January marks Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention month, a time where local organizations and universities work to advocate for education on combatting human trafficking.
While many local organizations from the four states turn to advocating through social media campaigns, others are taking it a step further with educational events and more. Karolyn Schrage, victims response team lead with RISE Coalition, explained that while this month of awareness and prevention is important, human trafficking is a topic that should be discussed more often.
“I think from my perspective because I have seen so many faces of those that have survived, it should be human trafficking awareness every single day, not just one month out of the year,” Schrage said. “But at least one month out of the year gives us the ability to have that concentrated focus to say, ‘hey, this is a real thing,’ and it really does spark some individuals to look beyond what is happening every day to at least highlight it during this time …”
Schrage, who is also a registered nurse and executive director for Joplin’s Life Choices, said she has personally worked with a little over 170 victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking affects not only the Joplin area but also southeast Kansas (SEK), as Stephanie Spitz, Pittsburg State University (PSU) campus victim advocate, discussed. Spitz said that Pitt State’s student organization Students for Violence Prevention (SVP) is hosting multiple educational events throughout January for Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention month.
“PSU/SVP wanted to host a variety of programs, both virtually and in-person, to raise awareness of human trafficking,” Spitz said. “We were very intentional about the formats and timing of such events. And since there’s so many facets of human trafficking, we wanted to cover as many sections of that as possible. Between the social media campaigns, which students really enjoy, to the informational tablings and displays, to the documentary and art exhibit—we are hoping that individuals interested in learning more about this topic will jump into formats that best fit their availability and accessibility. No matter which way participants want to get involved, they can be educated and hopefully, in turn, become activists.”
SVP will host an art installation (which is also available online), an “Ask the artist” via Zoom with the installation’s artist Sarah Serio, a human trafficking book display, table at student fairs, and present “Red Light Green Light Documentary Screening & Discussion.” Spitz warns that each event has the potential to trigger someone and that the more visual events—like the art installation, documentary, and discussion—draw higher concern. She encourages individuals to practice grounding techniques and self-care strategies after attending the events. It is important to hold these events and start conversations about human trafficking because, in Spitz’ eyes, it is a topic that’s not talked about as much in SEK.
“It’s incredibly beneficial to hold these kinds of events for college students because they’ll be joining the work force, being propelled into ‘the real world’ and should have the tools to identify concerns that they’re seeing in their community,” Spitz said. “Human trafficking happens here in SEK too. It’s not a stranger danger type of crime, usually, it’s a crime of opportunity and power and control. Given the variety of events and ways to learn more, we’re hoping as many college students as possible take the opportunity to learn more and get involved. They can make a difference in their community. And when better than during the national human trafficking month itself?”
When working to advocate awareness and prevention for human trafficking, Schrage said it is crucial to know the red flag indicators. RISE Coalition offers informational pamphlets and brochures for the public so they may stay informed of what signs to look for. Both Schrage and Spitz namely strongly encourage: if you see something, say something. Individuals should not intervene if they see a possible trafficking situation, instead they are asked to call local law enforcement, the 24/7 National Human Trafficking Hotline, or a local coalition like RISE.
“… We are responsible because whoever that victim is, that victim is someone’s child, is someone’s mother, is someone’s sister,” Schrage said. “And so, I would just say be open to looking beneath the surface and also realizing it happens in our own backyard. The faces that I see, the situations, it’s not a big city problem, it is a problem where there is demand and there is nowhere that there isn’t demand in our state or in our surrounding states.”
When individuals become victims of human trafficking, this creates long-lasting effects on both their physical and mental health that can greatly affect their lives in the future. Schrage stated, “trauma victimization that somebody goes through if they have been a victim of modern-day slavery is going to be a very long recovery road …” She elaborated that human trafficking “impacts every sector of a person’s humanity … It affects every pervasive area of a person’s life.”
“… You’re looking at things like long-term inability to trust anyone, low self-esteem because that’s been stripped from them, it may be a response of anger and an inability to then know how to communicate well with someone because their voice has never been permitted to be heard,” Schrage said. “So, you’re looking at sometimes a diminished ability to communicate their emotions or their feelings, there can often be depression, suicidal thoughts, huge concerns about them feeling that society doesn’t care, that society wasn’t there to help them, they can feel judged …”
Spitz said it’s important to recognize Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention month especially because of the myths that surround the topic, saying, “Human trafficking happens in SEK. It happens to males too. It happens to our youth …” Schrage agreed, as she discussed that human trafficking is not “sensationalized” like people often view it as.
“… But what we sometimes don’t consider is it’s the child that’s in a classroom that’s being exchanged for drugs, for sex, or is being used as ‘well, you can have my daughter if you’ll just let me stay here, she can be my rent payment,’” Schrage said. “So, it’s not always a sensationalized, glamourized, kind of Hollywood look, but it really is that force, fraud, or coercion—and in the simplest of terms it really is anything of value in exchange for sex, or in the event of like labor trafficking where there’s not the value that’s given.”