FIERCE: Undoing the Sensationalization of Human Trafficking

"It's as if all identity has been stollen from them, except their identity as slaves." Kevin Bales

A few weeks ago in searching to find a succinct way to describe what I do, I used the term "Cultural Prophet".  For better or worse, I tend to view things in a way that says, "We can do better!  There is more than what we are seeing right now!"  I've tried to elbow away my cynicism.  It gets me into trouble and people start being all, "Geesh! That Becca is a total DOWNER."  
Ultimately, my cynical part comes from pain. It has hurt when I point out what seems like an obvious thing that needs fixing and I am met with "How dare you!"s and "Who do you think you are?!"s. So, as a way to cope with that rejection, instead of changing my tactics I went to cynicism, which feels much more powerful. But now, as I continue my own process of searching my heart and healing from the past, I have found that under the cynicism is a deep desire for a better way forward. A way that is dignified and loving, equitable and just.

I would bet that my friend Ana can relate to the struggle of cynicism and the hope for a better way forward. She too, is what I would call a Cultural Prophet. She has experienced some things that inform her that the worldisn't yet as it should be and she feels compelled to do something about it. But instead of buying a bracelet or t-shirt or a cute pair of shoes, she decided that this was worth more to her. That she would press into a world of academia so that she could help inform the rest of us about this better way forward.

So, listen. Sit back in your comfy chair or steal away for a break at work and listen. Ana has much to teach us.

Ana, tell us about what you have been studying while you have been in grad school.

I’m a second year graduate student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs studying international economic and political development in the Americas. My primary fields of study are human trafficking, Latin America, immigration and gender.  As a 2013-2014 Boren Fellow, I will be researching the relationship between economic development and human trafficking in Brazil in 2014 for my thesis. Previous to joining CGA, I studied human rights and gender at Columbia University while serving as an AmeriCorps member at a national economic development organization in Harlem.

Why did you decide to pursue this area of study?

My summer in Sierra Leone in 2007 completely transformed my idea of development. So much so that I felt completely hopeless and vowed to never participate in the field again. I was very depressed during my time in Sierra Leone and the semester that followed. I witnessed the unquantifiable negative effects someone like me, well intentioned but completely uninformed, could have on other people's lives. To this day, when I think of my role in Sierra Leone, as well as other development oriented trips in Dominican Republic and Thailand, I feel a sudden wave of sadness. I moved to NYC to try and leave this part of me behind and focus on getting a masters in photography. However, I started meeting individuals who understood where I was coming from and learned there are people trying to figure out a useful  way to make the world more equal. I realized that even though my experience was unfortunate, I could use it as a motivator to learn effective ways to address social issues so I started studying human rights at Columbia University and then International Development at NYU.

What do you hope to do with your experience once you graduate?

I have tons of super ambitious goals. They all fall under preventing human trafficking in Latin America. With my upcoming research projects in Brazil and [possibly] Colombia, in consultation with survivors , I hope to devise innovative economic opportunities that can employ women in the region thus decreasing the supply of potential victims. I've been applying to research grants that will provide the resources I need to conduct empirical research in Latin America to get a better understanding of the local context.

As you have interacted with NGO's and churches over the past few years, can you name some common misunderstandings about the issue of human trafficking?  Where do you think that the churches and NGO's are getting their misconceptions from?

Human trafficking does not equate to sex trafficking. Many western churches and NGOs sensationalize the issue and focus solely on sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is an extremely complicated and dark issue. People are trafficked for sex, forced labor, adoption, sexual tourism, organs, marriage, domestic service [ nannies] to name a few. Crudely put, where ever cheap labor or goods are needed, people are trafficked. Many churches and NGOs don’t have much information beyond what is seen in mainstream media and build intervention models around their faith or poor research. This is so dangerous! [Example of what I am talking about. I received this email and look at the photo they used.] This completely undermines their intentions. This image plays into the sensationalism of the issue by making the face of human trafficking a helpless looking, snot filled child. Very similar to the “Let’s save Africa” campaigns we are all too familiar.  
I participated in an overnight street outreach program at the 2011 Superbowl in Texas to find missing children who might be involved in the sex industry. [street outreach by people like me is something I do not recommend] I witnessed so many people wanting to just go up to girls on the street and evangelize. These were very privileged white older women who can not in any way relate to what is happening on the street. Thankfully there were people there who stopped this from happening. Human trafficking is a sensitive and complex issue that includes topics such as the right to development, business’ role in human rights, capitalism, globalization, lack of employment opportunities, armed conflict, sexual and gender discrimination, poverty, and lack of good governance. Creating interventions without understanding the bigger picture helps no one but yourself.

How can new technologies help us in our engagement with social issues?  How can they hinder us?  

Technology can be a great tool for social issues. It’s a quick and easy way to spread information and awareness on a certain issue. However, what we usually witness is that the content of what is being shared is flawed, simplistic or sensationalized. [ Ex: Invisible Children Kony 2012 ] If we could just work on making sure the content of what is being spread around is a bit more intelligent, thought out and empowering, then technology can help achieve unthinkable goals.

As I have worked closely with churches and NGO's I have witnessed a high level of very passionate people with very little information about the issues they care about and even less information about proven methodologies of engagement.  Can you speak in to why you think [Americans, in particular] continue to overlook the HOW of addressing social issues?

American exceptionalism is ingrained in our society. We think our way is the right way so we don’t need to educate ourselves on history, politics, development, gender, colonialism etc etc when addressing social issues. Our passion is enough to make the rest of the world better. We grew up hearing that all we need to change the world is passion. While passion is important, we need much much more than passion. We need to humble ourselves, we need to educate ourselves, we need to learn from the mistakes of others and we need research oriented interventions, not morality or politically based ones.

When it comes to human trafficking in particular, what are a few things that you are hopeful about?  How do you see this issue in the next 10-20 years?  What do you hope for in terms of how NGO's and churches can engage with this issue?  Describe an ideal situation that puts a dent in the statistics.

The call for more empirical research in human trafficking is finally starting to
gain some steam. There are many governments, schools, companies and organizations providing funds and capacity to researching the issue. That makes me hopeful. Assessing and understanding the issue can help us figure out effective and sustainable ways to eradicate this monster. In the next 10-20 years, I imagine everyone will know human trafficking exists. My ideal situation would be for the numbers of victims to have decreased. However, this could only happen if we end the demand for cheap labor and goods. We need to value human lives more than a cheap pair of shoes.

I hope NGOs and churches without much knowledge on the issue realize this and take their passion and talents to raise money for already existing organizations that are doing effective and sustainable work. That’s a very easy way to make a huge impact.

Any other thoughts or questions that you can leave us with to ponder?

When wanting to “do social change,” take a second and ask yourself why? 100 percent of the time there is a selfish element. It makes us feel good and have purpose. And that's totally ok. Let's just stop pretending we are being selfless in this field.

What resources can you recommend that will help us learn more so we can engage more intelligently and therefore, more compassionately, in these issues?

1. Polaris Project is a great resource on human trafficking in general. It is research oriented, not morality oriented. [which you will find a lot in this field]

2. Trafficking Roundtable is an interdisciplinary project on human trafficking.

3. Rights Work Initiative is a data base on human trafficking.

5. This article called Broadening the Lens on Human Trafficking is a great article breaking down the issue of sex vs labor trafficking

6. This article called Victims of Complacency: Trafficking and Abuse of Migrant Workers on US Military Bases is shocking but must be paid attention to.

7. The documentary: Girls LIke Us is great.

8. You should follow Women's Link on Twitter

Ana Defillo is a Venezuelan-Dominican American graduate student at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University studying international economic and political development in the Americas. 2013-2014 Boren Fellow researching human trafficking in the Americas, conducting thesis research in Brazil in 2014. Lover of Sheldon. Unapologetic feminist and queer ally, slightly obsessed with [good] television, comedy, vegan latin food, and smart, funny men in suits.

You can read more of Ana's amazingness herehereherehere, and here.  You should also click this link to follow her on Twitter.

Thanks for your comment