Waiting on the patio of a Tulsa restaurant, Shannon Duke is a striking woman, tall but not imposingly. Dressed smartly but casually with long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Smiling, she greeted me with a friendly hug. After placing an order and exchanging small talk, we got down to the reason for our meeting – her effort to save children from sex trafficking.
She mentioned “unveiled secret” and I asked her to explain.
“Unveiled secret is (revealing) stuff that people don’t want to talk about in society, the hushed (truth). Once you reveal a predator or something we don’t want to look at, you have to acknowledge the fact that it does exist, that it’s not just on a movie screen or in someone else’s world,” Duke said.
She described “Defender,” a non-profit group she founded and how she plans to attack the issue of human trafficking and abuse.
“Defender is to help those who have been preyed upon, right now, children are the main focus. However, we have (adults) that were preyed on and are still trying to heal. Defender is there to help with the healing process (and) the counseling that comes with it because once you’ve been victimized, you don’t just get over it.”
Duke went on to say that often, and even in her own experience, the word of the victim is denied or devalued.
“It’s easier to say that the victim is overly sensitive than to look at the predator and realize that they aren’t the person you thought they were,” she said. When you deny the victim and enable the predator, “that’s what increases our drug abuse (problem) because people try to heal in the only way they can and it’s easier to look at someone and say they are an addictive person than to look at the reason behind the addiction.”
Shannon contrasted the approaches between what she hopes to accomplish with “Defender” with the Mount Arukah facility that recently opened in Oklahoma.
“I have a different outlook on it from being a victim. You need to be around healthy people who can understand and help or those who have been healed themselves. With Defender, I want to focus on the individual.
“I don’t want to group (victims) together. We have been talking to a couple of doctors, some counselors who use that process, attorneys, BACA (Bikers Against Child Abuse).” Of Mount Arukah, she said, “I’m glad they’re doing something, I’m not devaluing that at all. That’s just not where I want to go with Defender.”
Duke said that protecting children from trafficking and abuse had been a cause for her since her experience as a child but the idea for the non-profit and its name only came about recently.
“When I was 8 years old, if you had asked me what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a childs’ rights attorney. I saw so many children that were hurt and their parents weren’t standing up for them. Nobody was. I wanted to defend those children. So when the world fell into chaos, when all the (Black Lives Matter) riots started, I had a voice that told me ‘it’s time.’”
When choosing a name for her project, Duke said it wasn’t easy. “I wanted a word. Just one word that was strong and spoke about helping and what it would do to stand up for what is right. ‘Protector,’ even though it’s a strong word, you can’t be a protector if people have already been victimized. You’ve failed. ‘Defender’ worked perfectly because you’re defending those who are currently going or have been through the victimization.” She has already had bracelets made which have her One Word inscribed on them, flanked on either side by a sunflower. “I chose pink and baby blue to signify the innocence of boys and girls. The sunflower is there because, with all the chaos that has been going on as of late, it shows that something beautiful can grow out of the darkness.”
As mentioned above, Shannon was a victim of sexual abuse as a young girl. She can still recall this scene in all too vivid detail: the room in which it took place, how she was coaxed out of bed with Cheetos, what he said to her while the act was taking place and the aftermath. She was visibly shaken as she recounted the details but she said that she still has difficulty talking about what he actually did to her. Shannon said her attacker invoked her mother during the act saying, “this is how your mom likes it.” In a Facebook post she wrote, “Later, his mother went calling for me, as he rushed me and pushing, I was berated and confused. What had I done wrong? Why was I the one in trouble? I guess he was right, he does this to all the adults… it’s normal… so why do I feel like a piece of nothing?”
In a later post, she continued: “He was empowered and brazen. And why not? No one wanted to believe. That would mean that evil exists among us, that it doesn’t look like a monster. (It’s) easier to claim the child is confused, sensitive, attention seeking. So instead, he preys further as the child slowly dies inside.”
The conversation went on for over 30 minutes and there is so much that I haven’t touched on. She had to leave for work before I could ask my final question but I did get to ask it via text message a few days later: “Wouldn’t it have been easier to be the victim from that point on? Why did you choose a different path?” Her answer, I believe, is inspirational.
“Easier? Possibly for some. I had an inner burn in the pit of my stomach to not allow anyone to have power over my life, my purpose, my destiny. I am thankful God gave me a strong, rational mind from a young age. I saw the damage in lives around me, those that being hurt stunted them in their personal growth…”
Duke went on to recount certain situations in which she protected her younger brother from bullies and never left her sister’s side, holding her hand while having been left at a sitter’s house for an extended period of time. “I have always had a strong sense of right and wrong.” she wrote.
“My conscience and that burn (in the pit of her stomach) won’t allow me to sit silent. I feel their pain and I don’t want them to feel the way I did. I want to heal and help others to achieve the potential that I see in them, the path that God intended for them and not allow it to be (stolen) forever by the pains inflicted.”
For more information there is a private Facebook group, Defenders of the Innocent.