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The Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center holds monthly vigils against human trafficking at Seattle's Westlake Center. Photo courtesy IPJC.

The Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center holds monthly vigils against human trafficking at Seattle's Westlake Center. Photo courtesy IPJC.


Human Trafficking: Activism Explosion

Sara Lerner

From bake sales to running events to political schmoozing, anti–human trafficking activism is exploding. We'll look at why awareness is rising, who's involved, and whether efforts are being focused in the right areas.


Today we continue our series on human trafficking in Washington State. Earlier this week we met former State Representative Velma Veloria who talked about efforts to fight human trafficking.

Veloria: "Suddenly there's a lot of activism around it. That's what I wanted! I'm excited I got the work started, okay, and now it's up to the activists around this issue to continue and move it forward."

And move it forward they are. Activism around human trafficking is exploding.

It's a sunny, hot day in Seattle. In Magnuson Park, a band cranks out tunes on a temporary stage to a crowd in running shoes. They've already finished the fundraising walk. Tables with green awnings surround them, offering baked treats, flyers, T–shirts, water.

Maxwell: "Good stuff. Alright everybody thank you so much we have a dance troupe coming up next."

On stage now, Mandy Maxwell. For months, she's been planning today's money raiser for Stop Child Trafficking (SCT) Now. It's a nonprofit based in New York.

Maxwell: "We're gonna have William Dumps. He's amazing. You can hear him on the radio on C89.5 on the gospel show on Sunday and I highly recommend you listen."

A year ago, Maxwell was jogging with a friend when he told her about SCT Now. He said they wanted a Seattle ambassador. Maxwell didn't even know about human trafficking but she heard a few statistics and —

Maxwell: "I was like, um, no, this is not okay. "

Things like —

Maxwell: "There are about 2.5 million children being sold and traded for sex. There are 27 million people enslaved around the world."

Some lower estimates put it at 12.3 million.

Next thing she knew, Maxwell had agreed to produce this event: insurance, food, beverages, speakers. She found a partner to help. And before she arrived this morning, they'd already raised $13,000.

Maxwell: "If this is how all events go I'm just, sign me up. I'm in awe. People stayed til the end. The bands all showed up. We didn't have any injuries. The walk was a success. The weather! I have a farmer's tan and I love it."

The kids dance troupe finishes and the gospel band is rolling. Fighting human trafficking is so popular in Maxwell's religious scene that she almost feels like she's following a fad. But she says, whatever it takes.

Maxwell: "Honestly, if it wasn't for the community I still would be, I would still have the wool pulled over my eyes. I wouldn't know about this issue."

Morris: "It's definitely a hot topic right now."

Kathleen Morris heads WARN, the Washington Anti–trafficking Response Network.

Morris: "We definitely have seen a big spike of interest in the faith–based communities and I think it makes perfect sense. The abolitionist movement of the 19th century started in churches."

It's the same cloudless Saturday. But Morris is standing in a different park, fifteen miles away. A few minutes ago a different group of runners took off, also working up a sweat to fight human trafficking. Now we're at the Freedom 5k on Bainbridge Island: same day, same metropolitan area, same cause.

Morris: "Luckily we have gorgeous weather."

The runners are gone, for now. A band warms up on stage and Morris dashes off to find an ATM so she can buy a T–shirt.

Morris: "It's not raining. And bunch of people ran for us to raise money to support our clients."

Half of the funds from today's Freedom 5K will go to WARN. That's exciting for Morris because oftentimes locally–raised money goes to international organizations. Morris is hurrying so she can get back in time to see her colleagues cross the finish line.

We pass a table with handcrafted jewelry, made by former sex workers in Thailand, participants in a program run by an evangelical ministry.

Locally one Jewish group is actively fighting human trafficking as well as a few individuals who aren't connected to any faith–based organization. But the majority of the activity comes from the Christian community from a variety of denominations.

Morris has concerns about the local activism. She worries that much of it focuses on sex trafficking while she's seen more labor cases. The International Labour Organization which is a U.N. agency puts commercial sex trafficking at only 11 percent of forced labor worldwide.

Morris is also concerned that all this movement will fade away. But she's quick to say she applauds any effort against human trafficking.

Morris: "I'm not sure where the, you know, where the passion for it comes from, but I'm not gonna question it. We'll take the interest while it's here and hopefully we'll be able to maintain the level of interest we have now."

It's tough to pinpoint why there's so much activity around this issue now. The federal act that made human trafficking a crime played a part. It passed ten years ago, and it is significant human rights legislation. The law includes provisions that withhold foreign assistance from countries that don't do enough to eliminate human trafficking. The law also led to the creation of the annual Trafficking in Persons report, which rates nations on their efforts to thwart this problem.

A nonprofit called International Justice Mission (IJM) may have also brought momentum to the religious activist movement. IJM was the first to hire attorneys and social workers to prosecute perpetrators. They work closely with law enforcement in foreign countries. IJM's methods have received criticism from some victim's rights advocates for cooperating with corrupt police rather than the sex workers themselves and for disrupting HIV prevention. Many of the international groups are criticized for incorporating proselytizing into their work. IJM's policy is to never do so but is to hire only Christian staff.

IJM's budget ten years ago was $500,000. It's since shot up to more than $21 million. Many of the activists in the Seattle area raise money for IJM. Like the band playing right now. Jubilee is an actual 501c3–registered indie rock band. They send half their CD sales and 10 percent of their show earnings to IJM.

Morris and I are still walking. She spots Rosie Ludlow who organized today's run.

Morris: "Do you know where there's a cash machine?"

Ludlow: "Oh! Yeah. Okay so in the grocery store?"

Morris: "Oh, right here? "

Ludlow: "It should take you five minutes to walk up there and five minutes back."

Ludlow and a friend of hers thought up the Freedom 5K.

Ludlow: "Awareness was our main factor of why we started it."

Lerner: "What do you want people to know? "

Ludlow: "I want people to know that human trafficking is happening in their backyard, like, literally. And when I say in their backyard, it could be happening on Bainbridge Island. Also it's really important for legislative purposes, for the public to be motivated to do something about it otherwise the political system won't change anything."

Activism also happens inside the political circle.

It's October. At the Showbox Sodo in Seattle, the Asian and Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center hosts its annual fundraising dinner. Former Washington state representative Velma Veloria sits at a table up front. She was instrumental in passing the first bill in the country making human trafficking a crime on the state level.

It's campaign season and she's invited two of the Seattle port commission candidates to the dinner. She wants them on board with the anti–trafficking cause. One, Rob Holland, just arrived and joined Veloria's table. It's something he couldn't miss.

Holland: "When Velma says come somewhere, I show up. But, I'm very interested in learning more about the issue so..."

Human trafficking is the theme of the night, and it's not long before the table conversation turns to it. Holland tells Veloria it doesn't come up on the port commission campaign trail. But for her, that's not enough.

Veloria: "But the thing too is that you don't raise it."

Holland: "Okay."

Veloria: "You don't put it up you know what I mean?"

Holland: "Right."

Veloria: "So like I never got an opportunity to tell you about it when you came to the Filipino community because there was no room. There was no room to say, hey, Rob, what do you think about human trafficking?"

Holland: "Right."

Perpetrators sometimes use the port to bring victims in. It could be slipping through Sea–Tac airport legally or as stowaways on ships through Puget Sound. Either way, the port is part of the equation.

Veloria tells Holland why she's trying to stay close to the issue.

Veloria: "If you're gonna reform the port, part of it has to do with making sure that people know about human trafficking."

Holland went on to win a Seattle port commissioner spot. His bio on their website touts his efforts to fight human trafficking. So far, since his election, the Port hasn't made any changes but Holland says they're coming soon.

But there is some concrete political action. This year the legislature passed two bills tied to human trafficking and is still considering two more. They include training for correctional personnel and the placement of signs at rest stops along I–5 in hopes of reaching out to victims. Meanwhile, last year: King County won the first human trafficking conviction in the state.

Still, there are estimates of as many as 17,000 victims in the U.S. every year, yet only a fraction have been officially identified. Our state task force has identified only 70 over the last two years.

Mandy Maxwell and Rosie Ludlow are just a few of the local activists stepping up in droves. With all this effort, the hope is that the men and women and children stuck in slavery in Washington state and around the world will also be able to come forward.

I'm Sara Lerner for KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

This is part four in a four–part series on "Human Trafficking in Washington State."