To hear this and other profiles, subscribe to The Spiritual Edge podcast in your favorite podcasting app, including Apple podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts. Find out more on The Spiritual Edge website.
Regina Evans recalls how during a rough point in her life, the pastor at a friend’s church prophesied over her.
“She said, ‘I see them, I see them. Your children are coming,” She’s laughing and she’s happy. And I was like, whose children are coming? What children?”
The children came alright. Regina didn’t birth them, but she’s giving new life to some youth in Oakland who’ve endured unimaginable ordeals.
Regina and I are on the intersection of International Boulevard and 21st Ave in East Oakland. It’s a warm Thursday, just on the eve of a heatwAvenue. Regina is in all black flowy pants and shirt, with a multicolored African wrap crowning her head.
Around here are apartments, convenience stores, an elementary charter school and trafficked youth roaming the streets. Regina says this intersection is part of a longer two-and-a-half-mile stretch of road people in Oakland call The Track.
“The Track is where girls and boys are sold into rape,” she says.
Oakland is in Alameda County, whose officials report that 99 percent of sex trafficking victims are girls and 63 percent are Black. Art is one way Regina, 59, reaches these young victims.
Several times a year, Regina gathers volunteers to help her create altars on different areas of The Track. She’s not conventionally religious. Regina’s faith is a spiritual gumbo that honors her Protestant upbringing, West African spiritual traditions, the Divine Feminine and the power of dreams. This visual gift for the sexually exploited girls originated in her dreams.
“I saw the track as a garden. I woke up and I was like, I’ll build garden altars,” she says.
Regina and her crew brighten up blighted corners. A cellist plays as the volunteers buzz around the sidewalks with plush dining room chairs, sunflowers, and African dolls. I’ll say more about the symbolism later, but this is all for the altars — one for each corner at 21st Avenue and International Boulevard Regina calls this intersection the belly of the beast. On any given night, 10 to 15 of the girls here are victims of trafficking.
“Once it gets about 9:30 pm, there are so many young women out here on The Track. This is the hottest block right here. So you already see some girls out.”
Across the street, two slim, young Black girls in super-short shorts, sheer tops and long colorful wigs float in the street alongside parked cars.
Oakland police officials tell me that about 35 percent of trafficked youth in Oakland are from the city. Most of the remaining percentage come from nearby areas. Regina says exploiters force kids into sex labor many ways. She knows a common tactic involves grooming. Traffickers hang out in places where kids are vulnerable, near foster care homes and in front of high schools. They charm the girls with gifts and soon things get sexual. The girls are smitten, thinking the exploiter is their boyfriend. So when he asks for a favor, like having sex with someone for money to help him out — they do it. The exploiter turns violent if a girl doesn’t want to work for him anymore. Then, Regina says, the exploiter has trapped them mentally and physically.
“The line that they use the most to grab a girl is ‘you are beautiful,’ she explains.” We are falling down on our job when that’s the line from an exploiter.”
That’s a major reason Regina creates these art installations, that encourage the girls to seek validation from within themselves.
She adds, “So that they know the difference between a real, ‘you are beautiful’ and a fake ass, because I’m going to exploit you, ‘you are beautiful.’”
As they set up the altars, volunteers keep a lookout for girls to help.
One volunteer tells Regina, “I looked and tried to make eye contact but she looked away.”
Regina responds, “They do that. They’re not trying to be bothered but it’s okay. They know we’re here. “
Regina knows first-hand what these girls are going through, because she experienced it too.
Regina’s Spiritual Foundations
Regina grew up in Oakland with three siblings. Her mother was a teacher and earned a doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco. Her father was one of the first Black probation officers in California.
They belonged to a Methodist church, but her parents weren’t strict about religion.
She says, “God was just very present in our home. We all had Bibles and we weren’t beaten with it or suffocated it with it. It just was.”
Some Sundays, Regina accompanied her grandmother, whom she called Ma’ Dear to a Baptist church across town. The two formed a bond around their love of fashion.
Regina recalls excitedly, “She was a church lady: hat, gloves, earrings, everything! My grandmother had blue and red slips to go with the dress of the same color. There was a ritual to that I really enjoyed. And my grandmother actually prayed over me a lot.”
And Ma’ Dear may have prayed for Regina at one of the altars she set up all over her home. Regina describes them to me.
“Well, the ones in the living room were up on a ledge and she would maybe have crosses, little China cups, a thing with a scripture, plants. Everything had lace and she had coins.”
The girl who loved to play in her grandma’s clothes grew up and earned a degree in international relations at UC Davis. Shortly after, she moved to Washington, DC and landed a job with Civil Rights icon and ordained minister Congressman John Lewis.
She says, “I was actually his first legislative hire. One of the things that I worked on was apartheid.”
This was during the ‘80s and the world was watching South Africa. On Capitol Hill, apartheid victims shared their stories in congressional committee hearings. Regina recalls the trauma she felt as she sat through one testimony.
“I remember there was one woman. She told the story of how she literally saw her son being gunned down. She was weeping so much and I was weeping. The room was weeping. I remember one of the questions after she finished that was asked of her was, ‘How did that make you feel to see your son get killed?’”
The insensitivity of that question shook her.
“I remember my whole soul froze. It was almost like in that moment, I broke. And it probably was a good thing because it started opening me up for things that happened to me as a child.
That moment triggered memories of her being molested after her parents divorced.
“It’s almost like an early mid-life crisis or I was heading into like a nervous breakdown or something. I was just like, I need to get outta here. So I just left.”
She moved to London.
A few years into living there, money got tight. Regina saw an ad for dancers. She looked into the gig. With family so far away, she became financially dependent on men. Those men forced Regina into sex labor. She endured sexual violence, and lost hope.
How she got over in the Land Down Under
Somehow she escaped and landed in Australia.
Regina started going to church and reading the Bible, along with a Christian self-help book for people in emotional pain. She was reading a prayer in the book. Then she says suddenly, “Something came like a fire from the top of my head, through my body all the way through my feet I broke out in a sweat and I started praying tongues.”
She couldn’t speak for 3 days.
“It was almost like a window into a new spiritual realm had opened up and that I could peek into it.”
She says energy from that spiritual realm felt like, “ A black mama came from the middle of the earth. And I don’t know what that means, but it feels like an old black woman with deep wrinkles, in purple, in a rocking chair with a very resolute face. That’s what it feels like, the shift was in me.
Other areas of her life shifted, too Regina fell in love with an older, wealthy man who helped her open a vintage boutique in Australia she called The Diva’s Closet.
Within months, it took off. Australian celebrities wore her garments on the red carpet. Top fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar ran features on her boutique. Even the diva Beyonce knew about The Diva’s Closet. When she was on tour Down Under with her group Destiny’s Child, it was hard for Regina to ignore that they were in town.
Regina says, “ I didn’t go to the concert, but I remember waking up the next morning. It was Sunday and I remember saying, ‘God, I’m not going to go to church. I don’t feel like it. I’m missing Black people. By the way, I know Beyonce is in town. Can you send her to my shop?’ That was it. Rudest prayer ever.
Well, God answered her anyway. Less than an hour later, a representative from Beyonce’s record label phoned to ask whether the star and her entourage could check out the boutique. It was a life-changing encounter.
Regina confided to Beyonce that she was homesick.
“I said, I’m so glad you’re here, because I miss Black people. And she said to me, ‘You should go home.’”
Regina prayed for a while about whether to follow Beyonce’s advice. She began dreaming that her boutique was completely empty. After living in Australia for nearly 15 years, she says God told her to leave everything, close her boutique and go back to Oakland.
A Spiritual Journey in Oakland
Regina says, “It was like a death. I gave everything away. I came home with nothing and started a whole journey–just start over again and figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing.”
She says God told her that her soul was suffering and she needed to heal from her traumas and grief over her parents’ divorce.
Regina was in her mid-40’s when she returned to Oakland. Her emotional healing process was rocky.
“It was such a hard time,” she says tearfully. “ It was really, really hard. I got a mother from Mobile, Alabama who raised four black kids [she] educated. [She says] ‘And then you go come home and tell me you don’t have nothing?’ And I’m like, I’m on a spiritual journey. I can only say it was God, and divinity, and spirit, and ancestors that kept me. “
Regina was homeless and couch surfing for five years. Slowly, she rebuilt her life in Oakland. Regina got a writing job at a youth shelter, where she met activists helping trafficked kids. With her mother’s help, she opened a vintage boutique in downtown called Regina’s Door. She also uses it as an arts and healing space. She also started writing plays.
The Children are Coming to Mama Regina
All this put her in contact with the children her friend’s pastor had envisioned would come into her life–girls as young as ten years old and teenagers whose parents sold them to exploiters for drug money. Regina has directly helped them and so many others. Amara Tabor-Smith explains.
“These young people are in sexual slavery,” says Amara. “ Let’s be clear.”
Amara is an artist who helps Regina with the children she rescues. Amara says people confuse sex trafficking with prostitution. Prostitution is when one is a willing participant in sex work. The U.S. State Department calls sex trafficking a modern form of slavery, where exploriters use force, fraud or coercion to traffick people into sex labor. Amara, Regina and others who work to emotionally and physically liberate trafficked youth identify themselves as abolitionists.
“The rescue work is about how does this young person get on their feet,” says Amara.
Regina works her connections. She finds housing for survivors. She’ll alert the police about extra shelter beds and link youth to organizations where they’ll be safe. She helps them find jobs and food.
Amara explains, “A lot of them need mental health resources because of the amount of trauma, That’s where Regina has been really like her work is really powerful.”
I reached out to survivors Regina has helped. For their safety, they declined being interviewed. However, I notice they affectionately refer to Regina as Mama Reg or Mama Regina. Amara says the youth do this out of trust.
“Regina has been consistent and unrelenting in, ‘I’m here. I’m here if you need to talk, you need to stop by.’ Her personality is such that she’s both an elder, but also there’s something eternally youthful about her. She’s Mama Regina, but she’s also right there with you.”
The Risks in Her Work
Sometimes she puts her own safety at risk.
For her protection, Regina won’t disclose how she and other abolitionists rescue the girls. She recalls a time the exploiters wanted her off the streets. She got a warning when an Oakland activist phoned her at 5:30 in the morning.
Regina recounts, “He was like, ‘Mama, you gotta stay off the street. We’re going to calm it down for you.’ I won’t go into the situation, but I just said okay.
Regina kept away from the streets for about a year.
Sex trafficking is a big underground business. In 2014 the International Labour Organization estimated that it generates $99 billion in illegal profits every year in the United States.
In Oakland, “it depends how many people, the exploiters are, um, trafficking,” says Sgt. Marcos Campos. He supervises the Oakland Police Department’s vice and child exploitation unit. “Talking to some of the girls that are out there, they say on a good night, they can make $500 to $800.
Sgt. Campos says exploiters can be young or older men, and women too. He adds that territorial beef between exploiters has caused an uptick in violence. That’s one reason Regina had to lie low for a while.
Regina says eventually, “Things lightened up and now it’s okay.”
Regina’s rescue work is dangerous and emotional. It stretches beyond a nine to five commitment. She’s just now able to afford her own apartment 14 years after returning to Oakland. She says her spiritual awakening in Australia still fuels her.
“I’ve been traumatized, I’ve been afraid and I’m still here. Those kinds of things strengthen you. Also love strengthens you, but I really put it back to that moment.I know it sounds wild, whatever happened spiritually in that moment allows me to continue doing the work.
Beloved: An Insistence
The energy is festive on the Thursday afternoon where Regina and I meet at International Boulevard and 21st Avenue. A jazz band performs for a masked and distanced crowd. This music, the decorated altars I mentioned earlier, this entire day, has a name. Regina calls it “Beloved: An Insistence. “
Regina goes to an altar with a Ziplock bag full of pennies and strings of pearls. She instructs the volunteers to put the final touches on these captivating altars. They remind me of Regina’s grandmother’s altars.
Volunteers have cloaked chairs in gold fabric that resembles a wrap around a grandmother’s shoulders. The girls can approach the altars like they’d visit grandma’s house, and they won’t leave empty handed. Resting on lace and gold-colored platters are medical masks and hand sanitizer, condoms, snacks and fruit, sanitary napkins. Along with material goods, the spaces offer cultural symbols too.
Regina explains, “I always have grains because they represent the crops that our ancestors picked. So I always have cotton, rice, and things that nourished us like grits.”
Marigolds and sunflowers are everywhere, in honor of Oshun, goddess of love, beauty and fertility in the Yoruba religion. Some stories portray Oshun as a protector. Regina learned about the power of the feminine divine from Amara Tabor-Smith who is also a Yoruba priest and spiritual mentor to Regina.
Sgt. Campos recognizes how these altars are a kind of refuge for exploited girls.
“It’s almost like a safe sanctuary if anyone needs to go over there to contact one of the advisors or advocates over there,” he says.”That’s where basically the exploiters themselves know not to, to be in the area>
It’s almost like a spiritual force field that keeps them at a distance.
Divine Black Feminine
Regina’s Black culture, prayers, femininity and time she spent with her grandmother ALL inspire the offerings and visual style of these altars.
She says, “For me personally, I just wanted to call in that Ma’ Dear, auntie Big Mama. You know the person’s house you can go to [who]always had something to eat..but you’d always get some knowledge.”
And you would get some affirmations. The people who set this up have painted posters with the words “You are beautiful” in pastel chalk. they’ve written on the sidewalk ‘You are worthy of your dreams.”
Then right in the belly of the beast I hear kids start shouting, “Ballerinas!”
Dancers from the Oakland Ballet plie on the corners in front of the altars, as local poet Nicia De’ Lovely performs:
“Her Heart’s a sacred diamond. Her mind’s a rare sapphire…Made only more precious, by the pressures of this world. As beautiful, as strong, as granite. She is the Black girl.”
The Oakland Ballet doesn’t come out to perform for just anybody — especially on street corners. But Regina says these trafficked kids aren’t just anybody and she pulled out all the stops for this visual gift of love.
After the performances, Regina stands on a corner, before about 60 people spilling into the street. Her rising voice fills the neighborhood.
She shouts, “We insist on love! We insist that these babies will have a divine life. We insist. These are not somebody else’s babies. These are your children. These are our children. Insist for your children! Insist for your children! Insist for your children!
Following Regina’s speech, Amara Tabor-Smith approaches her with a plastic water bottle for libations–a ritual pouring of liquid for a spirit or ancestor. She sprinkles drops of water at Regina’s feet to symbolize cleansing and cooling.
As the crowd thins, I catch up to Regina. I ask her how she felt about today’s event.
“Good,” she responds.
I ask her if any trafficked girls came to the event looking for resources or help. I noticed one girl earlier that day.
“I talked to about 10,” says Regina
Ten girls?! Regina sees the shock on my face.
“They’re just there constantly,” she says. “It’s just a matter of, like, looking.”
Putting the Pieces Together
As I walk back to my car I take in the intersection of 21st Avenue and International Boulevard. The sun is setting and altars glow against the backdrop of the orange, peachy sky.
While waiting to cross the street, I notice the strips of fabric Regina tore and tied onto the light poles at each corner.
Earlier in the day, she explained why.
“It doesn’t look perfect, right? You’re deconstructing something. You’re building it back and it looks beautiful. I think that’s what happens with our healing if we allow it to happen.”
Healing might be the next step for those 10 girls Regina met on this day.
Jeneé Darden is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.