Prax(us)' Magalie Lerman turns history of exploitation into outreach

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Editor's note: This is the latest profile in Kelsey Whipple's ongoing series highlighting local political activists.

The first time Magalie Lerman knew she had a drug problem was not the first time she overdosed. Nor did she realize the second time. Today, Lerman is two and a half years sober and the co-director of Prax(us), an anti-human trafficking nonprofit that works frequently with homeless youth, much like the organizations that helped her intermittently throughout the previous years.

As a former constituent of their current demographic, she's not wary about telling her story. Maybe, she says, it can help them.

That story began roughly 26 years ago, when Lerman's family moved from Los Angeles to Tuscon. There, a teenage Lerman grew up with two older half-sisters and a younger brother and dreamed of becoming a superhero. After her Bat Mitzvah, she changed focus briefly to rabbi, but that idea became diluted in the halls of Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy, after the family moved to Denver during her teenage years, and it disappeared when she stopped attending.

The daughter of a business-building CEO and a former nurse, Lerman encountered high school disappointment early on. By the beginning of her junior year, she'd undergone a messy break-up with her girlfriend, come out to her family as queer and become very involved in drugs, which she continued to use with friends. When a ubiquitous DARE representative visited her elementary school, she says, she remembered being the only student more enticed than repelled by his description of alcohol.

A few years later, pills, cocaine, and methamphetamine called to her, and though she promised herself early on never to use heroin, she broke her word at age nineteen. The drugs overpowered all of her feelings of insecurity, and they formed an integral part of a burgeoning eating disorder. They also drove her farther from home. "I wanted more," Lerman says. "The things I was doing stopped working, and right before I turned twenty, drugs stopped being fun and glamorous and became this necessity. I wanted to find something to make me stop hating myself. "

When her parents discovered the problem, they sent Lerman to rehab, where she recovered and then relapsed in a pattern as easy to count on as her regular drug use. She graduated from high school -- barely -- one day below the maximum number of absences, and continued on to the University of Colorado Denver -- but after overdosing in the dorms at eighteen, her lifestyle forced her to drop out. On Thanksgiving Day of her 21st year, Lerman returned home to her parents "completely blasted," after breaking in and stealing their checkbook to write herself a $5,000 check. They noticed her state of health, brought up the theft and then removed her from their lives.

"My dad told me, 'We don't want to see you again,' and I know that was probably the hardest thing he's ever done," Lerman says. The next time she spoke to her parents was from jail at age 22. They did not pay her bail, and they did not visit. "Whether they knew it or not at the moment, they really had to trust me enough to know I'd survive. It was one of the best things they ever did."

Click through for the rest of the story. For the next four years, Lerman lived on her own -- on the couches of friends, on the charity of girlfriends and eventually, on the streets. She clerked in a porn store during the day and served cocktails at night, but employer-mandated drug tests always caught up with her. She traded sex for drugs and for places to stay, and she became the third member of a trio devoted to petty crime sprees. She no longer cared about her future, Lerman says, and she traded needles with anyone without concern for her health.

Eventually, she took a job off the grid doing manual labor for payment under the table. "But he wasn't paying me, and I still had the key, so for some reason I broke in at night and stole money and some equipment from him," Lerman says. Police officers tracked her to the hotel where she was staying and arrested her, but Lerman got off on a deferred judgment. "Not that I stopped stealing."

But additional petty sprees caught up with her, and Lerman eventually went to prison for the charge for three months a year later. She is still on paper today, and the terms of her probation make her too worried to drive lest she incur a traffic ticket and end up back in the legal system. When both of her partners in crime also faced incarceration within months, Lerman looked at her life -- deeply -- for the first time in years.

"I would just tell people I didn't have a drug problem, I had an eating problem, and then vice versa all the time," she says. "But eventually I realized I threw up every day and I had needles in my arm. That was by far not my lowest bottom, but it happened to be the day I realized my way was not the way."

So after a few more months on the street, Lerman applied for temporary residence through Urban Peak's Starting Transition and Recovery (STAR) program, where she lived for seventeen months while her parents tentatively watched the results from a distance. During her stay and her substance recovery training, Lerman sought ways to "get out of my own head" and volunteered for a handful of nonprofits dedicated to people in similar situations. One of these was Prax(us).

"All of the other places told me I had to be sober for so many years or I had to have this degree or whatever. But Prax(us) said, 'You're an expert. You know what trafficking and exploitation are really like,'" Lerman says. After more than a year of weekly volunteering, she became the organization's co-director in March 2011. "Especially with out focus on constituent-based leadership, you need someone who has been in that situation to help others out of it. You need those different perspectives."

In a regular week, Lerman conducts outreach training, oversees the group's HartCore community organizing program and organizes its role in the Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking hotline. Today, she and Prax(us) co-director Stephanie Bell are training three new community organizers, two of whom are constituents and one of whom is a trafficking survivor, to usher in a renewed focus on "the people who are most affected feeding their own liberation," Lerman says.

With two full-time employees and a six-person board of directors, Prax(us) rotates between eight and 32 youth at a time, most of whom hear about the group through word of mouth. All of its efforts are presented through lenses targeting harm-reduction methods and anti-oppression perspectives, and many of its projects stem from the requests of constituents.

Today, Lerman acts as a bridge between her own history and the future of those who might repeat it. She is in contact with her parents, if not her younger brother, and she has not shut the door on her past. "Why would I?" she says. "It's the best lesson I ever learned, and I already learned it a little too late."

Can you think of any other political activists we should profile? E-mail suggestions to kelsey.whipple@westword.com.

More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."

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