Brainstormed Solutions

Christian Science Monitor has been working on a fascinating project to analyze best-practices in combatting human trafficking and recently put together a list of 6 innovative and effective solutions. Check them out here!


Human trafficking: 6 solutions that are working

By: Michael Holtz of the Christian Science Monitor

January 25, 2016


1. ‘Fair food’ labeling for US produce

Farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., have pushed corporations such as Walmart to submit to “clean labor” audits to cut down on the exploitation of largely Mexican, Haitian, and Guatemalan migrants. Their efforts have helped spur the use of “Fair Food” labels for produce that is grown and packed ethically.


“In the past three years, [the tomato fields in Immokalee] have gone from being the worst to the best” in the country, according to Susan Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif.

Last fall, Giant and Stop & Shop, two grocery chains in New England, began carrying the label. Similar labels such as “Food Justice Certified,” which expands farm worker protections to organic products, are also beginning to crop up on supermarket shelves across the country.

Such sourcing clues tap directly into the portion of the US consumer base that has begun to turn once routine shopping decisions into moral guideposts. Labor experts see a lot of promise in using labels as a tool to spread the reforms seen in Immokalee to other agricultural centers around the US.

2. Empower migrant workers and trafficking victims

One of the biggest challenges human trafficking victims face is what to do once they’re back on their own.

In Thailand, the Issara Institute helps formerly enslaved migrant workers by directly giving them cash with no strings attached. The philosophy behind the program is simple: No one knows the needs of human trafficking victims better than the victims themselves. Yet they often lack the resources to address them. By giving them the ability to make their own decisions, the unconditional handouts provide a sense of autonomy that these individuals haven’t experienced in months, if not years.

Across the United States, a handful of nonprofit organizations are working to connect with isolated domestic servants to show them that help is available.

Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a grass-roots group in New York that assists Filipino trafficking victims, provides a model for how to transform a cycle of victimization. Former victims become advocates for others, demanding changes to legal and economic structures that facilitate the trafficking of domestic workers. They also formed a co-op, allowing the former victims to become their own bosses.

They have pressured embassies when diplomatic immunity was shielding traffickers from prosecution, and have helped some women win financial settlements. Damayan’s members played a key role in New York becoming the first of several states to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

3. Joint police-NGO task forces

A small antitrafficking team in Seattle is showing how legal action can be an effective tool in fighting forced labor when detectives, prosecutors, and social workers learn to collaborate.

In its first decade of operations, the task force investigated more than 140 cases of potential human trafficking and prosecuted 60 of those. Given the difficulty of bringing such cases, this is well above average for a prosecutorial district. In September, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the task force an “extraordinary partnership.”

Experts say the force’s success stems from its ability to bridge the worlds of nongovernment organizations and diverse law enforcement agencies. Where antitrafficking efforts in some other cities have broken down, the members of this team “have come back to the table” after setbacks, says Kirsten Foot, the author of “Collaborating Against Human Trafficking.”

4. Labor trafficking lawsuits in US courts

In February 2015, a federal court awarded five Indian workers $14 million in a labor trafficking lawsuit against Signal International, a maritime construction company, for abuses they faced while repairing offshore oil and gas facilities damaged by hurricane Katrina.

Five months later, Signal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to implement a $20 million settlement with more than 200 other workers who had their own lawsuits pending. It was, lawyers say, the largest monetary penalty ever in a labor trafficking lawsuit, making it a model for how to fight labor trafficking – both in the courtroom and out.

In Mexico and the US, advocates say abuses that can add up to trafficking in the agriculture industry often go unchecked because foreign workers are required to leave the United States at the end of each season. Back home, they are far away from the US legal system that might help them push for justice against abusive or exploitive employers.

To correct this, lawyers, NGOs, government representatives, and migrant advocates have worked together pursue cross-border justice. This includes finding plaintiffs in Mexico and other countries willing to testify in US courts; many don’t know that they are entitled to legal recourse. The work is painstaking and time-consuming, but provides a path to reducing labor trafficking and migrant worker exploitation.

5. Make foreign recruiters register with the state

From Silicon Valley to the Central Valley, California industries rely on about 130,000 foreign guest workers to do everything from tech jobs to picking grapes, peaches, and almonds. Three out of four of them are hired through labor contractors, according to rough estimates. A new law has the potential to transform the way those contractors do business – and protect vulnerable workers.

The California Foreign Labor Recruitment Law, the first of its kind in the nation, requires recruiters to meet certain conditions and register with the state. Taking effect in July, it forces businesses that want to use foreign-labor contractors to work with only those that are registered, and to tell the state which contractors they are using. It provides a host of protections for workers, including a rule against charging them any fees.

“People should be able to look up in a registry who is legitimate and who isn’t,” says Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking in Los Angeles. “With transparency, the prevalence of modern slavery decreases.”

6. Supply chain transparency

A cluster of California class-action lawsuits against corporations such as Costco is pushing the envelope on accountability for human trafficking in supply chains. The keyword is transparency: If companies are forced to disclose when labor abuses are involved in making a product, they may be more likely to vigorously police their suppliers.

That level of disclosure would go significantly beyond the letter of a 2010 law. The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires large retail and manufacturing companies to disclose on their websites what, if anything, they are doing to eradicate trafficking and slavery among suppliers.

In the global cocoa industry, efforts to clean up supply chains have already helped address widespread child labor abuses. Each of the world’s top five chocolate producers – from Nestlé to Mars to Hershey’s – are developing or expanding third-party inspection systems meant to, among other goals, eliminate child trafficking and child labor by 2020 on the farms where they source cocoa.

Meanwhile, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire – together responsible for about 70 percent of global cocoa output – have responded to international pressure by passing laws prohibiting child trafficking and overwork, and mandating primary school attendance.

7. How you can help

  • Here are some of the organizations featured in our series on human trafficking:
  1. The Association of People for Practical Life Education is a Ghana-based organization that works to free trafficked children, including those in the cocoa industry.
  2. Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, the first transnational migrant workers’ rights organization based in Mexico, seeks to improve the conditions of low-wage workers in the US.
  3. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a Florida-based human rights organization that works to protect migrant farm workers and promote consumer awareness through its Fair Food Program.
  4. The Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking is a Los Angeles-based organization that assists labor trafficking victims and works toward ending all instances of human trafficking.
  5. The Damayan Migrant Workers Association is a grass-roots group in New York that assists Filipino domestic workers to fight for their labor, health, gender, and migration rights.
  6. Free the Slaves is a Washington-based organization that works in human trafficking hot spots across the world to liberate slaves and change the conditions that allow slavery to persist.
  7. The Global Workers Justice Alliance is a New York-based organization that aids transnational migrants through a cross-border network of worker advocates and resources.
  8. The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center is a US-based organization that leads national efforts to hold human traffickers accountable for their crimes and to raise awareness of victims’ rights.
  9. The Issara Institute is a Bangkok-based organization that aids human trafficking victims through unconditional cash transfers and other services such as legal support, medical care, and job placement.
  10. ProDESC, the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Project, is a Mexico-based organization that works with migrants, miners, and indigenous communities to defend and advance their rights.
  11. The Southern Poverty Law Center is an Alabama-based group that uses litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy to fight human trafficking and other forms of civil and human rights abuses.
  12. The Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network is a coalition of non-governmental organizations that provide direct services to victims of human trafficking in the State of Washington.


Panama’s Human Trafficking Story

By: Izzy Ullmann

The human trafficking story in Panama is one I have heard before, but never officially: human trafficking does not exist. According to Jenise Lawrence*, an American attorney working to combat human trafficking in Panama, this is the story that the government puts out.

And yet, the US 2015 Annual Trafficking in Persons Report reports Panama as a source, transit, and destination country for primarily sex, but also labor trafficking.

I sat down with Jenise Lawrence* in Panama City to learn about the dynamics that she has noted working on this issue (almost solely in the country). As she explained, prostitution in Panama is legal above the age of 18, thus easing traffickers’ ability to sell their victims. About 80% of those trafficked into the sex trade are from Latin America and the Caribbean. Many are brought through a specific visa program, called alternadora, which the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs explains specifically allows foreign national women to work in entertainment establishments [Read more here]. In a leaked report of the US Trafficking in Persons Office’s visit to Panama in 2006, Attorney General Ana Matilde Gomez emphatically stated her distaste for what she deemed, “the alternadora visa for prostitutes,” and wished to speak to the president about abolishing the visa program.  According to Lawrence, however, 12 years later the visa is still being used rampantly.

As Lawrence explained, different mafias control much of the sex industry, which serves as one of the primary reasons that the government is paralyzingly tentative to intervene. She mapped out for me the domains of mafia- controlled prostitution.

Venezuelans and Columbians exert a great degree of control over the sex industry in Panama City and the Colón Free Trade Zone. In the Chinese community, there are a few families with concentrated power. These families go to China and bring back people who are willing to be indentured servants. They are then brought to work in Chinito stores for no pay and are provided housing above or behind the shops, subject to debt bondage. As the Russian embassy has gained in power in Panama, there has additionally been an increased presence of the Russian mafia bringing eastern European girls to the country for trafficked prostitution.

As she described it, human trafficking exists as a pretty well organized criminal network. The industry has been working to improve its sex-tourism, and has coordinated taxi drivers and hotel managers and staff to direct wealthy businessmen to prostitutes, all the while making a cut of the profits.


Child Trafficking campaign poster in Tocumen International Airport, Panama City

In 2014, Panama’s Ministry of Tourism launched a measly effort to raise awareness about human trafficking with posters in the airport, but this was the extent of the campaign. It was catalyzed by a scandal in which a Columbian couple was caught kidnapping children, killing them, and selling their organs. This enraged people in Panama City where the scandal occurred, and provided fuel for the campaign, but the charges “mysteriously” were dropped and neither of the couple was prosecuted.

This reflects a much larger issue that Panama faces of a debauched legal system. Due process is typically nonexistent and according to several locals, the corrupt police force accept bribes for most crimes. Lawrence explained that along the Columbian border, the Panamanian guards are being constantly paid off by the Columbian traffickers to ensure that they do not expose the criminals.



Immigrant sleeping in shelter, Darien Province, Panama

Another issue that feeds into the exploitation of humans is Panama’s identity as a destination and transit country for immigration. Because of its relatively stable economy, the World Bank calculated the net migration to Panama in 2012 as about 28,105, which (factoring in those that are emigrating from the country) comes to about 100 people immigrating into Panama per day.  According to Lawrence, about 60% of them plan to stay, while 40% are headed towards Mexico or the United States. Despite this high number of incomers, Lawrence explains that Panama only has two official shelters for incoming migrants: one which hosts 25 women, and another which holds 65 men. When these shelters reach capacity, government officials drive immigrants in cattle trucks to a central location where they  are dumped and told they have 48 hours to leave the country. According to Lawrence, “The problem is so overwhelming to the government.” She continued, “[Immigrants] are not allowed to settle. They are all illegal but the country does not know what to do. The people do not have papers for Panama, they are not allowed to go into Costa Rica or any other country that would allow them transit through Panama or to stay in Panama, and Panama does not have the resources to send them back to their country of origin.” And few people do leave immediately. Many of these people are expertly linked into underground networks of trafficking, especially for sex.


Container ship, Panama Canal

With limited border patrol, trafficking a person into the country is fairly easy. Lawrence explained that people are trafficked over the Columbian border, through the airports, and in cargo ships through the Panama Canal. She described a survivor from Malaysia who she’d met in an orphanage who had escaped her container on a ship and swam to the edge of the Canal to freedom.

But it is not just foreign nationals; Panamanians are being trafficked too. Lawrence told me a story about two indigenous girls who were simply riding in a taxi one day and were kidnapped by their taxi driver, taken to the border where they were raped and drugged and then forced to work in a push button hotel [essentially a secret room with a menu of women who you can purchase at an hourly rate].  Below is a pretty gross video about push buttons.


While the US Trafficking in Persons Report for the past 10 or so years has placed Panama as Tier 2, and commended it for some steps towards combatting trafficking, Lawrence explains how each of Panama’s supposed efforts are moot. The 2015 TIP report says that in 2014, “authorities investigated 11 new trafficking cases, four for sex trafficking and seven for labor trafficking,” and has reported back similar numbers in the 2008, 2011, and 2014 reports, but according to Lawrence, “not one person has been prosecuted.” She explained that the judicial system and enforcement of component of law enforcement is essentially nonexistent. This sentiment was reinforced by many people I spoke to in Panama. The 2015 report also details a “dedicated helpline for reporting human trafficking cases,” but Lawrence counters that, “in reality, there is no phone number or anyone dedicated to the hotline, and if there was, I am sure they were not trained correctly.”

But underlying this slew of issues, Lawrence explains that there is a general apathy about human trafficking. Most people do not know it exists, and those that do are are plagued by the its-not-my-problem mentality. This blockades the serious action needed.

From mafia-controlled areas of the country to an overwhelming immigration problem to an uncoordinated and corrupt justice system to an apathetic public, Panama sure has a lot of issues on its hands. But they do seem solvable. Awareness needs to be raised more fully, especially in schools so that students know about the potential risks that could befall them. And the judicial and legal systems need to be made more accountable, through police trainings, crackdowns on corruption, and instilling an attitude of responsibility among law enforcement and justice officials.

Contrary to public knowledge, human trafficking exists in Panama. Foreigners like Lawrence could continue to enter the country and try to determine ways of combatting the human slavery, but the Panamanian people ultimately need to figure out how to improve their own system to eradicate this problem and protect their citizens and immigrants.


Read more about Panama’s human trafficking via The Protection Project’s report. 


*name has been changed for anonymity to allow her to maintain legal status in the country


A Survivor’s Story

Human Trafficking: A Survivor’s Story

by NC Harm Reduction Coalition

“The following is a true story of a North Carolina woman who survived human trafficking: [My mother] made it clear from day one that I’d screwed up her life by being born. At five years old I walked into the bedroom…to show her a paint-by-number that I painted for my grandmother. She was with another man and [when she saw me] she went ballistic. She decided that I was a whore… and that I needed to be taught a lesson about what a whore is. She offered [her boyfriend] the opportunity to penetrate me and told him it was a punishment and to make it hurt. He was more than happy to accommodate. They decided [raping me] was a nice fringe benefit to their relationship and he continued for years with full knowledge of my mother.

There was an emphasis on keeping this a secret. My mother made a point of showing me the county jail and said if I told anybody that’s where I would go…I was terrified of that jail so I kept it quiet. I was an accelerated student and hid my issues under the guise of intelligence. Until 6th grade I was a straight A student. In 6th grade puberty hit and I changed. The first time I was offered access to alcohol and drugs it occurred to me that I could do what I was doing at home to older boys and get beer and drugs…I started ditching class and it got out of control, but my father was on School Board so no one wanted to draw attention to what was going on.

At the end of 9th grade my parents told me they were moving to a new house that didn’t have room for me and I would need to get out…I hitchhiked to Cincinnati to my best friend from 8thg grade and I thought I could live with her…when I got there my friend’s parents realized that I was a runaway…they wanted nothing to do with [me]. They called DSS, the police, and I was terrified of police so I split. I spent all my money on pacman and space invaders and then realized I had no money for food and no place to stay and that is where the enormity of being homeless really hit. I thought I was slick and would be good at shop lifting, but got chased repeatedly from 7/11. So I started staking out café’s and wait until someone ordered a sandwich and I would snatch it and run into traffic…I slept in a cemetery because everyone there was dead and they weren’t bothered by my presence, plus the sprinklers went on and it was a way to get clean.

One day I was in the mall and this gorgeous guy walks up to me. He looked like my teenage crush Lindsey Buckingham, the lead singer of Fleetwood Mac…He was very charming. He picked out that I was a homeless runaway, that somebody must have hurt me and he was very sympathetic…He told me he ran an entertainment agency and that I seemed intelligent and beautiful and smart…I jumped at the chance because I did want to get off the street and work. He said I could audition…I said ok, but I had one question, was this prostitution because I didn’t want to be a prostitute. He stood up indignantly and got mad and said he was wrong about me and I wasn’t professional or intelligent, that was a stupid question and the deal was off and he stormed off. I really wanted to work so I ran up to him and begged for another chance and made a deal that there would be no more questions…and he took me out to his car and made this big production about corporate espionage and so he blindfolded me and covered it with sunglasses and a hat. At this point of course my instincts were telling me this was wrong, but I was in the back of his car and didn’t know what to do…He said we were going downtown to his office building, except…we pulled up to a garage because I could hear the garage door going up…I knew something was wrong and could smell the musty basement smell.

At that point I was sobbing and he spotted the tears and leveled me with a backhand and told me that professionals don’t cry and I was going to lose my chance at the job unless I stripped. So I did because I’d kind of gotten the point about who was in charge. I stripped and he told me to put my hands over my head and I could feel something wrapping around my wrists. I didn’t really understand what was happening and then what I was standing on gave out and I was hanging by my wrists, at which point it becomes really hard to breathe because all your weight falls on your diaphragm. I was reduced to panting like a dog, very focused on just trying to breathe. Then he raped me and hit me with some kind of whip hundreds of times and a kind of stick and he told me I could hang there until I died and he would throw my skinny ass into the Ohio river or I could go work for him…I agreed to work for him. That was where he explained that I was gong to work as a paid submissive. That sadist clients wanted what they viewed as a masochist, or painslut, that’s what I was going to do.

We did a lot of sensory deprivation. He showed me his dungeon and we practiced endlessly on each pieces of equipment as to what it felt like and how much it hurt and how I was supported so response. We also worked on my cover story…if I was questioned I was to say this was all consensual. After about 5-6 weeks of intense torture and rape he thought my training was done and I could see clients. That’s how I got started in sex work.

I was able to get out after three years because of a fluke. He was arrested on charged not related to me and I was able to get away. I escaped to Vegas and over time rebuilt my life. For quite a few years I compartmentalized everything that had happened. I got a job as a flight attendant. I got back into sex work in my forties because I had a series of major medical issues. The flight attendant position caused a series of blood clots in my legs and I lost my job over this and lost my health insurance and was out of work for months. I tried to avoid sex work by taking any job I could get, but I found that even working full time I had no food. I was stealing food out of Kroger if I wanted to eat. It came down to needing money this minute for rent, so I posted on backpage and started working as an escort, which was a very different scenario than the teenager coerced. As an escort I can screen my clients and control to some degree my environment….I advertise in various venue and work for myself as an independent.

I continue to be a sex worker because of the economy. I don’t have high living standards…but I have not been able to pay me a job that enables me to live…I am no fan of sex work…I just need the money.”


Read more at the Daily Kos.

The Moments After

The Freedom Exhibit– a Post- Reflection

August 3,  2013  12:00 AM

I am high off of the excitement of advocacy. There is so much power in talking to people about the things that drive me, and having them care. I felt the sparks of awareness flying tonight. I feel as if I have lowered a rope into a pit of ignorance and hoisted some people out of it. I think I may have even flung some of those people from the flat ground of awareness into the realms of action.
 Over the last couple months, I have become more and more competent in my abilities to discuss human trafficking with people that share the same passions. I preach to the choir like a pro– I have had many a car conversation, many a dinner table education with my parents. But when I try to talk to people who don’t share my passion, I have felt tongue tied. I haven’t known how to breach the topic, and once I do, I don’t know where to start. Tonight, that changed.
I completely overwhelmed the first woman I talked to. I overloaded her with way too much information about every organization I could describe on our “Learn” table. I could see the stars coating her eyes, the confusion clouding her vision. When she stopped me and asked, “Wait… what is human trafficking?” I knew I had to take a different approach. I had spewed word vomit all over her, and really not brought her any closer to an understanding of human trafficking.
That was when I realized that I could use the scene I had created as a presentation tool. My art piece provided me with a catapult to educate, something I had really been lacking. I brought people in, at first one on one, and then as groups and told them this:
~ First look at this mattress, this graffiti, these papers. What do you see? What do they make you think about?
Now when people think about human trafficking, their minds immediately jump to sex. People know about brothels, about people being trafficked across borders in other nations to provide sex to customers. But human trafficking is truly a multifaceted issue. This bed could be the bed in a brothel, but it could be inhabited by so many different people.
This is the bed of a boy, who is arisen every morning, thrown into a van with six other guys, handed a couple dozen crates of strawberries, and dropped off at a street corner. He is told he has to sell all of the strawberries or be beaten. He goes out, selling strawberries all day. You have seen this boy, sometimes outside Costco, sometimes outside Safeway. You may even have bought strawberries from this boy. In the evening, he is picked up in the van by his pimp. He has not had a lunch break. He has not been able to go to the bathroom. Today, he hasn’t even sold all of his strawberries. In punishment, after handing the money he has made to his pimp,  he is raped. This is the bed he goes back to and cries in.
Or this is the bed of a girl whose family is abusive. Her parents are drug abusers or they beat her. Maybe she doesn’t have parents at home at all. She runs away from home, and while walking the streets is picked up by a boy. He takes her in; he gives her gifts. He tells her he loves her. He fills a gap that has been empty; he makes her feel special. She falls in love with him. He calls her his girlfriend. After a little while, though, he tells her she needs to make up her share of the income. He tells her she can’t just sit home all day. So he drops her off on the streets to pick up customers. This is the bed that she brings five, ten, fifteen men a night to, selling her body to make money for her “boyfriend”.
Or is this is the bed of a woman who has just immigrated to America from Cambodia. She wants to start a new life in the land of opportunity. She is offered a job at a nail salon, but is told that instead of payment, they will give her a room in the back. She is not allowed to leave the salon unsupervised. The only time she is allowed out of this room, is when she is painting nails. She doesn’t know her rights. She doesn’t know she is entitled to more than this. This is the room that she spends her days and nights in.
This bed represents the millions of people stuck in human trafficking today. And splayed across it are diary entries, prayers, poems. On the walls are cries for help, all scribbled across the oppressive graffiti that surrounds the people contained within its walls. These are written pleas for help, because so many of these people do not have the use of their voices to ask for help. They are scared. Women do not want to be arrested for prostitution. Girls are so in love with their pimps, that they do not realize that they are being manipulated. Their emotions are so toyed with, so disjointed that they do not know who to trust or where to turn for affection. Illegal immigrants trafficked in the agricultural industry don’t want to be deported. Legal immigrants do not know their rights. People who have been trafficked into the US do not realize that they have rights to trafficking visas. People are blocked by language barriers, trust barriers, emotional barriers.
And it starts so young. The average age of a trafficking victim in the US is 12, but people are weaned into it from even earlier. Children are burdened by emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. They are neglected by their parents. They are not raised with a sense of self- worth or confidence in their abilities. They seek love anywhere they can find it.
The system is so skewed. There are more people in slavery now, in 2013, than there were during the entire length of the transatlantic slave trade combined. And back then, slavery was legal. It was in the public eye. It was contested by some, but accepted by most. Now, it is an underground criminal industry. Not just any criminal industry, but a particularly profitable one– the 2nd most profitable criminal industry, netting about $32 billion a year. Once a person sells a gun, that gun is gone. But a person can sell a girl again and again and again and again. A person pimping four girls can make about $600,000 a year. There is a demand for it. It is consumed in mass quantities. With inflation calculated in, a slave back in the 1800s was worth about $30,000. Now, a slave can be bought for $90. Our sense of human worth seems to have plummeted by a long shot. And this is just the beginning of the story. ~
Now, I talked and people listened… really listened. People asked questions… good questions. They started recognizing the signs. People told me about situations that had before not seemed odd, but now seemed like signs of human trafficking. They disclosed information about family, neighbors, friends who had been involved in the issue. They wanted to know how to pinpoint the indicators, how to act, what to look for, and how they could get involved. They wanted to know about the children, about the laws, about the numbers, about the history; I could tell them.  I have done so much research- speaking to people, listening to stories, watching documentaries-  that I was able to truly advocate. I was able to back up my fictional  (yet completely plausible) pieces with hard numbers.

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And I was not alone in my advocacy. I was joined by two truly inspiring women. Julia Wood, the girl who had kickstarted the concept of an art exhibit and collected the art pieces, and I worked off of each other with the most collaborative chemistry. People would ask questions, and we were able to teach together, to fill in each others’ gaps in knowledge, and to combine our separate insight into a truly comprehensive understanding of human trafficking. Most notably, I was joined by Regina Evans, a survivor of the Life, who has since channeled her complex emotions into poetry and a one woman play.
BeFunky_with regina.jpg
She shared her story, her passion, her pain, and her love. She lured people into the back room with the bed setup and performed a rhythmic telling of her story… She started with an almost abstract poetic description of a girl being raped, abused, sold on the streets. “She’s somebody’s baby. She’s somebody’s child,” was her haunting refrain. But as her tale escalated, the pronoun turned personal, and the audience was drawn further into her tortured eyes, and her trembling hands. “I’m somebody’s baby,” she whispered, her voice cracking, “I’m somebody’s child.” At the end of her performance, she turned to the numbers, warning of the 300,000 children at risk of trafficking in the US alone. She called people to action. She appealed to them to stand by no longer. As people walked out of that room, the reactions were chilling. Some simply stared ahead in a horrified trance. Some had red eyes, wet with teardrops. Some had hands clasped in fists of anger. I knew that we had changed these people.
People don’t know, and quite honestly don’t WANT to know about human trafficking. The information is too hard to handle; the reality too repulsive. It is much easier to distance oneself, than to contemplate the truth. With this event, I strove to awaken people to the world around them, bit by bit, so that more people will join their voices in combatting the crime. And I feel as if we accomplished that goal.

The Moments Prior

The Freedom Exhibit– A pre- reflection

August 2nd, 2013 5:00 PM

It’s finally happening. Tonight, I will put on a human trafficking awareness event. It is the end of a process of preparation, and the beginning of a life of advocacy.
This moment has not come without trepidation, or doubt, or the feelings of failure. Initially, I had the idea of meshing my passion for human trafficking with my creative leanings. I wanted to do a march that would lead to an art show where survivors would speak and poets would do slam poetry and I would advocate. A bit much, maybe? Then, I envisioned a walkthrough display to bring awareness to the issues of human trafficking. People would happen upon a sweet restaurant scene, complete with a candle-lit dinner setup and passed drinks. When they walked through a dark hallway, they would find a pinkly- lit room with a mattress on the floor and graffiti on the walls- a brothel. They would be shocked and confused. Upon walking to the next room, they would find three monitors. One would display Kyle Okie, head of the SJPD Human Trafficking Task Force, explaining the definition of human trafficking. A second would be a local non-profit head speaking about human trafficking in the Bay Area. The last one would highlight a story of a survivor. At the end of the walkthrough, there would be an art show (carried over from the first idea), and I would be standing there, answering questions. Now, neither of those plans came through– they were just inspirations. They got me thinking, got me imagining, but I didn’t have the resources to execute them.
Then, I met Julia Wood, a college-age intern working with the YWCA who had the ambitious plan to organize an art exhibit to bring awareness to human trafficking in the bay area. Well, that sounded a lot like the ideas I had been formulating, so I jumped on board. I used my resources to expand her project, and little by little, added elements of my own. I recommended she present it at Downtown San Jose’s First Friday Artwalk and suggested venues downtown. I sent out her call for artists and negotiated with two contributing artists myself. Once she booked the TechShop, I started thinking about my walk-through again. I talked with Benita Hopkins, my much beloved “boss” from Not For Sale, and she said she had some materials I could use. I marched on over to the TechShop, pitched my idea to them, and discovered that they had an extra room I could use. Great! But an extra room. ONE extra room… My walkthrough depended on three rooms at the very least. How would I make that happen? I searched for dividers, ways to hang curtains to subdivide the room… but nothing worked. I felt road-blocked and defeated. I had two weeks to put together an event, and had no where to start. But in a conversation with Benita, she told me about a survivor who had become a playwright, written a one- woman show about her experiences, and was incredibly well- spoken and inspirational. She had not been a part of my plan, but why not see if she would be interested in getting involved? I gave her a call, and sure enough, she wanted to participate! We discussed her walking amongst the crowd, dressed as a prostitute and just gathering reactions… Would people laugh at her? Would they give her dirty looks? Would they offer her help? At random, she would break out into poetry, tell stories. A points, she would lure them into the room I would set up– a brothel scene, a shock of reality– and perform segments of her play. Instead of a walkthrough, I would be creating my own piece of art. I could hardly believe my luck– a survivor speaking at an event I was helping put together? That was beyond exciting! But I began to feel like a cheater. I had glommed onto Julia’s initial event. I was letting someone else do the entertainment. A lot of the supplies and suggestions for the brothel setup had come from Benita. What had I done? What had I accomplished? What had I created to call my own?
However, upon stepping back from my frantic self- doubt, I gained a greater understanding about the way social justice issues have to be fought. In elementary school, all of the focus was on doing my own work. My parents could not help put together my diorama on Native Americans. My friends could not help fill out my fraction worksheet. My art teacher could not help outline my toucan. I had to do my own work. Period. But in the “real world”, just doing my own work wouldn’t get me very far. I don’t have unlimited resources or knowledge. Nobody does. But by pooling resources, connecting people, networking, blogging, shooting out emails of requests, I could compile an amazing event. I may not have had curtains to blacken the windows of the room, so I emailed about ten different theater companies around San Jose asking for fabric donations. More than half of them offered. I did not have materials to teach all about human trafficking, but I contacted local organizations- the SJPD, Not For Sale, Love Never Fails, the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, the YWCA-  and compiled an ample supply of pamphlets, stickers, lanyards, and volunteer opportunities. I could not singlehandedly write and perform a play on modern day slavery, but Regina Evans already had. I have recognized my skills in bringing people together under a common cause to effect change. And I have been able to contribute my own work as well– I have worked for hours perfecting the brothel setup. I have researched, graffitied, written journal entries, dirtied toothbrushes, and searched for abandoned mattresses. And I’ve promoted the event like my life depended on it! I wrote a press release, submitted it to local events sites, and shared it on all my social networks.
Sure, there may not be a march tonight. Or a three-room walk through. But what we have created is amazing. People will be walking around, sipping wine, innocently looking at art, unaware of the brothel in their presence. When they are invited to see the other side of the black doors by Regina, they will be exposed to a reality most of them did not know existed. People do not recognize the pervasiveness of human trafficking. They hear about girls being transported across borders and into brothels halfway across the world, but they don’t see the people being trafficked in their own backyards.
The powerful element of the scene I have created is that it doesn’t have to be a brothel. It is a disheveled bed, surrounded by graffiti. It could be the room of a young boy who is picked up every morning, loaded into a van, shoved a couple dozen crates of strawberries and deposited on a street corner to exhaust the supply. It could be the room of a young girl who is forced to stay in the back of a nail salon, only allowed out when she is painting people’s toenails, not given a salary or breaks. It could be the room where a woman is forced to sell her body, up to fifteen times a night. People will see a bed and be given options. There minds will be allowed to roam, and hopefully they are challenged to think about things they had never considered before.
I hope that people leave the exhibit, feeling shocked, disgusted, and angry. But I hope they also leave with a fit of inspiration, a shot of drive. I hope they have a new perception of human trafficking. I hope they don’t see it as a distant issue any longer, but as a local and unacceptable crime. I hope they tell people about it. I hope they don’t make ignorant comments any longer. I hope they will be able to think twice about situations they are presented with– that they will see a fruit picker and start wondering; that they will see a magazine seller and start questioning; that they will see a girl walking the streets at night and start analyzing. Human Trafficking will never go away, until people see that it exists in the first place. Once they know, I hope more people will join me in the fight to curtail this inhuman exploitation of humans.

Finish Line

“Ruth was 12 years old when her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She ran away and was picked up by a pimp who forced her to have sex for money. Today, she’s a brilliant poet and spoken word artist who dreams of one day becoming an architect and building schools for children in Africa. Here is a poem written by Ruth, detailing her painful past and her powerful ability to overcome adversity.” – Equality Now



You see me; I can’t let this go on any further…

So I’m going to let the finish where it starts.  

I’m going to help shed light on the places that are so-called too dark.

Oh yeah; I’ve been through some of it all:

The gang banging, the street walking & having sex in the park.

See, none of this would have happened if I had help from the start.

See, for me, it started in this place that sometimes felt like hell,

But I still had to call it home.

It even included a mother, a sister, even a niece that is only a few years old.

But even when they were home, I still felt all alone.

By alone, see, I was all alone when that light skinned 6 foot tall grown man raped me.

See, no one was in this place I was to call home where I had a bed;  

I cried inside because I was fighting a light skinned 6 foot battle all alone,

But I soon went to war when I ran away from this place

With the unbelievable name of home.

At night I was never alone, walking down pimp city road.

I was only 12 years old.

Walking up and down what we call the stroll.

See, to him it did not matter if I was cold or if I was hungry,

All he cared about was me bringing in that money.

Let me let you in on something I find real funny:  

That sex trafficking is a nonviolent felony.

But in this life, violence became my “frienamie.”

Now I’m going to shed my light on this place that is so-called too dark,

See, I was hit and beat for things that weren’t my fault

And when I would say something smart,

I was raped and called dumb.

I never thought this day would come.

See I’m not just saying this, this is coming from the heart.

Yes, maybe I want to get a new start.

But I want my voice to help others whose world has fallen apart.  

My best friend is a victim even though she is now 17.

She is a victim of our pimp, she is a victim of the streets.

She wants to be free, but she can’t do it all alone, she needs me.

And I need a team to help me finish where it starts.

If only you can feel the pain in our hearts.

To feel 2 inches tall when 5’1” is where you started.

Me and a little girl parted when all this trauma started.

See our lives are getting tough and we really don’t have time to toughen up.

And now look, I’ve reached the finish line, my time is up.

But that doesn’t mean that I give up.


Broken People

“I have the same thoughts now as I did back then. I wish I’d never been born. I’d be better off dead than living like this.” Living like this meant living in a brothel, treated like some sort of cheap commodity day in and day out. Having been taken from her home in Moldova when she was only 18 years old, Jenea was lured to “Moscow” with the promise of a cleaning job. She would be making $200 a month, indescribable riches compared to the measly sum she was making in the fields. With the permission of her parents, she left her hometown. Little did she know, she would never return.

In the airport, she realized that “Moscow” was really Turkey. Warned that if she went to the police, she would have to pay back her own travel expenses, the documents and ticket costs, Jenea realized that she was trapped. And in debt.

Jenea is one among millions of women who are essentially modern day slaves- sold from traffickers to pimps to eager clients from around the world. Initially, these women are locked into the brothels by their debts from travel, but quickly those debts multiply with steady ferociousness. Each action is accounted for– room and board, showers, clothing– and not a single dollar that they earn reaches their pockets.

More than just debt keeps them in the brothels. They are trapped in. They are beaten and raped to the point of utter submission. They are threatened with death. They are put on drugs so that even in the rare situation of escape, many return on account of withdrawals. As documentary filmmaker, Mimi Chakarova puts it, “They’ve been broken and believe there is no other choice.”

The issue of human trafficking, however, goes deeper than Jenea, feelings trapped and degraded as a human being. It goes deeper than the boys forced to pound clay into bricks for hours on end to pay off an unpayable debt. It goes right down to the way we view the human beings around us, not as people, but as potentials for profit. Humans are used across the globe to boost status, to boost power, to boost wealth.

Though human slavery is illegal worldwide, it is looked over so frequently, because those with the power to stop it have vested interest in its continuation. Police officers make money off of bribes from pimps. Government officials frequent brothels as customers. Products can be made much more cheaply, when the workers ARE NOT PAYED for their labor.

But not only do the people with political or economic clout keep such a system going; so do the consumers. We have created an industry for human trafficking. In our purchases, we endorse the forcing of children into factories where they lose their childhood, their opportunity for education, and sometimes, even their fingers; we applaud the debt bondage of men, chained to their jobs in mines and fields as the only way to pay off a constantly growing debt; we condone the system in which harvesters never see more than a couple of dollars of their sales. Each time we buy a top from Forever 21 or a tablet from Kindle or a pair of shoes from Lacoste, we are supporting the exploitation of human labor.

Quotes from The Price of Sex, a chilling documentary by Mimi Chakarova.

Hunger for the Meat of Women

Walking in the door,
The initial shock of meat,
The tender flesh of exposed breasts,
Those red and swollen arms undulating.

The girls in the window,
Illuminated in red,
Displayed like mannequins,
As if they are showing off purses to be sold.

But what are they selling?
They are selling their bodies,
Their dreams, their desires,
Their worth and their dignity.

And for what?
For incessant beatings,
For looks of hunger and greed
Coming from clients who just want that meat.

They have to serve them diligently,
Despite hunger, discomfort, pain.
Have to relinquish power over their own bodies,
Give over to these paying customers.

But who gets the money?
Not the girls, no, not them at all.
It goes to the pimps, to bribing the cops,
So that the brothel will forever stay in business.

Their eyes are haunted,
Their lips are shut,
Except for when they are forced open.
Their bodies convulse with the –

-pain, overcoming, overbearing,
Dominating every moment of their lives.
No hope for a day off,
For some moments of peace.

Every moment is a working one

In the red light district.