Holly Joshi, EdD Candidate, Featured in Independent Documentary Film, "Still I Rise"

How current Saint Mary’s student and alumna Holly Joshi went from an undercover cop in the Oakland Police Department to an anti-trafficking advocate and educator.

As a Black woman from the East Bay Area, Holly Joshi knew she needed to give back to the community from which she came. She dedicated 14 years of her life working for the Oakland Police Department, building cases against child sex traffickers, and fighting for the rights of Black female survivors of sexual exploitation.

An independent film directed by Sheri Shuster, Still I Rise (2020) primarily features the stories of Leah Albright-Byrd, a sex trafficking survivor turned activist and musician, and Joshi, an undercover cop turned anti-trafficking advocate and educator. Peppered with inspiring vignettes from powerhouse activists including Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, Alicia Keys, Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Angela Davis, the film follows Albright-Byrd and Joshi as they dedicate their lives to the anti-sex trafficking movement and, in particular, as they emphasize the importance of supporting and advocating for Black female sex trafficking survivors.

“Statistically speaking,” said Joshi, “Black women and girls are disproportionately victimized across the country and yet the anti-trafficking movement has largely moved in a race-neutral, colorblind way for years.”

The film explores how Joshi’s experiences and world view contributed to her life’s calling to provide safe spaces and use her position to co-create opportunities for Black child sex trafficking survivors. Joshi met Albright-Byrd in 2012 when the two of them had been working together on Proposition Holly Joshi, '1535, an approved proposition which “amended state law to increase the maximum penalty for human trafficking to 15-years-to-life and fines up to $1.5 million,” according to Ballotpedia.org.

Shuster had been working at the Covenant House of California, a youth shelter in Alameda County, and was encountering girls that had been trafficked in increasing numbers. Though she was not a filmmaker and had no prior experience in directing, she picked up the camera to interview experts in the field about what was happening. Joshi met Shuster in 2014 when she was approached for an interview, and the two have been friends ever since. After interviewing Joshi and Albright-Byrd, Shuster realized that they were telling the same story about trafficking from two different perspectives: the investigative perspective and the survivor’s perspective. Shuster made the decision to feature them as the lead figures of the film, and from their perspectives of the issue, the film became focused on the experiences of Black women and girls.

Joshi was inspired to become a police officer because she wanted to work in her community and change the police department’s relationship with the community. However, she quit the force in September 2015 — a few months before earning her MA in Leadership from the Kalmanovitz School of Education in December 2015 — in favor of working at a nonprofit organization, where she believed she could do more to help the survivors she had always felt so passionately about advocating for.

“I started to get my Masters [at Saint Mary’s College of California] in 2013,” Joshi said. “I was really just going back to school to get a title, and didn’t realize that it was actually going to be very transformative. I selected Saint Mary’s because I wanted something that focused on leadership and organizational change, because it was applicable to my job. At that point, what was most important to me was my position as the Chief of Staff at the [Oakland Police Department] … I identified Saint Mary’s because it looked good on paper, but I wasn’t actually prepared for the amount of transformation and growth that I was actually going to experience in that program.”

“Coming from a government organization and coming from a paramilitary organization, there were very old-school, strict definitions of leadership very much tied to positional authority and chain-of-command,” Joshi continued. “[Saint Mary’s] allowed me the space to really get in touch with myself, and parts of myself that I hadn’t really been in touch with for a long time. I was at the police department for 14 years, and it sets you up to close off from a lot of parts of yourself, and disconnect from a lot of parts of yourself to fit into the box that it creates around leadership and what it means to be an officer. So Saint Mary’s provided me [with] a lot of exploratory space. I left the [Oakland Police Department] in September and graduated from Saint Mary’s a couple months later, so that’s how transformative that experience was for me.”

Joshi’s framing of the issue was originally the product of a black-and-white worldview. She believed that the exploiters victimized the trafficked girls whom she was working hard to save. Because of this binary belief system, she had been unable to see the nuanced parallels between the paths to "victim" and "suspect,” implemented by an inequitable society that sets people up to exploit and be exploited.

She attributes this change in awareness to one particular moment during her career. She remembered how she interviewed a young sex trafficker and, immediately prior, the teenaged girl he had been exploiting. Joshi was then able to compare their life stories side by side. The similarities she found impacted her deeply.

“I went into the interview with this 19 year old kid, and he had a baby face and everything, and he start[ed] telling me his life story. And it’s an exact mirror of hers. And in that moment, I had the capacity to really listen to what he was saying to me. And in that moment I just thought to myself, like … this is not the answer.”

Joshi was able to recognize that the two Black youth had experienced similar oppressions, lack of access and opportunity, and abuse as children. Incarcerating Black youth, she realized, was not the answer to fixing a symptom of systemic oppression. The answer lay in creating systemic change.

Joshi in Still I Rise“Law enforcement was not built to protect and serve everyone,” Joshi said. “That’s not the foundation that police departments were built upon. And so unless we’re every single day intentionally making sure that we’re working to change that, then the system’s going to do what it is intended to do, and that’s just to protect certain populations and to criminalize others.”

It was at this moment that Joshi realized that she needed to alter her point of view on the issue. By changing her mindset, approach, actions, career, and the way in which she uses her power and privilege in the world, she changed her entire worldview. The way she changed her thought process and belief system was reflected in how she changed her manner of speaking about the issue, replacing “victim” with “survivor” and refraining from using rescue language. By approaching the issue from a place of empowerment rather than a place of saviorism, the young survivors regain a sense of agency over their own lives and journeys. She realized that her responsibility and place within the movement was not to “save” them, but to use her power and privilege to remove barriers for them to access the opportunities that they should already have had.

“We know,” Joshi said, “research shows, oftentimes trauma manifests differently in men and women. Females internalize their trauma and it becomes internalized oppression and self-harming behavior. And males, because of the culture that we grow up in, externalize their oppression and their abusive situation and their trauma and oftentimes it manifests as violence against other people. And so for me to recognize that was a difficult realization, but it also contributed to changing the course of my career and changing my focus in terms of the angle to really try and attack this problem.”

After leaving the force, Joshi pivoted to community-based organization. She became the executive director at MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), a nonprofit in Oakland who directly serve women and girls who were being trafficked. She stayed at MISSSEY for two years before she pivoted again to work at Bright Research Group, as a community-based research consultant.

During her master’s program at Saint Mary’s, Joshi was taught and mentored by two Black female professors, Drs. Monique Morris and Taj Johns. The fact that they came from similar backgrounds as she did, and had earned their PhDs, made a doctoral program seem possible for her. Joshi is currently working towards receiving her EdD in Leadership from Saint Mary’s and is writing her dissertation looking at police reform through a Black feminist lens. Additionally, she is working with governmental organizations on systems change efforts by using research, evaluation and capacity-building work in order to center the experiences, strengths and needs of marginalized communities.