CNN’s Lisa Ling took a break from immersing herself in America’s most marginalized and misunderstood communities to speak at the Central California Women’s Conference in Fresno on Tuesday.
Ling is an internationally known journalist and host of “This is Life,” which explores subcultures from satanists to child beauty queens. She also has worked as a correspondent for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and as a co-host on “The View.”
At the conference – which welcomed a record number of about 3,400 attendees – Ling, who grew up in Carmichael, spoke of her world travels and how her experiences have changed her. She called for reform of America’s prison system, criticizing the disproportionate number of black men behind bars, and the treatment of the growing number of female inmates – especially those who are mothers.
She also pushed for awareness of human trafficking, a known problem in the Valley. Just last month, a human trafficking organization in Visalia was dismantled after at least 50 juveniles and women were sexually exploited for monetary gain.
“What if I told you that sex trafficking is actually rampant among American girls? We just don’t call it that – we call it prostitution,” Ling said. “Most of these women who are caught up in the world of illegal prostitution come from devastating home lives … They end up on the streets, and these men are looking to exploit their vulnerabilities.
“You would think these girls would make a lot of money working endlessly doing things that we can’t even imagine, but every single penny goes into the hands of the person they call ‘daddy.’ If you don’t call that slavery in America, I don’t know what else you call it.”
I always go into every story with a defined preconceived idea but inevitably as soon as I hit the ground, I realize that every story is not so black and white.
The conference’s first She Makes a Difference award was given to Fresno’s Andrea Shabaglian, whose nonprofit is working to combat human trafficking.
Shabaglian, founder of Made for Them – a clothing line that raises awareness about human trafficking and helps rehabilitate victims – said that part of the problem is that people tend to view trafficking as something that happens in other countries, not here.
“It’s very real here. We’re an ag community, so we definitely have forced labor. You’re going to see it in massage parlors and as people selling flowers on the street. And, of course, many prostitutes in reality are victims,” she said.
“We all have preconceived ideas about what a victim would look like, but it could be a well-educated college student who struggles with self confidence. Any race, religion or creed, it will knock on the door of.”
Ling’s central message on Tuesday was to give people a second chance. She has dedicated her career to getting to know those living outside the mainstream. She recently rode with the notorious Mongols Motorcycle Club from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. She has spent time with the International Gay Rodeo Association, heroin addicts and mail-order brides.
She says she became inspired to take a closer look at people after a trip on assignment in North Korea.
There is still quite a bit of sexism in the professional world. People respect my work and respect me, but they sometimes will just overlook me.
“Here I was in a country where people are prevented from knowing anything about the rest of the world, and I live in a place where we have such easy access to it, but do we really seek it out?” she said. “I always go into every story with a defined preconceived idea but inevitably as soon as I hit the ground, I realize that every story is not so black and white.”
While Ling has traveled the world putting herself in dangerous situations to report on war, gang rapes, undercover informants and everything in-between, she says she still has felt the sting of sexism in her career.
She recalls in foreign countries being ignored by men while working on stories.
“People would talk to (the men) instead of talking to me or my female producer,” she said. “In those situations, I would just increase the tone of my voice and assert myself even more to show those people that in this crew, the women are in charge.”
But Ling says she doesn’t face nearly as much sexism out in the field as she does professionally behind the scenes. She says as a woman and a minority, she is not always treated the same way as her male counterparts.
“I have to be careful with what I’m saying because this seems to be on record. But I can definitely say that there is still quite a bit of sexism in the professional world. People respect my work and respect me, but they sometimes will just overlook me,” Ling said.
“I’ve been in situations where I worked on a show or was part of a show that performed as well as my male counterparts and didn’t get the press or marketing dollars or even opportunities that my male counterparts did. So it still exists, but the more women who are conscious of it, and really men as well, that’s the only way things will change.”
The Central California Women’s Conference is a one-day event meant to empower women, offering various professional workshops. It helps support more than 60 nonprofits that help women and children, and has donated more than $800,000 to the cause.