In America's small towns and big cities, in fields and on construction sites, in restaurants and bars, homes, and local businesses, slavery still exists in a pernicious, often-hidden form. Exploited for their labor and for sex, human trafficking victims are men, women, and children. There is no one race, face, or nationality.
Nor is there a single solution to the problem, given the different circumstances of human trafficking and the different needs of survivors. Yet funding for anti-trafficking efforts over the last fifteen years has mainly flowed through the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, with an emphasis on strengthening a federal and local law enforcement approach and ensuring that victims receive services. Local efforts have also focused on large police operations to combat sex trafficking. Much less has been done to identify and respond to labor trafficking, which is often misunderstood or mischaracterized as employment disputes.
In an effort to develop and spur bold, cross-sectoral approaches to the challenge of ending human trafficking in all its forms, Humanity United, in 2013, launched the Partnership for Freedom, a public-private partnership aimed at catalyzing new ideas, data, commitments, and actions in the anti-trafficking movement through three "innovation challenges." In our third and final challenge, Pathways to Freedom, Humanity United and the NoVo Foundation, in collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities, challenged the twenty-four 100RC member cities in the U.S. to propose a holistic, comprehensive approach to the problem of trafficking. We are pleased to announce that three of those cities — Atlanta, Chicago, and Minneapolis — have been invited to partner with us to tackle this pressing challenge.
To support the three cities as they develop and implement citywide plans to address labor and sex trafficking and better support survivors, Pathways to Freedom will award each city funding for a senior fellow for two years who will serve directly at the highest levels of municipal government. The fellow will work across multiple city agencies and with a range of community stakeholders. Each winning city also will receive technical assistance to fill knowledge gaps with respect to labor trafficking.
The challenge is designed to help cities develop a comprehensive response to human trafficking. Survivors, as well as those at risk of trafficking, often cycle in and out of city services and municipal-level systems such as housing, public health, and labor enforcement. At the same time, people exposed to trafficking often have complex histories that require a more holistic response than currently exists. To truly help survivors and victims of trafficking, an effective approach must involve more than just one system.
Unfortunately, a multi-faceted approach is even more urgently needed as the threat of deportation and anti-immigrant rhetoric increases and trafficking victims increasingly fear the systems that should be protecting them. In such an environment, immigrant communities may become even more vulnerable to trafficking and less likely to seek help from law enforcement, report their trafficker, or access services.
In the coming months, Pathways to Freedom also will support grassroots- and survivor-led efforts in the three cities to integrate trafficking into existing advocacy efforts in the areas of homelessness, immigration, and criminal justice reform, as well as to elevate survivors as advocates. In addition, we will support a public service campaign with messages that challenges misperceptions about trafficking victims.
The Partnership for Freedom believes that this shift to local-level action — and funding for local approaches — is critical to sustaining and building a more successful anti-trafficking movement in the U.S. We know that local governments have the best understanding of the challenges facing their constituents and communities and are in the best position to design and implement effective policies and practices. Around the country, we see innovation and leadership from cities on many of our most pressing challenges — including immigration, housing, health care, and climate change. As cities tackle these complex issues, we are excited about partnering with them to develop and expand local solutions to human trafficking as well.
Catherine Chen is director of investments at Humanity United, where she leads the Partnership for Freedom and oversees the foundation's programs to address human trafficking and labor migration.