I live in a cool college town of 150,000 known for its bike paths and micro-brews. There isn’t much of a blighted area; our one strip club sold to a church last year. Sure we have a park where youth hang out and smoke pot and the motels near the highway are not the ones you send visiting relatives to, but mostly, we have the facade of a squeaky clean community.
But we have sex trafficking. And so do you.
As a grassroots community organizer, I spend a lot of time in coalition and task force meetings, working groups and speaking events. Though a leader in a faith-based anti-sex trafficking organization, I work with a wide array of community stakeholders and professionals to accomplish our shared mission of eradicating sex trafficking in our city.
And although it’s an exciting time in the anti-trafficking movement, I worry.
Author, survivor and Girls Eduction and Mentoring Services founder Rachel Lloyd has warned that the Anti-Human Trafficking movement will one day wane just as the Domestic Violence movement. Right now, we are in the era of rapid education and awareness across all sectors of first responders, courtrooms and influencers. The Church has also mobilized, launching global nonprofits, local shelters and other ministries to survivors.
But I worry that in all our passion, we can get sloppy. I see too many well-intentioned, big-hearted Christians fail to do their research before launching their grand idea. In the process, they lose credibility with those with whom they need to partner and often fail before they have a chance to do good.
There are plenty of things you shouldn’t do, but there are also many tangible and effective actions you can take to stop human trafficking in your community. Opening a shelter, flying to Southeast Asia or giving money to organizations are not your only options to effect significant change in your own backyard.
Here are a few practical suggestions of what you can do and what not to do:
Assess the Needs in Your Community.
Don’t assume you’re the only one doing anything. Spend time getting to know who knows what and figure out what, if anything, is already happening in your area. Too many churches and organizations operate in a silo without collaborating and leveraging the strength of others.
Once you’ve seen who else is working to stop human trafficking in your area, identify assets and gaps in your community. Come alongside great work or find the ways you are uniquely equipped to meet the needs (e.g. graphic or web design, host a training, mentor vulnerable youth, become a host or foster care family to a high-risk runaway, etc..)
And don’t assume that the approach of those doing anti-trafficking in other cities is always the best thing for all towns, all victims and all situations. Is a shelter really the greatest need and will your local Department of Homeland Security even place kids there? Many homes are overcrowded and unable to fully care for another child in their home. Some victims may need additional help adjusting to a normal life that a shelter may not be able to provide.
Find the influencers in town—the police officer with passion, the mental health provider with training, the case managers, teachers or school resource officers who want to do something, too. Is there a cafe selling fair trade coffee and chocolate? Are there campus groups in town? Other churches starting their own thing? These are your allies. Gather them to launch a response team.
Be a Professional, Not Just a Bleeding Heart.
Don’t discredit yourself when you’ll need and want these contacts as allies, partners and referral sources later. Seasoned field workers can be cynical toward passionate naiveté and overly spiritualized Christian lingo. Be courteous, respectful and professional when partnering with someone who has spent years fighting this fight on the frontlines.
Get Your Facts Right.
No need to over sensationalize, the numbers are bad enough. When using statistics, find the source, read the context and check the date. The widely quoted “300,000 kids are sexually exploited in the U.S.” is taken out of context. It is from a report that estimates between 244,000 and 366,000 kids are at risk of being sexually exploited each year. When we exaggerate the problem, we discredit the movement, causing further harm and delayed services to those who need it.
Find out where your state stands with human trafficking legislation. What can you do to lobby for better legislation? Tell your city council or state representative that ending human trafficking is important to you. City Council is often the key to unlocking law enforcement to do further investigations.
From social media profile pics to letters to the editor, blog posts, fundraisers, film screenings, Human Trafficking 101 trainings, etc., identify what you can do in your sphere of influence to raise awareness, agitate and train your community. Just be aware of that while you do so …
Be Careful Not to Disempower Survivors.
First of all, survivors rarely self-identify as trafficking victims. Second, the industry term is no longer rescue, but recover. And third, we have to stop using imagery of kidnappings and chains. Most trafficked individuals are physically free to leave, but not psychologically free. When we perpetuate the myth that they must be kidnapped or chained to be trafficked, we confuse those who are truly victims, but assume they’re not because they can technically walk out the door.
Gather a group of people and drive around town. Pray over high schools, rest stops and truck stops, hotels that are seedy and classy, Asian massage parlors in strip malls—all the places where sex trafficking has been identified around the nation in cities large and small.
We often hear the message that one person’s small efforts are all it takes for another’s miracle. While that sounds cliche, the truth is that sometimes we are paralyzed to take the small, immediate steps that could actually prevent someone from being trafficked.