"Breaking the Chains" with the College's Fourth Annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day

On Thursday, October 10, Community College of Philadelphia held its fourth annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Students, faculty and staff organized a series of four events, which brought to campus the narratives of human trafficking victims, as well as the expertise of those who work in the field.

Standing nearly 70 strong on the steps of the Mint Building at 11 a.m., students faculty and staff, took part in a “Human Trafficking Awareness: Break the Chains” demonstration.

“Today we want to talk about breaking the chains and bringing awareness because people think it’s everywhere else, not in this country, but it’s happening [everywhere],” said Sociology professor Nicole Vadino, who helped to organize the day’s events, along with faculty and staff Faye Allard, Edite Burnbaum, Rosetta Robinson, Ari Bank, Deirdre Garrity-Benjamin and William Love.

Leading a call and response chant, Vadino cried “Stop human trafficking!” while demonstrators replied, “Do something now!”

Afterward, the demonstrators held a moment of silence, which lasted exactly 26 seconds. Why 26 seconds? Because, Vadino explained, “every 26 seconds someone is trafficked.”

Demonstrators held up handmade posters which displayed powerful quotes and messages. Linking everyone together was a long yellow chain representing the victimization, subjugation and exploitation that we all must work together to shatter.

Stories from those in the Field

The Great Hall was standing room only for the third event of the day, “Stories from Those in the Field.” Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lori Dumas, Dr. Ellyn Jo Waller and Melany Nelson sat on a panel to discuss the impact of human trafficking on legal, social and support systems in Philadelphia.

Each expert began by telling her own story of how she first became involved in the fight against human trafficking in Philadelphia.

After traveling to aid in the fight against human trafficking overseas, Waller joined the Philadelphia Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition in 2009, and in 2011 started “She’s My Sister”, the Anti-Human Trafficking Ministry of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. Through She’s My Sister, Waller partners with organizations like the Salvation Army and Covenant House to spread awareness and raise money to end human trafficking and support victims here in Philadelphia.

Dumas explained that her work within the Philadelphia Court system began with Waller’s ministry at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. She went on to create the Working to Restore Adolescents’ Power (WRAP) program within the Philadelphia Court system. One of the first of its kind in the United States, WRAP diverts children towards the child welfare system rather than the adjudicatory system when the crimes committed are a direct result of their sexual exploitation. She also travels to different jurisdictions to help other courts develop similar programs.

Melany Nelson is the Executive Director of Northwest Victims Services (NWVS) in Philadelphia, and has been involved in the organization for more than 27 years. With NWVS, Melany helps victims of assault, homicide, robbery, etc., with unpaid medical bills, lost time from work, funeral expenses, counseling, relocation, appearance in court and anything else with which victims require assistance. Nelson also played a huge role in making this event possible.

Dumas, Waller and Nelson discussed a number of common misconceptions and oversights which prevent society as a whole from understanding that human trafficking has roots in our own communities and in each of our individual lives.

“One of the things that people tend to do is shy away from the issue of human trafficking for a number of reasons. A: nobody wants to believe it really happens, B: because if we’re honest, every single one of us somehow participates in the need for the exploitation of others.” said Waller. She encouraged audience members to go to slaveryfootprint.org, where there is a quiz which gives users an estimate of just how many human trafficking victims are being exploited by the systems which support their lifestyle.

According to Waller, there is also lack of visibility and recognition for what victims of human trafficking look like within our community. Citing movies like Taken, she described how the media’s depiction of human trafficking portrays victimization as “someone randomly being snatched.”

It isn’t uncommon for the mainstream media to portray some of the darker issues within society through a single perspective, and human trafficking is no exception. Waller explained, “We tend to only care when she looks like [the woman in Taken]. So we’ll be real, if she is white and affluent, we care. If she is brown or black and struggling, it’s ‘those fast brown and black girls’. We’ve got to break the mold of pretending, A: that it doesn’t happen and B: that victims aren’t victims regardless of where they come from.”

Contrary to the plot of Taken, the panel experts explained that human trafficking is often perpetrated by someone who is not a stranger to the victim. Because of the coercive nature of those who perpetuate human trafficking, victims are often unaware of the fact that they are being abused, or accept abuse because the perpetrator claims to hold their best interest.

Men and boys are often overlooked as victims as well. Waller stated that because our society often tells boys and men that they are expected to seek out sexual exchanges, they often have a more difficult time identifying that they are being abused or seeking help.

As age-old as the issue of human trafficking is, Philadelphia courts had never seen a conviction for adult sex-trafficking crimes until this past August.

Dumas described another hurdle in identifying human trafficking victims, saying “There was a time when a lot of our victims weren’t seen as victims. We have a lot of kids [in WRAP] who were also there because they had committed a crime…well they were victims in my eyes because they were human trafficking victims, but in the [eyes of the] system they were not…so even if they had committed a crime against someone who was abusing them or trafficking them, it didn’t matter. They weren’t able to benefit from services or from funding because they weren’t [considered] victims. So we’ve come a long way as a jurisdiction, and now they can receive services.”

The panel of experts encouraged young people to resist the idea that they are powerless in the fight against human trafficking, and to use whatever resources they have access to as a vehicle for spreading awareness. Highlighting things that people can do other than donate money, Waller told the audience; “use your social media to talk about it, figure out ways to use these different [methods] to talk about it amongst your friends.”

As shown through their dedication to public education and policy reform, the panel experts made it clear that prevention and restorative justice lie at the core of their work.

As a part of her ministry, Waller hosts events that bring educational materials like the documentary Stopping Traffic to her community. She encourages parents to begin talking to their children as soon as they reach an appropriate age, and believes that “one of the most important things that prevent children from becoming victimized is an open relationship with a parent”. She also advocates for parents to keep a close eye on the online activity of their teens and children.

According to the 2019 Trafficking in Persons report issued by the U.S. Government, “victims originate from almost every region of the world; the top three countries of origin of federally identified victims in FY 2018 were the United States, Mexico and the Philippines.” By spreading stories and educational information, the College’s fourth annual Human Trafficking awareness day reminded students, faculty and staff that the issue of human trafficking is as misunderstood as it is persistent. A victim of human trafficking could be your neighbor, your friend, your classmate, your student or your relative. The events on Human Trafficking Awareness day made clear the fact that we are all responsible for educating ourselves and those around us about the dangers and realities of human trafficking.

To learn more about anti-human trafficking efforts in Philadelphia, you can access information online through the Philadelphia Anti-Trafficking Coalition.

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888.