By Emma Haskel
I recently attended a conference hosted by the New York Anti-Trafficking Network entitled ‘Human Rights and Trafficking in Persons: Empowering Women to Address Poverty’. The event was held at the United Nations on March 15th and contained an incredible panel of influential anti-trafficking social workers, lawyers, and advocates from various organizations around the world. These panelists worked to explore the issue of human trafficking in women, children, LGBT people, and others in vulnerable situations around the world, and explored the link between human trafficking, exploitative work conditions, and economic empowerment. The panelists addressed how economic opportunity, migration law and policy, law enforcement, and even geographical location play a role in the dynamic of the labor industry, and offered rights-based solutions to the issue of trafficking, speaking on their experience working with trafficking victims and how they work to support and empower them.
One of the panelists who spoke about her experience as an avid human rights advocate was Rebecca DeSimone. Rebecca is the founder and director of the human trafficking program at an organization called My Sisters’ Place. My Sisters’ place is an organization that provides victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and human trafficking, in seeking safety, self-determination, and justice. The organization provides education and legal aid to women who experience any violations of their human rights, as well as allowing them to stay for free in a protected home funded by My Sisters’ Place for up to 120 days for free. One client that Ms.DeSimone spoke of was a client from a poverty-stricken area of a foreign nation, who was brought legally into the United States to work for a diplomat providing domestic work with a legal work visa. Her original contract stated that she would work five days a week and would be provided room and board, and this woman even left behind her two small children in hopes of being able to better provide for them from America. When this woman arrived, however, all of her documents were seized by her employer. This made her face the threat of being an undocumented immigrant and threatened her to be deported, thus posing serious ramifications for her safety and the well being of her family. She had to work seven days a week with no pay, contract, or days off. She was denied access to healthcare, endured great physical abuse, and lived in constant fear. This woman had nowhere to go, no resources or money, and was learning to speak English. She found My Sisters’ Place, entered their emergency shelter, and was immediately assigned a public defender to help her gain her rights back and to help her apply for jobs again, as well as being provided a counselor to help her learn to feel safe again. “She went from viewing herself as a victim to viewing herself as a powerful survivor,” Ms.DeSimone stated. This awe-inspiring woman is one of many whose lives My Sisters’ Place has saved, exemplifying the palpable change that this powerful organization provides to women daily.
Another incredible panelist from the parallel event was Mary Caparas the overseer of the Asian Women’s Empowerment Coalition at the New York Asian Women’s Center. 33 years ago, the founders of the New York Asian Women’s Center realized that there was a gap in services for women in the Asian community. The organization recognized a need for a branch that could provide Asian women with social services, and has been maintaining a strong effort to provide help for Asian women in recent years, opening a branch of their organization specifically to aid victims of trafficking. The organization is constantly making new strides in improving their services, even hiring an immigration attorney four years ago in order to provide legal help to their clients. Their employees speak a wide array of languages, including Vietnamese, Bengali, Korean, Cantonese, and Tegali. The organization works to provide case management and wellness practices for their clients, as well as facilitating trauma recovery through various techniques, ranging from traditional psychotherapy to therapeutic yoga. The organization works very hard to increase the clients’ senses of self advocacy and to “...help them manage their lives in a way that allows them to start healing and begin the end to their cycle of trauma,” in the words of Ms. Caparas. Many of the organization’s clients who have been trafficked have very few resources and require financial help, which the organization helps their clients fulfill by helping them find jobs. In order to help clients find jobs that they truly want rather than settling for easy jobs, they provide course development programs and English classes, leaving their door open to all Asian women who need help, trusting them and supporting them every step of the way.
Yet another panelist who spoke of her influential work was Aisha Lewis-McCoy, an Exploitation Intervention Project Attorney at the Legal Aid Society. Aisha works specifically to fight the criminalization of transgender women of color, although she provides a wide range of people with legal aid. Some of her biggest projects push for more access to condoms and sex education for young people in America, and to provide young women with the initiative to spread awareness on human rights. Ms. Lewis-McCoy’s initiative in providing her clients with help is to determine where they are and what their vision of freedom is, and to attempt to see how she and the Legal Aid Society can help them meet that goal as a defender organization. As a worker in the Legal Aid Society, Ms. Lewis-McCoy provides direct representation in human court for sex workers and victims of labor and sex trafficking. As someone is arrested for prostitution, unlicensed practice, “The Legal Aid represent them and joins them through every step of their journey with an open mind,” Ms. Lewis-McCoy states of her organization. “Most people trying to combat trafficking simply sweep up everyone in the sex trade criminalize them open them up to further exploitation,” Ms. Lewis McCoy explained. “[The Legal Aid Society] provides post-conviction relief for those who are victims of sex trafficking”. Often, victims of trafficking are trafficked by a family member or friend. Even if there is an avenue to exploit their trafficker, the victim of trafficking might not always want to do this. Ms. Lewis McCoy explained that in representing a victim of trafficking, the Legal Aid Society must keep in mind what their client’s vision of empowerment is, and must recognize that if this definition does not include bringing their trafficker to justice, the Legal Aid Society must respect that decision. The Legal Aid Society provides clients with legal and social aid, helping victims of trafficking to garner a supportive network of people and resources to help them overcome their struggles and turn their lives around.
The final panelist to present was Dhruba Prasad Ghimire, who travelled from Nepal to present at the conference. Mr. Prasad Ghimire is the general secretary of the Rural Women’s Network of Nepal, an organization whose main focus is on rural marginalized women in Nepal, providing help for women in need and advocating against violence and trafficking of women. “While there are policies against human trafficking in the government,” Mr. Prasad Ghimire explained, there are still 10-50,000 people trafficked annually in Nepal, as these policies are very hard to implement” A large majority of these instances occur in rural areas due to a lack in opportunities and education, and the traffickers are sometimes parents themselves, selling their daughters as sex traffickers for money. The Rural Women’s Network of Nepal provides loans to women in Nepal to help them get jobs and restart their lives. They train these women to gain work experience, working predominantly with women from rural areas, particularly in recent years after the tragic earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015. This earthquake resulted in the deaths of around 9,000 people as well as around 600,000 fires in houses, hospitals, and offices throughout the country. Rural areas were affected particularly harshly by the earthquake, as these areas received less help in their recovery process from the natural disaster, resulting in a rise in trafficking crimes against women in these areas as people attempted to make money that they might have lost in the earthquake.
This conference was a remarkable opportunity to hear from a multitude of pivotal advocates in the fight against trafficking, particularly in the realm of empowering women victims of trafficking. It was a particularly incredible privilege to be able to personally speak to each panelist after the conference, and I learned a great deal about the phenomenal service industries that provide help for these women daily. While the human trafficking industry continues to daunt the international market, it is individuals such as these panelists who are taking the necessary strides towards ending this issue.
By Adeline Kim
My favorite poem is Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg. In the poem, Ginsberg, a icon in the beat poetry scene of the 1950s, speaks of his wandering through the supermarket at night, following the aged Walt Whitman. I think I was always drawn to this poem in particular and other supermarket themed works such as “lost in the supermarket” by the Clash because I’ve always identified with the fundamental notion that they convey: as consumers we are lost. Especially as an adolescent, I’ve always felt like I was being manipulated by packaging and advertisement that was meticulously constructed to appeal to my greatest insecurities and deepest desires. I became even more disillusioned by my role as a consumer when I learned that I don’t actually know what it is that I am buying.
I learned about labor trafficking-both foreign and domestic- when I was thirteen. I took the slavery footprint test online, punching in the amount of clothing down to the amount of toothpaste I used, and I was horrified to be told that I had 29 slaves, or people who were forced to do the labor that went into the products I used on a daily basis. Me? A demander of slavery? Even I, whose family shopped at the local food coop, and who only consumed organic locally grown foods, was not exempt from being part of the demand for cheap products in a globalized market that resulted in the bondage of 21 million people worldwid?e. I began to do research into how I could modify my lifestyle, and how I educate others, especially people my age, about this issue.
I, along with a group of students, organized a human trafficking conference at Poly that took place on February 7th, 2016. At the conference we had eleven workshops, all focusing on different topics that fell under the macro topic, human trafficking. At the conference we had two workshops focusing on conscious consumerism as a force to end labor trafficking. The first was facilitated by Emily Lapchick, who is the program officer for UNICEF’s End Trafficking Project, and in her workshops students took the slavery footprint test that had first exposed me to the idea of conscious consumerism. The second was facilitated by Patricia Cipollitti from the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF).
I was first introduced to the Alliance for Fair Food by a mentor of mine, Mr. Sivin. The Alliance for Fair Food is a network of people working to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a completely farmer worker run organization that has established themselves as the most powerful force for labor rights in the world. Immokalee, Florida is where most of the tomatoes we buy and consume are grown. The farmworkers who pick the tomatoes in Immokalee are mostly non english speaking, migrants, many of whom are undocumented. Prior to the coalition's existence, the farmworkers had no voice and no power, and as a result, they were being exploited incredibly; they faced wage theft, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment, and in the worst cases, human trafficking. The CIW developed the Fair Food Program, which ensures that corporations pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes, thus, providing the farmworkers with the needed protections and living wages. For consumers, buying from businesses that are on board with the Fair Food Program means knowing that the tomatoes they are eating do not have the stain of human exploitation on them. In 2005, the CIW won their first major victory by getting Taco Bell to sign on to the Fair Food Program and since then they have gotten other large corporations such as McDonalds, Subway, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and even Walmart to do the same. Nevertheless, the CIW was not able to achieve these wins alone and all of these victories wouldn’t have been possible without the help of consumers. The Alliance for Fair Food and the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA) helped to bolster the calls of the farm-workers by organizing boycotts, staging protests, and educating the general public about the situation at hand.
The CIW has many accomplishments, but there is still much more to be done, and the work they do is not easy; in fact, it is sometimes dangerous. Wendy’s is the last Fast Food chain under the Yum Brands to have held out from joining the Fair Food Program, and have even, as a response to the backlash from the CIW, moved their tomato suppliers to Mexico, where labor laws are almost non-existent, allowing them to buy cheaper tomatoes with complete disregard for human suffering. The CIW, with support from the AFF and the SFA, launched the Workers Voice Tour, a tour across America to bring Wendy’s to the table once and for all. On March 3rd, they launched their tour in New York, staging a march in midtown Manhattan, and announcing their national boycott of Wendy’s. A group of four Poly students were among the protesters. We watched an incredible popular theatre performance by the farmworkers-done in both english and spanish-that depicted the history of the CIW’s battle with Wendy’s. The performance depicted the wedding of Wendy, herself, and “Mr. Exploitation.” It was clear that the culture of the farmworkers, and of the CIW as a whole, was incredibly vibrant and unwavering despite the struggles they endured. During the speeches protesters were asked “are you cold” and we responded, shouting back “QUE ES ESTO!” (what is that). We then marched to Nelson Peltz, chairman of Wendy’s, office and picketed outside. The whole experience was amazing and it was incredibly moving to see the amount of people, and even more, the types of people, who came out to support this incredible movement for labor justice. People of faith, young people, queer people, and the farmers themselves, all marching along-side each other to demand an end to exploitation of farmworkers.
As students we are often made to feel as if we have no power; we don’t have the legitimacy that comes with age and expertise to participate in social movements, and nor do we have the time, when, we should be focusing on academics and extracurriculars that will help us get into college. What I learned from witnessing the energy of this movement, on a frigid school night, was that I, and students in general, wield the potential power to create incredible change. Corporations are actually hungry for our attention and dedicate most of their resources and energy to appeal to us. If we flip the script, and demand that in order for us to trust what they are selling to us, they must meet our demands, we will end up improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who we will never meet.
My impression of the system of high school service requirement was not initially a positive one, having only witnessed it as being a fleeting opportunity for students to “contribute to their communities” and as something to add to a college resume. I had seen my siblings clock in the minimum amount of hours working at the local community garden, and while I found that to be an important venture, it just wasn't for me. I knew immediately at the first service learning class of my ninth grade year that I wanted to do something that would require dedication and would really make a difference. Most of all, I wanted to do something that really mattered to me. However, while I had an understanding of what it was that I wanted to avoid, and vaguely of what I wanted, I didn’t have an exact service plan in mind.
When I was thirteen I donated a portion of my bat mitzvah money to an organization in Cambodia that rehabilitates and protects victims of the colossal sex trafficking industry that exists there. That was my first exposure to the issue of sex trafficking, and being incredibly affected by the stories of survivors, I knew that this was something that I would contemplate for years to come. At that point, my only action in the cause against sex trafficking was a self affirming deposit, which in retrospect is quite embarrassing, but it was only the beginning to something big. A year later, my aunt Maggie, a born again christian, boasted about her mission trip to Cambodia where she incidentally volunteered at the exact same organization I had donated to. She had the most incredible time working with the director who I had written to intermittently in the years previous. That same year, in my ninth grade history class, we watched the well known Nicholas Kristof documentary Half The Sky, which featured a similar organization in Cambodia. I knew I would never have the financial means to volunteer in Cambodia, but I decided, with a classmate of mine, to start an anti-trafficking club, appropriately named “modern abolitionists”, at my school and that the purpose of the club would be to fundraise for the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center. We also talked about the issues, but the mission of the club went astray when we got absorbed by the Amnesty International Club. While leading Amnesty, I independently dedicated myself to learn more about trafficking issues and received the opportunity to attend a small conference at Convent of the Sacred Heart with a group of Poly students.
My whole world got turned upside down when I attended this conference. The focus of the conference was on a topic I was already very familiar with, sex trafficking, but it was a strain of it that I had never learned about prior to that day. It was at the conference that I learned that sex trafficking existed in my own country and city, and not only that it existed but it grossly thrived and grew exponentially in my own lifetime. Since 2007, there have been 12,588 reported cases of sex trafficking in the United States, and New York City is the most active sites of human trafficking. So, I abandoned my previously held notion that trafficking only affected girls in foreign countries with corrupt governments. The conference featured anti-trafficking icon Rachel Lloyd, sex trafficking survivor and founder of Girls Education and Mentoring Service. We also heard from a FBI agent whose vocation it was to literally save people in New York from situations of forced sexual labor. After the conference, our group of Poly students was recovering from all it had learned and been moved by, and we all were immediately wondering what it was that we could do. We reached out to the amazing student organizers of the first conference and were handed the conference torch. It was decided that we would organize the next conference. The next step required a lot of discussion about what it meant to do justice to the first conference but also to expand and improve it. We decided that we not only wanted to focus on sex trafficking, but labor trafficking as well, but that it would still maintain its geographical focus on our own city, because, after all, that aspect of the conference was what was most powerful for us. I knew that organizing a conference was going to be a lot of work but I didn’t expect to do and learn all the things that I did. I not only had to organize a cohesive group of amazing students who were all occupied with their own busy academic and extracurricular lives, but I also had to contact speakers, workshop leaders, caterers, fundraise, write grants, and manage a budget. It is important to mention that I did not do ANY of this work on my own and that my partner Annika Anderson, a senior at Poly, was like my other brain during this whole experience. While I was away at a semester program in Washington D.C. we would text each other frantically every night, frantically making sure that the other did what they needed to do. I sent out more emails than I can remember to various anti-trafficking organizations and prominent anti-trafficking activists to recruit people who could lend their expertise and experiences to the students who would attend the conference. The purpose of the workshops was to have students learn directly from people who dedicate their lives to anti-trafficking work about how they can wage their own fight against trafficking, using their agency as consumers, students, and generally skilled individuals. Additionally, a lot of research went into contacting these individuals and I wanted to make sure I was staying within the focus of the conference but that there would be an equal representation of the many issues that fall under the category of human trafficking.
We were incredibly excited to have Emily Lapchick, program officer for The U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s End Trafficking Project, and got 12 different anti-trafficking activists on board to lead workshops and participate on a panel. Most notably we had workshop leaders such as Lauren Burke, founder of Atlas DIY, a immigrant youth organization. Before the founding of her own NGO Lauren legally represented Chinese victims of sex trafficking in New York, and led a workshop titled “Investigation Station,” in which students would experience what it was like to fight on behalf of victims of sex trafficking in a court of law. Other workshops focused on agricultural labor trafficking, men’s roles in the sex trafficking industry, domestic labor trafficking, different governmental and policy based methods of fighting trafficking, conscious consumerism, signs of human trafficking, and the intersectionality of trafficking.
When the day finally came all of our hard work truly paid off. To see students from 20 different schools from around the city experiencing that same moment of awareness that I had at the first conference was an amazing sight, and there was nothing more rewarding for me to know that the work I did led attendees to contemplate their potential role in bringing an end to human trafficking. The personal significance of the conference was immense, but the knowledge and experience I gained was undeniably just as valuable. I can now say that I know how to communicate professionally, maintain a website, write a grant application (and receive one), and generally how to organize a conference from the ground up. I cannot have asked for a more worthwhile service experience, and I would recommend to any student of Poly, and not of Poly, to do the same thing for something that they feel passionately about- whether it’s human trafficking, ethical treatment of animals, immigrant rights, or racial justice. It is my true belief that we, students, are fortunate to be able to use this time in our lives to find out what it is that we care about and then subsequently use the resources available to us to address the ills of our communities and the world at large.
We are honored to report that we are the 168th winner of the $1,000 Awesome Without Borders grant!
We are going to use this money to purchase ethically-sourced food for the conference.
Thank you so much, and we're thrilled to be a part of the community of such an important organization!
See you at the conference!
By Ana Tessier, '18
Q. You studied law at NYU. Were you always interested in social justice, and did you know that you wanted to defend victims of human trafficking?
A. Social justice has always been important in my life. I actually held my first protest when I was seven years old to allow my hair to be cut, and in fourth grade I collected signatures so we wouldn't have to wear skirts on a team.
Who are some of the activists and policy workers who inspire you?
Honestly my clients are my biggest inspiration; they are so amazing. I know it sounds cheesy, but the people who I most admire are the people who are affected by these issues and who have such resilience.
Your organization (Atlas: DIY) helps empower immigrant youth. How does this connect to abolishing human trafficking?
Human trafficking isn't about the work or the conditions of the labor; it’s about taking away the humanity of an individual. It’s about not feeling free to leave and not having the power to say no, so for me empowerment is about instilling that humanity back into victims. Also, working with people who have been told they are worth nothing and teaching them to recognize their life is important is empowering.
Would you go as far as saying human trafficking is like modern-day slavery?
No. Slavery, historically, is so systematically race-based. I don't like using that term because it takes away from the very real very distinct issue that slavery was. It's like someone calling a new genocide the new Holocaust. The two share characteristics, but it’s not the same thing. Slavery was generally accepted in society, but most people today see human trafficking as an issue.
What is the benefit of helping and guiding specifically young people who come from other countries?
My background is with working with Chinese survivors. By creating a place that provides tools for safe spaces, we are helping stop further human trafficking and helping people be less vulnerable. It’s not just about legal services, it’s about giving people tools in education and self esteem.
You were profiled in Forbes’ 30 under 30 under the Law & Policy category (not to mention The New York Times and NPR). What is it like to be recognized for your work?
It’s great, I'm happy to make my parents proud and having that legitimacy certainly helps with fundraising. However, I feel bad when white people who haven't been trafficked get recognized, because we should recognize the voices of victims.
Starting your own non-profit with a few friends must have been really hard. Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs who might be interested in starting their own organization? How do you stay motivated?
Don’t listen to people who say you can’t do it. Always involve the constituents, and don't think you have to do things the way they've always been done. Speak out about it and work to change the system. If you know your startup is grounded in real needs, it's gonna work out.
What are some obstacles you have come across in your career, and how did you get past them?
The system is so stacked against innovation; it's really entrenched in the status quo. There are very hierarchal structures of non-profits, and a lot of them are not informed by the needs of the people, they're informed by the people, who have the most money to give. It has also been an obstacle to navigate how to be myself in these spaces, because sometimes it shuts down who I am at my core. I wasn't taken seriously as a young lawyer.
You also speak fluent Mandarin and are experienced in representing youth trafficked from China. Can you tell us more about the documentary, “Walking Merchandise”? How has this film influenced you?
My dating life has been more influential. My advice is to stay friends with all of your exes, because I dated this guy who actually said he wanted to make the film. The film is great because it’s really important for people's real stories to get out there, but you never want to make them [subjects in the film] feel exploited. We once had a photo shoot where a well-known photographer was photographing clients, and I called it off because he was making the girls uncomfortable.
Do you have a specific story of a victim of human trafficking, who you defended that you would like to share? And how did this case impact you?
Yes, a girl named Juliette, who is from China. She was trafficked when she was 13 to work in restaurants in Chicago, and we were able to get her out of there and sneakily bring her to New York. She was 17 at the time. We placed her in a refugee minor program, federal foster care, and she got enrolled in high school and college. It’s an incredible success story, and one of the amazing things about her story is that she was the one who got angry about what was happening and she said, “This isn't okay.” That anger about what was happening was useful. Juliette ended up studying abroad; she got to be a regular teenager. At the end of the day that's what I want for every one of my clients.