How Learning About Human Trafficking Changed my Life
Having grown up in the small, suburban town of Kingwood, Texas, my education ingrained an everlasting concept of Texas pride into me. Some may label this pride as indoctrination. I smile at this label and instead refer to it as fervent “Texas nationalism.” In my 7th grade Texas History class, I was taught that my beloved state fought diligently for independence at the Alamo and even harder for secession during the Civil War. Texas fought for what it believed to be best for its livelihood; and during the 1800s, Texas was fighting for the survival of its powerful economy, one that unfortunately relied on slave labor.
Because of the unyielding pride we have for our state or nation, it is hard to convict ourselves of our transgressions. We are always greater than we think, more righteous in our ways than we truly are. We fail to understand the atrocities around us, both past and present, because we would rather pretend they do not exist than grapple with the psychological turmoil their recognition brings. I have come across this life-altering realization upon learning about human trafficking in the United States. I have learned that slavery is alive and well in the country I am so proud to be a part of, a country that falls short on its promise of guaranteeing “freedom for all.”
Over the course of my life, I have witnessed many educators and public speakers refer to slavery in the U.S. as a “past” transgression. The nation as a whole seems to believe that slave labor existed solely in the 1700s and 1800s, and has ceased to exist since the enactment of the 13th amendment, which prohibited slave labor in the U.S. Accordingly, modern slavery is largely trivialized due to the belief that slavery is a sin which has already been purged from the national conscience. Unfortunately, we refuse to acknowledge that we are still complicit in the proliferation of an industry that flourishes on ignorance and silence.
Slavery’s presence in American looks far different today than it did roughly two hundred years ago; it has expanded from southern cotton plantations to just about every street corner, run-down massage parlor, advertisement page, and internet dating site. Moreover, modern slavery can affect any person regardless of their race, ethnicity, or religious background. According to Polaris, a leading anti-human trafficking non-profit in the U.S., there is no official estimate for the number of people enslaved in the U.S. However, according to the book The Slave Next Door by Kevin Bales, more people are enslaved today than were enslaved during the entire three hundred and fifty years of the Atlantic slave trade. Specifically, more than double of those who were taken from Africa during the 16th to 19th centuries are currently enslaved in the world, fettered to a system of coercion and servitude.
Due to the hidden, underground nature of human trafficking, there is no definitive way of knowing how many people this industry harms. Despite this dearth of precise knowledge, however, I understand how human trafficking is a problem that threatens developed, “free countries” like the U.S. I have learned that some of the largest, most pervasive problems cannot be quantified because they are entrenched so deeply in a society that is ignorant to slavery’s firm grasp on it. The problem of human trafficking is unfortunately blanketed in obscurity and clouded by our ignorance and indifference.
Like any other issue, we cannot begin to fight against a problem that is grossly unacknowledged, misunderstood, and underestimated. Human trafficking is fighting for the basic right of recognition that it is a problem. Only until we open our eyes to this issue and root out the indifference that is in our hearts, will slavery have a chance at being expunged from this world. Recognizing and caring about this issue will force us to confront a gross discomfort that has largely been shielded from our eyes. However, the recognition of this discomfort is required for progress to be made. After all, isn’t the first step towards seeking help grounded in acceptance? We can see this in movie scenes where people walk into AA meetings and introduce themselves as, “Hi, I’m _____ and I’m an alcoholic.” The first step towards curing grief is similarly listed as uprooting “denial” for “acceptance.” We must accept the problems around us before we can attempt to remedy them. After my eyes were illuminated to the issue of human trafficking in my home state of Texas, which receives the second highest number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, I began to understand how crucial advocacy is.
Issues like human trafficking, which are often relegated to the dark, are brought to the public spotlight through advocacy work. Individuals like myself must advocate on behalf of the issue before a politician will craft legislation to combat it or even before civilians will begin to understand why this is a cause worth fighting for. Because I live in a country that elects representatives, I understand that political agendas are shaped by public attitudes. As representatives, elected leadership must cater to the people’s needs or else they would stand little chance of being re-elected. The fact that U.S. legislators are not prioritizing and funding anti-human trafficking legislation is indicative of public indifference towards the issue. This indifference is the root of the problem; we must speak out if we wish to be heard. Our silence is too costly.
One of the first steps toward breaking this silence is education. My view of human trafficking had, for the most part, been skewed by watching movies like Taken and television dramas like Law and Order: SVU. Although these films expose the public to the issue of human trafficking, they fail to portray the extent to which it affects the U.S. These films and television shows simplify trafficking to acts of sexual violence perpetrated by older, middle-aged men, or wealthy foreign diplomats. Such a portrayal undermines the gross reality that traffickers can be both men and women, including the people we know or people we casually swipe past on dating apps. These traffickers target the naivete of those who misunderstand and downplay the threat of human trafficking in society. As I learned more about human trafficking through my involvement in International Justice Mission’s chapter at the University of Texas at Austin, I knew I found a calling. After my freshman year of college, I promised myself that I would do everything I could to fight against this modern-day injustice.
Upon realizing my duty to be an advocate for freedom, my day-to-day activities began to change; I was illuminated to a problem I could no longer ignore. I now strive to be a conscious consumer of what I buy; if anything is too cheap at a store, I understand that slave labor most likely drove the price down. I also understand that human trafficking runs rampant in crowded, over-populated cities like Austin, Texas. Because of this proximate threat, I take the necessary precautions to guard myself against human traffickers on a daily basis. Popular musical festivals and sporting events are a prime hub for traffickers to recruit, kidnap, and exploit young women like myself. I make sure that I stay near my friends at crowded venues. I refuse to walk alone at night and make sure my friends know when they can expect me back at the apartment. I trust my gut when it tells me something looks “off.” All of these realizations come with the knowledge that slavery is thriving in the city I live in.
I am also on the constant pursuit to educate others. Whether this is through explaining my participation in the annual Dressember challenge or talking to people about my work experience in the human rights field, I strive to let others know about the anti-human trafficking cause and how they can become involved. Most people who I talk to about my work for the Dressember Foundation refer to human trafficking as “sad” and remark that “someone has to stop it.” They thank me for my involvement but express little interest in becoming involved themselves. Why can we, for the most part, agree that slavery is wrong yet fail to do anything about it?
Learning about human trafficking is like receiving a new pair of eyes. These eyes can see past the facade of freedom and beneficence that is championed by most governments and into the reality that is human trafficking. These eyes see the world for what it is; broken and grossly lacking in freedom. However, all that is broken can be healed with proper care and attention. Hence, the first steps toward ending this injustice is through raising awareness, advocacy, and education. Through my writing and research abilities, I have learned how to wield my strengths in the fight against modern slavery. My position as an editorial intern for the Dressember Foundation has allowed me to use my voice to advocate on behalf of those who are silenced by this debilitating industry.
I rest in peace knowing that my passion for law, policy, and research can be used in not only my future career, but also for my desire to see slavery end. I believe that we can all use our skills, whatever they may be, to fight against an industry that is fueled by apathy and indifference. We all have a role to play in addressing this miscarriage of justice that envelops our world; and by adopting our role as freedom fighters, I firmly believe that my generation can be the one to finally make a stand against modern-day slavery.
This year, do something different. Take on the Dressember style challenge and pledge to wear a dress or tie every day in December. You'll challenge yourself, learn more about the issue of human trafficking and have a viable impact on those trapped in slavery around the world.
Registration opens October 1st, 2018
About the Author
Sarah Beech is a Junior at the University of Texas at Austin who is studying psychology and government. She is most passionate about fighting against the various human rights abuses that occur around us. In her free time she likes to watch Netflix, hang out with her friends, and try new restaurants. Her favorite quote is, "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" (from A Cinderella Story).