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.