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Coders Who Survived Human Trafficking Rewrite Their Identities

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At a Bay Area nonprofit, former abuse victims learn to code and level up their futures. A photographer and an artist weave together their stories.

At a family center in downtown Oakland, 11 students are training with two lecturers and two teaching assistants. Toys are strewn on the floor; the school, called AnnieCannons, offers childcare onsite. For the first six weeks, students spin up on basic digital literacy, then they spend up to six months learning programming languages—JavaScript, HTML, CSS—at times working on clients’ projects. The coders are also encouraged to pitch products of their own, and they often come up with ones to help victims of abuse and exploitation. Coding is about identifying problems and finding solutions, says Jessica Hubley, one of the founders of AnnieCannons, a nonprofit that teaches coding to survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence, and that is something these students have had a lot of experience doing.

Rev tells me she’s worked on CSS animation, CLI GIFs, and a handful of other tech for clients: “DQaaS—data quality as a service—projects were quite regular last year.” Those, she adds, were pretty valuable to stabilizing her income as she got more coding experience. Magical has been at AnnieCannons for a year. “My first web project was EasyTRO, an app that helps survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking access the documentation needed to file a temporary restraining order.” Voyager was a student in the nonprofit’s third class; she now manages the bulk of the company’s data project work.

In recent years, Catie Hart has spent her time both as a lecturer at AnnieCannons and as a human trafficking adviser to places like the San Francisco Police Department, Shasta County, and UC Davis. But when she was 18, Hart was coerced into sex work by a man she met just after she had arrived in San Francisco. After more than seven years, she broke away, found her way to UC Berkeley, and got a degree in sociology.

photograph of a woman with a woven indistinct face

“I’ve completed over 200 data management projects, created the donation page for AnnieCannons’ EasyTRO, and cocreated a website for ARC facilities,” says Magical.

Artwork by Alma Haser; Photograph by Maria del Rio

To photograph Rev, Magical, Voyager, Tia, and Maeflower, photographer Maria del Rio shot images from a low angle; she—and collaborator Alma Haser—wanted to create a halo effect, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Del Rio then sent the files to Haser in East Sussex, UK, who printed the portraits in her studio and wove pieces of the images together to make a collage that would preserve the coders’ anonymity. Most of the developers at AnnieCannons assume a pseudonym—as a safety precaution, as well as a symbol of a new identity.

woven portrait that obscures a woman's face

“I was part of cohort 3 in 2017,” Voyager says. “I worked as a contractor in 2018. I became an employee in 2019.”

Artwork by Alma Haser; Photograph by Maria del Rio

a woven portrait that obscures a woman's face

Tia recently graduated from AnnieCannons and is now a teacher’s assistant for the current class. She hopes to start working on clients’ projects soon.

Artwork by Alma Haser; Photograph by Maria del Rio

These days Hart, who is now 40, is cutting back from speaking engagements and spending more time at AnnieCannons. “For the first time in my life,” she tells me, “I have shed survivor or victim as my identity. I was having to survive on being a ‘survivor,’ because that’s how I was making money, speaking about what happened to me. Now I want to talk about coding.”

photograph of a woman with a woven indistinct face

“Because I’m an independent contractor, I pretty much make my hours depending on project deadlines. So I can work anywhere from 5 to 8 hours on a good coding day. That being if nothing breaks,” says Maeflower.

Artwork by Alma Haser; Photograph by Maria del Rio


LYDIA HORNE (@lyderature) is the editorial business manager at WIRED.

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