion means more than my own”. She continued by sharing how she has larger spots on her back, and that her boyfriend told her she should get a tattoo of a big dragon to cover it up. Although she considered doing it she ultimately refused to allow him to bring her down. She eventually broke up with him, because she realized how she felt about herself was more important.
Unfortunately, the cover-up concept didn’t stop at her boyfriend. JJ shared that her mother actually suggested that she cover up her spots with a tattoo. She closed with telling the group that the experience helped her to work on accepting and loving herself. She told the group, “Be careful what you say about others. Learn to love what you do not like about yourself and embrace it. Embrace your flaws”. This was a phenomenal demonstration and teachable moment on self-love and self-acceptance. “I used to be self-conscious about these spots, but now I love them. You have to learn to love those things, because it affects what and how you feel about yourself.”
The final portion of her workshop involved making the “JJ sugar scrub” made with brown sugar, coconut oil and vanilla extract. She asked for three girls to volunteer in making the scrub as well as to pass out little Ziploc bags for the group to take home and use.
While we were watching the scrub being made, one of the younger participants said to the girl in front of her, “I like your hair”. The cool thing about that was that she said it in Chinese and then translated it. Both of the girls were Black. It was such a beautiful sight to see them loving and celebrating each other and it making them happy to do so.
Before the conclusion, JJ asked a few girls to share what they learned during the workshop. She even had a few girls name a flaw they decided they were going to embrace and work on.
I was absolutely proud of what I was witnessing in these young ladies inspired by JJ. Although I wasn’t able to stay for the other workshops, I made sure to express how much I enjoyed her segment and how awesome I think she is to encourage girls to love themselves.
Despite the negative and over-sexualized images of females in the media, music and entertainment industry, JJ is certainly doing her part in providing girls with positive avenues to love and celebrate themselves and each other. Priceless!
To view the full photo gallery click here!
JJ is currently chronicling her own personal experiences from a past abusive relationship and the journey to healing in her book, “Without Bruises,” designed to give guidance to others who find themselves in harmful situations.
She is also the founder of Single Moms Rock, a blog that provides “high quality content, product information, and entertainment to empower Single Moms all around the world!”
You are welcome to follow JJ via social media @jjonthemic @ImMeFoundation @SnglMomsRock
Also visit her online at:
(Saviours’ Day 2010 is just a little over a week away and the world is preparing to make the pilgrimage to Rosemont, IL. The Saviours’ Day Committee has been working diligently and part of that team is marketing director LaTonja Muhammad. Last year she hosted a forum titled “The Michelle Obama Effect” that was also featured in the USA Today. This year she is preparing to facilitate yet another powerful workshop geared towards the greatness of women. I went one-on-one with her.)
Jesse Muhammad (JM:) When did you fall in love with Saviours’ Day? When was your first time attending? How did it make you feel?
LaTonja Muhammad (LM:) My first Saviours’ Day was 1993. I had never seen so many black men and women treating each other with so much respect. I was so proud, in particular, of the men that I saw. They looked so strong and dignified. I fell deeper in love with this teaching that it could produce that kind of effect in a people who were considered no people at all.
(JM:) Last year at the annual convention you organized a workshop titled “The Michelle Obama Effect”. What motivated you to have a workshop with that title? What was the overall response and impact of that session?
(LM:) The Michelle Obama Effect was birthed out of a desire to explore the impact of the first Black Woman – a descendant of slaves, to become First Lady of The United States of America. Black women in this country have always been viewed as “second” best, even by our own men when they obtain positions of power and influence. So, when Michelle Obama delivered her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August of 2008, I was on my way to Denver the next day; tears flowed from my eyes as I walked through the airport and saw every newspaper had Michelle’s image on it. And for the first time, I saw Black women actually smiling and speaking to each other, not out of formality, but out of sincere respect.
You know it’s like the movie, “Waiting to Exhale”. I think we all were able to exhale because for the first time a more accurate picture of who we are as women, was/is before the world. We are second to none! The scriptures put it like this: the last shall be first, and the stone that the builders rejected would become the corner stone of the new world. That panel was a way to celebrate Michelle, not as an individual, but what the world loves about Michelle is the essence of the Black female. We are brilliant, strong, caring, maternal, and oh-so stylish!! Mrs. Robinson, Michelle’s mom, said it best, “Michelle and Barack aren’t new. There are thousands of Barack and Michelle(s) all over this country.” And I wanted to honor the Michelle in all of us.
(JM:) For Saviours’ Day 2010, you have put together a panel of illuminating women for the workshop titled “I Am Woman” to be held on February 27. Who are the panelists? What message do you want attendees to walk away with from this seminar to take back to their respective cities?
(LM:) â€œI Am Woman: Awakening Your Spirit of Excellence and Virtueâ€ is taken from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech “Aint I A Woman?â€ during the Women’s Rights Convention. At that time, she challenged the rights of the Black female to equal education, religion, and our right to “exist” as women. This workshop takes a look at the history of the “sojourn” of Black Women in this country. How far have we come? How far have we strayed? How do we answer the “Aint I A Woman?” It’s an extension of last year’s dialogue on the Michelle Obama Effect. From Sojourner Truth to Michelle Obama, our advancement as women has come from our intimate relationship with God or the I AM. Black women have been the spiritual backbone of our families and Allah (God) through the female has guided us through trouble times.
Through a partnership with Sister Audrey Muhammad of Virtue Magazine, we have assembled a panel of women who have helped us grow closer in our relationship with Allah (God) to achieve real success. I’m very honored that Mother Tynnetta Muhammad, wife of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad will be joining us, Dr. Ava Muhammad, and the great Dr. Iyanla Vanzant. Also joining us is Zondra Huges, editor and chief of N’Digo Megapaper and former relationship editor for Ebony Magazine.Atiya K. Salaam of L.E.A.P International, is co-sponsoring the event along with the Susan G. Komen breast cancer movement. Just two days ago a study was released about the racial disparities of breast cancer, stating that advanced breast cancer diagnosis among Black women remains 30 to 90 percent higher compared to white women. And Black women are still more likely than all other women to die from breast cancer. So, we’re excited about the breast cancer material that is being provided by the Susan G. Komen organization, because we shouldn’t be dying from a disease that can be beat. And an example that it can be beaten is in our moderator of the panel discussion who is a breast cancer survivor, WVON’s news director and author of “The Pocket Book Monologue,” Sharon McGhee.
(JM:) What else are you looking forward to during this year’s Saviours’ Day convention?
(LM:) I’m really looking forward to Minister Farrakhan’s lecture The Time and What Must Be Done. We are in a very serious time as never seen before. Everything that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has taught we are experiencing it today.
The Minister is no doubt a Divine Reminder of his teachings and Warner among us. When the earthquake hit Haiti, the Minister warned us that we must prepare because what came upon Haiti would soon be at our doorstep. The 4.3 earthquake that hit Chicago last week was evidence of the Minister’s warning just a couple of weeks before. I happened to have been up during the quake and felt the house shaking. We can no longer afford to waste time; when we are given an instruction we must move out on that instruction because in this hour it will be the difference between life and death.