by Brandi Nuse-Villegas
February 19 through 26 has been declared Freedom Week: End Slavery in the Central Valley by local organizations and the City of Fresno. Along with Central Valley Justice Coalition, its co-sponsors, Faith.Hope.Love, EOC Sancuary Youth Services, Central Valley Freedom Coalition, and We Are One, a growing number of groups and churches are partnering together to educate, inspire, and mobilize people in the Central Valley to address the issue of human trafficking, or modern day slavery, in our communities. This is being accomplished through a week of events scheduled to address human trafficking in a number of ways: through panel presentation by local and national experts and survivors, a arts and advocacy worship and prayer event, stirring documentaries, empowering trainings, and opportunities to go into the community and take action.
But before going into that, the foremost question in this event must be answered. Yes, slavery is happening here. And, chances are, it’s closer than you think to your life. I have been learning that progressively, and sometimes as suddenly as a sock in the gut, over the past few years. It is hard to fathom.
I first learned that slavery was happening in other countries while I was in college. A then new group called International Justice Mission, a respected organization that worked against human trafficking, came to talk at Biola University. Three years later, I read an article about the use of child slaves by all the major chocolate countries in the harvest of cacao. The published expose was telling companies to change their practices. (Ten years later, most of them haven’t made much progress). Then I learned about children being used in the heartbreaking world of sex slavery. Children as young as kindergarten students! I have learned that men, women, children, sometimes whole families are enslaved through debt bondage that is often passed onto generations, in the production of a myriad of products that we use in the U.S. The blog Globalloveshopping.blogspot.com was created as a response to this and to encourage people to buy products that provide fair employment and help prevent exploitation.
In 2009, the members of the Central Valley Justice met together to pray and consider how to take action on the issue of slavery. The group decided to focus on human trafficking within the Central Valley. I had just barely learned earlier that year, like many other people, that human trafficking was happening in the United States. In the last two and a half years, I have come to discover that slavery not only is occurring, but it is growing and it exists in every community. The challenge is that it is well hidden and it thrives, in part, because it is undetectable—most of us don’t know what it looks like. Since the development of the Fresno Police Department’s Human Trafficking Task Force and Sanctuary Teen Service’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking, 47 survivors were rescued in the Fresno/Clovis area in one year.
It is hard to fathom that not far from here there are children, men, women, whole families who are trapped in the most unimaginable abuse and physical, psychological, and emotional bondage–and they don’t even know that they are victims of a crime. They are in agricultural labor, domestic servitude (household slaves), businesses like illicit massage parlors, nail salons, restaurants, and in many forms of sex trafficking.
It is hard to fathom the possibility that a child in our neighborhood, in our classroom, in our church, or in our family could become a slave, but there are many of our communities’ children that are trapped in sex slavery. An estimated 27 million children are in slavery worldwide. It is estimated that 100,000 children from within the United States are victims of sex trafficking. The numbers are hard to grasp. Each one is a girl or boy of immense value.
Last year, I met one rescued survivor. Jessie is an incredible poet, who shared some of her poetry and her story. Jessie spent seven years of her childhood as a household slave in the home of a Clovis family. Originally from Belize, Jessie and her parents thought that the couple was to adopt her and give her a new and abundant life in the United States. That’s what the couple told her mother, playing off the difficult circumstances Jessie’s family was in. That’s also what those in Clovis believed to be true. Jessie went to Clovis schools and her teachers and school officials were also told she was adopted. Instead, she was forced to serve the family, endure their abusive treatment, and keep silent about this treatment. She never gave a reason why she couldn’t do activities with friends on weekends. She was ignored by some law enforcement. Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore. She broke her silence and a friend’s mother helped rescue her. Months later at Fresno Pacific, I heard her share with future teachers something to keep in mind. “If a student can’t explain what they do afterschool or on the weekends, that’s a sign.”
Most of the survivors from California or the Fresno area this past year were children used in sex trafficking, or basically, sex slavery. By federal definition, a person who is induced to engage in commercial sex acts by force, fraud, or coercion, and ANY person under the age of 18 who engages in commercial sex acts, regarding of means, is a victim of the form of human trafficking called sex trafficking. The average age of entry into sex trafficking in the United States is 12-14.
How does this happen? There are many factors and scenarios that are important to know. We want to educate the community through Freedom Week activities and future awareness trainings so we can be empowered and empower our children and others. The victim may be a homeless runaway who has fled an abusive situation and is offered the “protection” of a pimp, the seller. The victim may be a junior high student who falls for a “recruiter” who pretends to be romantically interested in the child and subtly works to get her separated from her family. There are also men, women, and children who are brought into our valley from other countries, often under the false pretenses of legitimate work. Traffickers trap them in abusive, dehumanizing work with a made up debt that includes interest and fees that can never be paid off. This is sometimes accompanied with threats and actual physical harm, threats to their family, and lies of what would happen if they left or sought help.
Traffickers keep victims of all forms of human trafficking enslaved by breaking them down, dehumanizing them, convincing them of the lie that they are worthless and only property, that they never can leave, and that if they attempt to leave, they will face consequences worse then their slavery. They strip them of their identity, personality, and hope. Many of those involved in buying and selling have themselves been victimized, adding to the vicious cycle of abuse.
This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We are learning how issues and practices in the community, however ignorantly, can allow slavery to exist and even thrive. What we buy may be made through the labor of someone tricked into a “good job” or through a “loan.” Simple lack of compassion, apathy, or disdain towards others and other groups of people are used to keep victims isolated and hidden.
All this may seem overwhelming. However, I went into this work with the hope and belief that slavery can be ended, because it is the heart of Christ, as the God of Justice, to end slavery and all forms of oppression and to set things right, according to His mercy and compassion. I believe God desires and is working to bring justice into the community. In the last year alone, I’ve seen and heard many things that have added to that hope. More people are being rescued. Churches and communities are embracing this issue and are beginning to seek how to respond to it. We are seeing people’s mindsets change and their hearts softened. I have seen partnerships building up among people in human trafficking work, foster care organizations, in those who reach out to the offenders, people in law, education, etc. Worldwide, businesses have changed their practices to have zero tolerance of labor exploitation because their customers asked for it. There is a growing network of people who are helping in ending trafficking in their communities.
Human trafficking feeds off injustices and issues that God wants to address in and through His people. I believe that He is leading communities into something greater, where the vulnerable will not only be kept from human trafficking, but they will be surrounded by a caring and loving community. Traffickers want us to believe that this cannot be stopped and cannot be changed. We have much to learn and many needs to be met, but we can be confident that, by grace, they are wrong.
Freedom Week activities will be happening throughout Fresno, Visalia and Dinuba. They will give the community opportunities to engage the issue in creative ways. Since our goal is to empower the community and to help participants discover how they can best respond and engage beyond this special week, there will be information and many resources available.
Here is a rundown of the events during Freedom Week:
Fueling Hope: Raising Awareness on the Reality of Sex Trafficking
Sunday, February 19, 6:30 p.m. at The Bridge, 3438 E Ashlan, Fresno 93726
The Bridge is hosting a panel of international and local human trafficking experts to address the problem as well as the hope of the local human trafficking issue. Speakers include FPD Sergeant Curt Chastain, Central Valley Against Human Trafficking Director Ronna Bright, and others.
Prayer for JUSTICE/Human Trafficking
Monday, February 20, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m., Fresno H.O.P.E Firehouse prayer room, 2767 E. Shaw #106 facility, near CSUF
Fresno H.O.P.E. is focusing on concerning human trafficking every Monday and will have a special Freedom Week prayer time with Central Valley Justice Coalition leaders.
Nefarious Movie Screening
Monday, February 20, 7:00 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., Northpointe Church campus, 4625 W. Palo Alto Ave. Fresno.
Nefarious explores and exposes the disturbing trend of sex slavery and its impacts on those involves, with accounts by survivors, humanitarian workers, and former traffickers, and their testimonies of freedom. Event will conclude with time of intercessory prayer. Material may be particularly disturbing to some viewers and is not recommended for those under 17. http://nefariousdocumentary.com/
Sex +Money Documentary Screening
Wednesday, February 22, 7:00 p.m., Fresno Pacific University, Ashley Auditorium
Sex+Money is a documentary about domestic minor sex trafficking and the modern-day abolitionist movement fighting to stop it. Please RVSP at firstname.lastname@example.org
3rd Annual Conference on Human Trafficking, “Slavery Shall Not Exist”
Thursday, February 23, 8:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Park Central Hotel, 3737 North Blackstone Ave., Fresno
A conference for social services providers and law enforcement personnel.
Email Ronna.Bright@fresnoeoc.org for more information and to register.
Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Prevention Training
Thursday, February 23, 6:00 p.m., Fresno Pacific University, SCC 103/Cafeteria
A training provided by Faith.Hope.Love to understand the tricks used to lure minors into sex trafficking and the signs that indicate that a minor may be a victim of human trafficking. This training is highly recommended for people connected with foster care, education, health care, as well as parents, churches, and anyone who interacts with minors. Please RVSP at email@example.com
“We Are One”
Friday, February 24, 7:00 p.m., Wilson Theatre, 1445 Fulton St, Fresno, CA 93721
We Are One is a worship, arts, and advocacy event focused on bringing the church together and seeking God’s heart concerning the reality of human trafficking in our communities. There will be info booths and other resources as well. Hosted by Cornerstone Church
Just Act! Saturday, Feb 25, 9:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Gather at designated locations to take action against slavery in our cities. For more details, see: http://freedomweekcv.wordpress.com/just_act/