In her work as a labor and delivery nurse at Regions Hospital in downtown St. Paul, Kriss Zulkosky deals with hundreds of young mothers every year. One encounter last fall with a patient she names only “Jessica” had a profound and lasting impact.
“It was just a devastating story, just remarkably sad,” said Zulkosky last week, sitting in the kitchen of her family’s home near the St. Paul railroad yards. “I met her briefly for a few weeks. She had been sex trafficked since she was 11 or 13, she had two separate pimps, and this was her second child. She’d lost custody of her first because she had addiction issues and homelessness issues and mental illness issues, and even though she had people helping her and even though she had hope and had kicked her addiction, she lost her second child. She came in a number of times, and it was just horribly sad.”
Prior to meeting Jessica, in 2013 Zulkosky organized a Haley Bonar-headlined concert at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall to benefit the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, which launched the pioneering MN Girls Are Not for Sale campaign in 2011 to end sex trafficking in Minnesota through convening, grant-making, research and public education. The campaign helped pass Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law, which went into effect last year. The law decriminalized child victims, implemented the statewide No Wrong Door model, increased housing and services for victims, and provided training dollars to law enforcement and prosecutors.
“Thanks to the Safe Harbor law, [‘Jessica’] is no longer [considered a] perpetrator; she’s a victim now, and the pimps she was working for both got over 20 years in prison,” said Zulkosky. “The Safe Harbor law has really started having an effect on the real perpetrators of the situation.”
This year, Zulkosky wanted to do more. With printing and graphic assistance from Hamilton Ink Spot, and recording and distribution assistance from House of Mercy Recordings, she set about organizing the benefit CD “Voice: Words & Songs for Those Who Are Silenced,” which brings together 18 of Minnesota’s most respected musicians and recording artists, including Bonar, Dessa, Chris Koza, Holly Hansen, Charlie Parr, the Ericksons, We Are The Willows, the Prairie Fire Lady Choir and John Hermanson, who deliver a capella and stripped-down tunes, many of which are as haunting and soul-ripping as the topic they seek to shine a light on.
Fittingly, the CD is dedicated “to Jessica and all victims of sex trafficking.”
“I decided to make a buzz and create a conversation among my cohorts, and I thought music would be a good way of doing that,” said Zulkosky. “The benefit concert was really successful, but that’s only one night, and I wanted something that would be more lasting. The music scene in Minnesota is so strong, and the community is so tight, that the more people who listen to it and who want to participate in it will create a conversation that will last much longer than a single night. I basically sent out emails to 75 or 80 people, and everyone was just ‘Yes, yes, yes, I’m all in,’ and people started offering up their services.”
So much so that tentative plans are being made for a follow-up CD and even more exposure for the good work being done at the Women’s Foundation. For Zulkosky, it all started a few years ago when she attended an informational meeting at the home of Kate Kelly, a WFM trustee and co-chair of the MN Girls Are Not for Sale campaign committee. The evening proved to be pivotal.
“Kate had [Women’s Foundation president and CEO] Lee Roper-Batker and [St. Paul police officer and sex trafficking expert] Grant Snyder and others talking about the campaign, and I was overwhelmed with how young these children are, and how prevalent it is in Minnesota, and how much it’s going on in these places that are just normal stomping grounds, like North Minneapolis and the Mall of America.
“It was overwhelming. They were talking about launching all these initiatives, but to me it was evidence that people in my cohort weren’t even aware of it. I started asking my friends, ‘Have you ever heard of this? Did you know that this is going on all around us?’ And they were floored.”
Almost immediately, Zulkosky went to work. She created a MN Girls Are Not for Sale T-shirt and soon after organized the first benefit concert. This week sees the bow of “Voice,” whose CD release party is May 10 at Bedlam Theater, with a kindred-spirited poster show May 7 at Hamilton Ink.
“It’s perfect, because the CD release show falls on Mother’s Day, and that’s such an integral theme,” said Zulkosky. “We really need to be parents to these kids, even if they’re not ours. We need to treat everyone as our kids and offer all our services to all of them.”