By Tom Waddill The Huntsville Item, Texas
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Monica Watkins traveled to India last fall with a team representing a nonprofit group called Beauty for Freedom. Working with an India-based anti-trafficking organization named New Light Kolkata, the Beauty for Freedom team expanded its platform to include art therapy initiatives for trafficking survivors and at-risk youths in developing countries like India.
The Huntsville Item, Texas
Firsthand, Monica Watkins witnessed how powerful art can be. She watched young people who had survived harrowing experiences living as slaves in one of India's notorious red-light districts turn into painters, photographers, musicians, fashion designers and more.
Watkins also watched these young people change before her eyes.
"Art is the greatest equalizer," Watkins told The Item last week. "Anyone can create, and in those moments, we are all acknowledging that we are the same. We share our hopes, dreams, fears, love, disappointments and every other emotion through creative expression.
"The process of creativity can help anyone transcend difficult circumstances and can transport us, in those moments, to what the human spirit can create," she added.
A proud graduate of Huntsville High School, Watkins traveled to India last fall with a team representing a nonprofit group called Beauty for Freedom. Working with an India-based anti-trafficking organization named New Light Kolkata, the Beauty for Freedom team expanded its platform to include art therapy initiatives for trafficking survivors and at-risk youths in developing countries like India.
"The world can be a harsh and cruel place to exist, and these kids have seen the worst of it, unfortunately," Watkins explained. "It is our responsibility as a global community to heal the ills of this world. One step, one person, one child at a time -- that is my personal mission.
"This type of outreach would be able to connect us directly with the survivors we serve globally. Project India was born from this ideology," Watkins said as the Beauty for Freedom team prepares for the release of "Illuminate," a book that features a collection of photographs created by the young people who visualized their community of Kalighat-West Bengal, Kolkata, India, in an empowered way.
During the photography workshop with the youths, instructors promoted self-esteem and self-expression. "Illuminate" is a reflection of that.
"'Illuminate' is absolutely brilliant," Watkins said with vigor. "I'm not just saying that because I was a co-curator of the images. It's truly a tour de force of beauty, love and creates the opportunity for every viewer to spend a moment in the lives of these youth. ... I implore everyone to purchase the book. The proceeds will benefit the recovery of so many survivors in India and will also help to keep our travel abroad arts therapy programming thriving with Beauty for Freedom."
Proceeds from the published books will provide funds to New Light and the Beauty for Freedom travel-abroad arts therapy programming.
More than 1.2 million children are exploited in prostitution throughout India today. Nearly 20,000 women and children were victims of human trafficking in India last year, a rise of nearly 25 percent from 2015.
Experts say survivors of trafficking are not truly free until they are free from trauma. All over the world, there's an increased need of services for survivors, and art therapy has proven to be one of the most effective ways to help.
Art therapy covers various forms, from drawing to photography to painting and fashion design. Grassroots organizations like Beauty for Freedom are leading the charge in implementing this programming.
"Survivors benefit from this experience in so many ways," Watkins explained. "They are able to compartmentalize their experiences through art and this can be dissected, through counseling, to make their experiences bearable and healable."
With a team of 12 international artists, the Beauty for Freedom bunch taught a 21-day series of workshops, which included photography, painting, music theory, fashion, health and wellness and mural arts workshops.
The photography workshops focused on community portraiture. What the children captured with their high-dollar digital cameras, Watkins said, were personal moments, the innocence of the people of Kalighat. This was juxtaposed to the visibility of the red-light district's intergenerational horrors of sex trafficking, violence and prostitution.
According to Watkins, "Illuminate" has a transcendent quality that engages the viewer to see beyond the difficult circumstances surrounding life in Kalighat and leaves readers with a lasting impression that love truly exists here and that life is not as polarizing as one might think, given the fact that creativity, culture and pride thrive in Kalighat.
Students and their cameras were welcomed into homes. They gained entrance into the daily lives of the people of the community because many of the young artists were born and raised in Kalighat before moving into New Light's Creche Cum Shelter, located as a permanent structure above a temple situated deep inside the Kalighat red-light district.
The shelter offers comprehensive care and support to the children ranging from a few months old to sixteen years. At the culmination of the workshops, the artists produced a community exhibition in Kalighat. Community members were invited to view the photo exhibition and murals created by the young artists. Beauty for Freedom also sponsored a special lunch that included giant three-tier chocolate cakes to celebrate Project India and the artists' work.
"The youth of New Light were absolutely incredible," Watkins said. "They greeted our team of artists and instructors with open arms and minds. ... The workshop's goals and objectives were to empower through the arts and create a safe space for creative freedom and expression. We accomplished that and so much more."
When the book was completed, but long before it publishes later this month, the young artists featured in "Illuminate" got a chance to see the finished product. Watkins returned to India in January and showed her new friends the book.
"The youth from our workshops were completely in awe and blown away at their own work, seeing it there on the pages of the book," she said. "We will return yearly to continue our programming and to monitor their progress."
Watkins said the entire experience in India was wonderfully uplifting for all involved.
"The students were like family by the time we left India," Watkins said. "We had the opportunity to spend so much time with them and really hear their hopes and dreams. The photography workshops were so incredible because they allowed us to travel through the streets of Kalighat with the youth and learn about their families and friends.
"Many of the youth have been signed over to New Light to raise and educate by their mothers. Many of the mothers are sex workers in the red-light district and yearn for better opportunities for their children. Additionally, some youth have been rescued from sex trafficking and are placed with New Light. The love these youth have for their communities and families is really evident in the pride they have for their culture and for Kalighat.
"This is juxtaposed to the harsh realities of the fact that Kalighat is one of the largest and most active red-light districts in Kolkata, India."
Watkins says she learned a lot from the young people she met in India. Doing what she saw her parents do so often in her hometown of Huntsville, Watkins was moved many times every day by the young artists in India.
"My mother and father, Drs. Helen and Richard Watkins, instilled in all of their kids that living a life of service to others should be a daily part of our existence," Watkins said. "We watched them each day give to everyone and cultivate and nurture the youth in Huntsville through various platforms and programs. This is my greatest inspiration.
"Being a part of our Beauty for Freedom team and being able to serve these incredibly brave and brilliant youth has given me so much joy and hope," she added. "I feel this has been the experience for our entire team and it is an honor to serve these youth and give back.