Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why we MUST get teens involved in abolition

The world of human trafficking is by nature dark and dangerous. The movement that’s emerging to improve legislation, ensure fair trade, raise awareness, free the enslaved and provide aftercare often involves intense information and action that requires an adult level of expertise. Parents, aunts and uncles, teachers and youth workers, who themselves are engaged in the movement but have typically exercised caution in what they expose their kids to, have openly wondered if anti-trafficking work crosses the line into the “wait until they’re older” category. I’m going to argue, first with two examples, and then with four reasons, that it’s not just nice to engage teens, it’s a must.

"Abolition doesn't have an age restriction."
(Students In Action page, Not For Sale website)
Sarah, age 17Sarah’s my daughter, an exceptional young woman, mature beyond her years. (Many others have said that, not just me!) Back when I was first learning that human trafficking was happening locally as well as globally, I wrestled deeply with how much I should talk about it with my kids. For the reasons I’ll elaborate on below, I chose to talk openly. Sarah was first exposed to human trafficking at age 14 in conversations around our dinner table.
Something stirred in her, and she began taking initiative, entirely self-motivated. I just provided occasional information and support: she was talking about it with kids at school, and needed more information; she was writing a research paper, and needed resources. When she was sixteen, she volunteered to be part of Amirah’s table team at a Jeremy Camp concert. At age seventeen, she rallied her band to do a benefit concert for Amirah, and organized the whole event herself (it raised $1100). She recently joined up with another group of teens (see next paragraph) from Boston who came to Amirah to help with a volunteer project.

Molly, age 16
Molly was first exposed to human trafficking as a young teenager visiting Liberia. Like Sarah, something stirred in her heart, too, and she came back to the US passionate about finding a way to make a difference. She started a group at her high school, Boston Trinity Academy, called the Freedom Project. BTA is a private Christian school with a strong bent towards exposing students to social justice issues and helping them get involved. The Freedom Project has played a significant role in raising awareness of human trafficking in the BTA community, and is now serving the larger abolition movement through their volunteer efforts. Over time, they hope to share their passion with students in other schools.
Molly came to Amirah a few weeks ago with five other students from The Freedom Project and two teachers to sort through all the clothes that have been donated and help organize our furniture. They were mature, passionate and incredibly helpful, a breath of fresh air. Now they’re asking how else they can help, and if they can sponsor a room at Amirah.
Sarah and Molly are two among thousands of teens who have already started to take their place in the movement. And for the following reasons, I’m going to argue that we need to intentionally pursue many, many more.

1. Pimps are targeting American teens.
While estimates abound and numbers differ on how many are being trafficked in the US and what their demographics are, we’re far enough along now that reliable data is beginning to emerge. The Department of Justice reports that, of the confirmed sex trafficking incidents they investigated between 2008 and 2010, 83% of the victims were US citizens, and 54% were age 17 or under (see this link, especially page 6, Table 5). That confirms what the guessers are saying: pimps are targeting American teens.
Since they are at risk, don’t we have a responsibility to talk with them about it?

2. Teens can help protect each other.
That idea of “targeting” means that pimps are actively strategizing how they can prey on vulnerable teens and lure them in. One of their many strategies in the US involves finding teens who have run away from home.
According to the National Runaway Switchboard , between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away from home each year, and one of every seven teens will run away from home at some point during their teenage years. The Polaris Project, one of the leading resources of trafficking research, says that one out of three runaway teens will be approached by a pimp within 72 hours of leaving their home (conversation with Mei Mei Ellerman, head of Polaris in Boston, April 2008).
Really, it’s not too hard to come up with a profile of what a teenage runaway would look like, and the pimps have it down to a science. The teens are vulnerable and look it, and the pimps find them and play on their pain and fear, showering them with affection and promises of security. Once lured, the pimp turns the tables, and the horror begins.
So, let’s back up a few steps. When relationships have deteriorated so much at home that a teenage girl is thinking about running away, who has enough “pull” in her life to persuade her not to do so? Not her parents. Probably not her teachers. No, it will be her peers. More likely than not, if there has been intense conflict or abuse in her home, she has probably complained about it to a friend. When she crosses a line and starts thinking about running away, friends are not only the ones most likely to hear about it, but also the ones who may have enough influence to help her think otherwise. On the one hand, if her friends don’t know about trafficking and its dangers, they may actually support her in running away, thinking it’s cool and edgy, a statement of independence. On the other hand, teens have a remarkable way of rising up to protect each other when they FEEL that danger might be imminent and real; and trafficking is a risk that has enough sobering power to make them intensely protective. As Sarah says, “trafficking takes hold of us because we know it could happen to us. Other issues we can easily dismiss, but not this one.”
So, two of the reasons are more defensive: by intentionally reaching out to as many teens as possible, we will raise their awareness in a way that will help many awful situations be avoided before they even start. But there’s more.
3. Given the chance, teens will take on significant roles in the movement right now. Among this generation of teens, many are disturbed by the world as it is and hungry to help address the social issues of our day. Some of us have missed that; in the daily flow of feeding them pizza and sending them off to play video games it hasn’t registered that they might have both the desire and the ability to get involved and take on important roles. Some schools, churches and community groups, recognizing their potential, are creating opportunities for real action. Sarah’s High School, for example, requires 40 hours of community service in order to be eligible to graduate.
From what I’ve seen, schools that include human trafficking in the mix are consistently seeing students get engaged. I’ll mention two more that will soon be helping Amirah: A group from Brookline (MA) High School is organizing a trafficking awareness event in their school that will also raise money for Amirah, and hoping it will bring in enough to buy a nice grill for our house. A group called Students Against Human Trafficking at Portsmouth (NH) Christian Academy is running a fundraiser in March, and using the proceeds to help decorate one of Amirah’s rooms.
The point is simple: given the chance, many teens will engage and take on roles that will have great impact on the movement NOW. Wouldn’t it be best to multiply these efforts? What steps forward could be unleashed if thousands more teens were engaged?

4. In 10-20 years, those who are teens now will be among the leaders of the movement...and the world.
The older I get, the more I realize that most systemic and money-driven social issues won’t be solved within one generation. The generation that starts a movement of change will inevitably have to “pass the baton” to the next generation so the change can be fully realized and established.
Down the road, those who are leading the current anti-trafficking movement will be passing the leadership of the movement to those who are now teens. Within a few years, those same teens will be making college and career decisions. Those who have been active in the movement will think of their training and jobs not just as money-makers, but as opportunities to gain leverage for the movement. In ten years, they will be the teachers, nurses, social workers, youth leaders, musicians, artists, lawyers, etc. who take prominent roles in the movement in their communities. In twenty years they will be leading their own families, businesses and governments. In thirty, they will be the leaders who shape the nation and the world. Don’t we owe it to the next generation to start preparing them now?
It felt risky to talk with my 14-year old about human trafficking. Three years later, I’m not only convinced I did the right thing for her, but for the movement as a whole. Engaging teens is a must.

Bob Atherton is Amirah's founder. After 23 years as a church pastor, Bob came on as Amirah's Executive Director of Operations in November 2011. He loves helping teens (and everyone else, too!) learn about and find their place in the movement.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this encouragement about the world of teens and social change. We owe them honesty to prevent both supply and demand in the sex industry and we need to honor the desire to be engaged in the work of justice along side adult mentors and friends.