A Conversation with Activist WITHELMA “T” WALKER ORTIZ PETTIGREW at the TIME 100 Gala

By Matthew Leeb

Spring 2014

Withelma ‘T’ Walker Ortiz Pettigrew is the voice, and face, standing up against a hidden plague striking America: human-trafficking. For the first 18 years of her life, T grew up in U.S. foster care. For the latter half of those 18 years though, she was the victim of sexual exploitation and trafficking, forced into the streets, strip clubs, and massage parlors for by the worst of humankind.

T has since escaped her exploiters and taken it upon herself to bring national awareness and hope to all victims of human-trafficking and a broken U.S. foster care system. But beyond her Congressional speeches, efforts, and accolades, she is simply an excited, young college student smitten with a kind new world.

T caught my eye descending the stairs into the TIME 100 Gala–a TIME 100 pin decorating her dress. The beautiful, 24 year old activist looked a touch nervous, but still undeniably glamorous–so I stopped her, asking if she’d like to pose for Patrick’s camera. Her eyes widened, “Patrick? Like Patrick McMullan? Of course. I love Patrick!”

Matthew Leeb: You whispered earlier that this is the first time wearing a gown. How can that be?

Withelma “T” Walker Ortiz Pettigrew: I’ve only done one other event and that was the 2011’s Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year. I was honored alongside so many other remarkable women, like Jennifer Lopez, Arianna Huffington, and Jennifer Aniston. That was the only other time I’ve been to anything close to this.

ML: What has been your most memorable moment?

WTWOP: Honestly, it was being able to connect with people I see in the media on a real humble and personal level, and being able to connect with change makers such as Ben [Rattray] from Change.org, because he’s awesome!

ML: Anyone that you specifically wanted to meet that you”ve been able to meet?

WTWOP: I wanted to meet Pharrell. I didn’t get a one-on-one with him, but I did enjoy the performance like crazy, and he pointed at me, so I feel excited. Although we didn’t meet, I was really taken back and inspired by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe. I thought that what she does is so phenomenal and in line with the work that I do in trying to raise awareness with the lost girls and lost boys and understanding that, for my cause, I wouldn’t say that they’re lost. They are our nation’s children, but more so they need to be paid attention to, and they need to be acknowledged.

ML: What’s next for you? What’s on the horizon?

WTWOP: I’m still a college student, and I’m still raising funds to go to college. I just got accepted to study abroad on a trip going around the world in January. So once I get the funds for that, that’s all set up. It’s a program called Semester At Sea and I will be able to go around the world the entire time!

ML: That’s so cool! How did your school and fellow classmates react to you being honored as one of the TIME 100 most influential people?

WTWOP: Honestly this has taken me aback–and my school aback! Everybody’s really shocked. It’s funny though because my school’s really used to me doing things so they seem to be less shocked than I was. What I say is that this isn’t about me, it’s really a bigger purpose. I’m a conduit, and what I mean by that is people get to see survivors do have potential and they do have value and contributions to give to the world. And that’s what it’s about: it’s about survivors being able to look at the TIME 100 and say, “Hey, someone who was in the streets that I was on, or went through the things I went through, made it there.” So they can be inspired to go way beyond anything that I’ve ever done.

ML: Finally, I have to ask: Who’s the most influential person in your life?

WTWOP: I think that, to be honest, the most influential people in my life couldn’t be one person. It’s a collection of women, and a few select men, who have been able to connect with me, build relationships with me, and really gain trust with me and hold that. And that’s important for someone like me, for survivors to build connections, because that’s really what we lack for so long is that basic human bond.

Withelma “T” Walker Ortiz Pettigrew is an activist that this year”s TIME 100 dubbed “the modern abolitionist.”


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Written by Matthew Leeb

Photography by Paul Bruinooge for PatrickMcMullan.com

Design by Mina Darius


Withelma ‘T’ Walker Ortiz Pettigrew at the TIME 100 Gala, Photography by Paul Bruinooge for PatrickMcMullan.com

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