Her Dresses Stop Traffic

52 Letters

“I don't like the word 'rescue,'” Regina Evans tells me as we sip tea in her sun-drenched Oakland storefront, lined with lacy vintage dresses and old LIFE magazine photos of African-American model Beverly Johnson.

Regina's Door, located at 352 17th St. in downtown Oakland, is a bit of a bait-and-switch. At first, it may appear to simply be a boutique specializing in vintage women's wear, but there is a matriarchal dining table in the center of the sales floor with inviting chairs circled around it, and Evans' warm personality reminds customers what the primary goal of the boutique really is.

The store is staffed by women who have been victims of forced sexual labor, their wages paid through a partnership with local anti-trafficking group Love Never Fails, which recently opened two safe houses for victims in the Bay Area.

Customers come for the vintage dresses, Evans says, but they stay for the love.

I first met Evans when our original plays premiered at the 2013 San Francisco Fringe Festival. Both of our works tackled issues of the sex industry: mine examined the stigma associated with falling in love with a sex worker, while Evans' stark, one-woman show aimed to bring the horrors of child rape and sex trafficking to light.

Anti-trafficking advocates, especially those who identify as “modern-day abolitionists,” as Evans does, often butt heads with sex worker-rights advocates like myself, who advocate for decriminalization as a strategy to combat exploitation in the sex industry.

In the very first interview I did leading up to the Fringe Festival, the reporter asked me if I foresaw having conflict with Evans, since our points of view seemed to be on opposite sides. I was indeed worried, but any concern I had melted away the moment I met her. Evans greeted me with a hug, eager to discuss how anti-trafficking advocates and sex worker rights advocates could come together to make the industry safer for everyone.

Now, Evans' play, 52 Letters, is returning for a special two-night engagement at The Flight Deck, a multidisciplinary art and performance space that opened in downtown Oakland last year. The show is equal parts cathartic practice, awareness campaign, and fundraising effort to support Evans' social enterprise: Regina's Door vintage boutique, which is also about to celebrate its first year of business in Oakland.

Evans is the first to admit that her first year as a business owner has not been easy. With the help of Popuphood, a small-business incubator aimed at revitalizing neighborhoods “block by block,” she put together a business plan and secured a brick-and-mortar location.

As a former sex worker and a survivor of trafficking, Evans is very aware how demoralizing it can be to accept a minimum-wage job when you've become accustomed to making hundreds of dollars in a single hour — especially if you're also supporting a family, as some of Evans' employees are. This is why Regina's Door isn't just a place of work. It's a community.

Evans prioritizes mentoring the young women who walk through her doors over turning a profit. Her customers are a network of activists and friends who will not only buy the occasional vintage dress, but who will also volunteer their time to support the women who work there. Evans says she often uses funds from the business to buy her employee-mentees groceries, clothing, beds, and childcare. When I asked Evans about why she chose to start a business, rather than a nonprofit, she replied frankly, “'Cause they need to know how to make some money, that's why. They deserve that.”

Evans was fed up with anti-trafficking organizations primarily run by wealthy white women offering to “rescue” women of color from the sex industry in exchange for low-paying jobs, often in domestic labor. She wanted to create a structure that made space for her employees to understand their own power and work towards a path of entrepreneurship.

“I didn't open this for me,” Evans says of the boutique. “I opened it to make it viable, train somebody to run a business … and give it to somebody.”

Consequently, a portion of the proceeds from this weekend's performances of 52 Letters will go to support the efforts of Regina's Door.

“These are some powerful young women,” Evans says. “I didn't want to do the thing where now you're in labor trafficking, making candles. Let's lift the bar, especially for brown and black girls. You can be the President of the Universe, if that's what you want to do.”

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