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What’s new in Anti-Trafficking? Takeways from the 17th Annual Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference

By Bailey Johnson '21, Jennifer Sobnosky '21, Tony Talbott

The 17th annual Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference hosted by the University of Toledo presented ample opportunity to explore rising trends in anti-trafficking. HRC team members share three takeaways from the conference.

As with all conferences of this scale, the 2020 University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference took place under unprecedented circumstances this year. In the past 17 years of this conference, participants of the conference were used to making the drive (or the flight) out to Toledo, shuffling through jam-packed hallways to make it to registration, pick up a paper schedule and usually other conference goodies, and then mozy around to our scheduled workshops throughout the day, with plenty of time in between to enjoy lunch and networking with other conference-goers. This year, conference organizers went virtual—and it was still an insightful event. 

Throughout the three days, participants joined workshops, welcoming sessions, lunch programs, networking chat rooms, and even virtual displays of art galleries from the University of Toledo. The conference was the largest and most diverse it had ever been, with more than 100 presenters and 2,300 total attendees, coming from 43 U.S. states and 19 countries. 

Of the worlds of knowledge presented throughout the conference, here are a few key trends of anti-human trafficking theory and practice highlighted:

1. Increasing diversity of both the variety of the content available to anti-trafficking scholars and practitioners and diversity in the representation of vulnerable populations in anti trafficking scholarship and practice

The field of anti-trafficking work is expanding and remains dynamic. For instance, there were numerous networking opportunities available to conference attendees, specifically tailored to anti-trafficking niches such as survivors, direct service providers, law enforcement, researchers, and more. Workshops were tailored to a variety of experience levels in the anti-trafficking field, whether for concerned citizens with little knowledge or experience of anti-trafficking work, or for advanced researchers looking to gain insight into emerging research mechanisms and techniques. Each workshop had something unique to offer to participants, whether it be new ideas or new skills. Dr. Celia Williamson said it best on her 65th episode of Emancipation Nation: “Two people could come to the conference and experience two very different conferences.”

More critical still, many of the workshops featured the diverse perspectives of historically marginalized populations in human trafficking, including racial minorities and the LGBTQ+ community. Such populations experience vulnerabilities that are specifically exacerbated and exploited by traffickers. For instance, high rates of homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth mean that traffickers can exploit this vulnerability in order to coerce and force victims to remain dependent on them. Moreover, well-meaning anti-trafficking advocates have provoked unintended negative consequences because  of their own ignorance of the particular vulnerabilities experienced by these groups. For instance, anti-trafficking imagery has historically and overwhelmingly white-washed its representation of survivors. The result is many black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) do not identify with this imagery, and become discouraged from seeking out resources from advocates in the field. These and many other issues involving diverse marginalized groups were highlighted to provide anti-trafficking scholars and practitioners with the knowledge and tools they need to increase positive impact and reduce harm in these communities.

2. Increasing utilization of survivor’s lived experiences as both a valued and critical resource of expertise in anti-trafficking work

“Lived-experience experts” took center stage at the conference. There were several sessions led by survivors—and even one by a former pimp. Additionally, advocates spoke of the importance of including those with lived experience of human trafficking in every aspect of the work: from initial planning to implementation to assessment. 

For example, Harold D’Souza, a survivor of labor trafficking, spoke passionately about helping other survivors and how he saw himself in them. He spoke about the uncertainty and the stress it causes while waiting for a determination of status for migrant victims. Still, he stated that “The greatest joy in my life is seeing my kids being able to eat.” 

Another ‘lived experience’ expert is Armand King, a former pimp turned community activist, who detailed how the War on Drugs and the criminalization of the Black male limited his opportunities and role models. By the age of sixteen, he and his male and female friends had turned to commercial sex to make a living. Now decades later he is back in the same neighborhoods with programs designed to offer youth the opportunities he lacked.

“Nothing about us without us” is the rallying call of disability rights activists. This is true for the anti-trafficking field as well. Valuing lived experience empowers and legitimizes the voices of survivors and the substantive involvement of these experts can greatly improve the impact of programs. 

3. Major advances in technology and investigative tools for the purposes of anti-trafficking research and law enforcement investigations

Though still niche, scholarship on technology and investigative tools for the purposes of anti-trafficking research and investigations is an emerging force in the field. The implications of this growing professional community are critical in the fight to end trafficking. Specifically, technology can help identify the underlying mechanisms of human trafficking in order to stop it.

There were three common areas explored: remote sensing, data analytics, and systems thinking. Remote sensing involves the use of technology such as satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software in order to determine what is happening at a particular location and at a particular time. Data analytics is the process of utilizing and working with data, oftentimes through the use of complex software, in order to draw conclusions. Finally, systems thinking involves the intense scrutiny of complex systems, such as the supply and demand model of human trafficking, to draw conclusions. 

Particularly notable is the increase in data mining in instances of labor trafficking. This is a major advancement in the anti-trafficking field as labor trafficking has been traditionally quite difficult to identify. There is less education and resources for labor trafficking compared to sex trafficking in the state of Ohio. Using remote sensing technology such as drones to collect crop and labor data, professionals can often identify potential sites of labor trafficking in the agricultural industry. Advancements in technology and investigative tools are imperative for overcoming challenges in identifying instances of labor trafficking.

Finally, Tony Talbott received the Champion for Human Rights and Social Justice Award. The award is given to someone who dedicates a significant amount of time, effort, and resources to advocating for vulnerable populations. As the Director of Advocacy for the Human Rights Center and co-founder and director of the nearly 10-year-old anti-human trafficking coalition, Abolition Ohio, Tony more than meets these criteria. From state-wide advocacy and awareness-raising to mentoring a generation of anti-human trafficking professionals to critical research on commercial sexual activity in Dayton and beyond, he has truly done it all. His accomplishments are exemplary for all aspiring anti-trafficking and social justice advocates.

Bailey Johnson is a Graduate Assistant for the Human Rights Center and a student in the MPA program.

Jennifer Sobnosky is a senior Human Rights Studies major, with minors in Political Science and Pre Law. She works with Abolition Ohio as an intern at the Human Rights Center. 

Tony Talbott is the Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Center and the co-founder of Abolition Ohio, the anti-human trafficking coalition of the Miami Valley.

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