Tell Your Story Campaign: Spotlight on Melissa Petro

Every June, members of the NYWC community write stories about their experiences with NYWC as a way to raise awareness and revenue for our programs. This year we will be hearing from eight such individuals. Read their stories, follow the campaign, and support the NYWC Tell Your Story Campaign!

This story is from Melissa Petro. She has written for NY Magazine, Marie Claire, Salon, Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, New Inquiry, Pacific Standard Magazine and elsewhere. She was one of three finalist for the 2015 PEN/Fusion Emerging Writer’s Prize. Follow her on Twitter: @melissapetro

MP Photos2_croppedNaive as it sounds, I was shocked. Sure, I knew my story was provocative. And yet, I considered personal experiences to be a valuable source of knowledge and insight. I believed telling my story could benefit others. The fact that, prior to becoming a public school teacher, I had worked as a prostitute meant that I held opinions on the matter of women’s participation in the sex industry. I thought that expressing my opinion without being punished for it was my Constitutional right.

I was wrong.

In 2010, I lost my job as an elementary public school teacher after authoring an article on the Huffington Post in criticism of the censoring of the Adult Services section of Craigslist and in defense of the rights and dignity of sex workers. Less than a year later— still unemployed and desperately seeking a sense of purpose— I met Aaron Zimmerman, executive director of NY Writers Coalition.

The NY Writers Coalition provides free creative writing workshops throughout New York City for people from groups that have been historically deprived of voice in our society. They believe that everyone is a writer, regardless of prior writing experience and formal education, and that people grow as writers and artists as a result of encouragement and support.

For some of us, the act of writing is a form of social justice. Writing can be a powerful vehicle for personal discovery, individual transformation and social change. “Stories from each other’s lives,” Gloria Steinem once said, “are our best textbooks. Every social justice movement I know of has come out of people sitting in small groups, telling their life stories, and discovering that people have shared similar experiences.”

Telling stories is said to increase a person’s agency, giving them the strength to understand their circumstances and make choices about their next steps. It’s true. I changed my life and transitioned out of sex work to become a public school teacher as a result of writing and sharing my story.

What’s also true is that telling our stories can be risky.

When I was being humiliated on the cover of newspapers, and rendered unemployable as a result, NY Writers Coalition took me in. They welcomed me as part of their community and gave me support, including paid work. For the past three years, under NY Writers Coalition’s supervision, I’ve led a weekly workshop at Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), an organization that serves girls and young women who’ve experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. I also teach a memoir-writing course called Personal Matters, part of the City Voices Public programming series.

In the past five years, I’ve carved out a career as a freelancer writer. Being a full-time writer is richly rewarding, but the time I spend with the girls at GEMS are, without a doubt, the most fulfilling 45 minutes of my week. The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more this failure creates an opportunity for individuals of all backgrounds and experiences— but particularly those with underheard experiences— to step up and present stories that speak an emotional truth. To do so, individuals need institutional support. Now, this institution needs your support. Please consider giving.

Support NY Writer’s Coalition Tell Your Story Campaign.