Cameron Conaway caught up with these road warriors to learn about their efforts to combat sex trafficking
I met countless inspiring groups at the 2012 Global Human Trafficking Conference, but in terms of sheer passion for the cause, the guys from iEmpathize who represented Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) were second to none. Of course they were fired up because of their mission to educate, equip, empower and mobilize members of the trucking and travel plaza industry to combat domestic sex trafficking, but they were also proud that they were a group of men doing this work.
“Most groups fighting sex trafficking” one of the staffers said, “definitely seem to be supported primarily by women.” He continued, “While this is great, we also think it’s time for men step up in this fight. Let’s be honest here. Men are the primary cause of this horror. To deny that or stay silent while these horrific crimes go on? It’s unacceptable. It’s tragic. We’re proud of what we’re doing but were also proud of who we are—mostly a bunch of dudes putting our foot down. Enough is enough.”
It’s been pedal to the metal ever since. A few days ago the International Human Rights Group announced that the American Truckers Association joined forces with TAT. This news has coupled with their growing Facebook Page, a recent NPR profile and their frontline position on America’s highways to create a movement – as sex trafficking is considered a low-risk/high-reward criminal enterprise – capable of significantly tipping these scales.
I recently caught up with Kendis Parris, TAT’s national director:
Truckers. Why this demographic? How did it go from a brainchild to a well-known group of warriors?
My mother, Lyn Thompson, actually came up with the idea after attending the Human Trafficking Awareness Conference in Denver, CO in 2008 where the workshop leader was talking about training gas station employees along our nation’s highways. Remembering that the FBI in a series of Innocence Lost stings had found women and children forced into prostitution along our nation’s highways in places like truck stops and rest stops, she put two and two together and realized we should be targeting the trucking industry with this message because they are the eyes and ears of our nation’s highways and see things most do not. So TAT began as an initiative of Chapter 61 Ministries, (our family’s ministry…since dissolved because the same folks who were running it, run TAT), and then in March 2011 with the release of our training DVD, I realized it needed to be its own 501(c)3.
Our goals are to get our training materials into the hands of every member of the trucking industry in America (and eventually beyond). We want them to watch our training DVD, which provides a comprehensive view of domestic sex trafficking, and then be equipped with our wallet card which contains the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline number from Polaris Project, 1-888-3737-888, so that when they see a minor working the lot or suspect pimp control they can call in and report what they know. And the reason it’s become more well known is due to the fact that truckers are actually making calls that save lives. Polaris recently sent this update to us regarding the calls that have come in so far this year:
“The NHTRC received 193 calls from callers identifying as truckers between 1/1/2012 and 10/10/2012. To date in 2012, truckers rank 14th out of 38 different caller types for all calls. They rank 8th for calls referencing potential human trafficking”
But the trucking industry is also working with law enforcement to facilitate the investigation of human trafficking by not only calling the hotline along with 911, so that anti-trafficking deputies receive these tips, but also by providing key intel in particular parts of the country where higher levels of activity are occurring. They are also working to build coalitions between the law enforcement who investigate human trafficking cases and the general managers of the truck stops in their area. TAT serves to facilitate these relationships and enables the trucking industry to step up to higher and higher levels of commitment in the fight.
How did you personally get involved in activism and the fight against trafficking? What’s your background?
I became aware of human trafficking in 2007 by reading the book, Not for Sale by David Batstone and was so disturbed by what I read that by Chapter 3 I had flipped to the back of the book in order to find out what could be done to combat this. Raising awareness was one of the things he suggested and so my neighbor and dear friend, Molly Wolff, and I spent the next year putting together the Human Trafficking Awareness Conference in Denver, CO, where we brought in speakers from all over the nation to educate folks on the international, national and local realities of human trafficking, as well as practically instruct/equip them with how to get involved in it personally. I then co-founded the Volunteers Network to End Human Trafficking along with Pam Harvey and Molly Wolff, in order to give Coloradan’s an effective way to volunteer in this fight. TAT began in 2009 and I worked as a volunteer with it from the beginning, but became the national director in March 2011.
Can you tell us a few of TAT’s success stories?
I have to tell about Rickie Youngquist, a trucker from Colorado who heard that a great anti-trafficking organization called Free the Girls (who collects gently used and new bras and ships them to Mozambique where survivors of sex trafficking sell them in order to make a living) needed a huge shipment of bras trucked from CO all the way to Chicago in order to get them on the boat and over to the ladies. He had recently heard of TAT and was just beginning to get involved when I contacted him asking for this favor. He dropped everything and volunteered to take the bras free of charge to Chicago.
Also, last year we received an email from the president of a safe home for survivors of human trafficking, thanking TAT for their work. Recently a young woman had been placed in their care through the NHTRC and as the president began to speak with her she shared her story…she had escaped from her captors and was hitchhiking along our nation’s highways in order to get as far away from her captors as possible when a trucker gave her a ride. Apparently he began to ask her questions and soon realized that she was a victim of human trafficking. He gave her the NHTRC number to call and that is how she ended up in the safe home.
A similar story happened this year when someone who had escaped from a labor trafficking situation showed up at a truck stop. A trucker got involved with this young lady and realized she too was a trafficking victim. They both called the hotline together and got her connected with resources in her home state. He then arranged for her transportation all the way home as well.
Stories like these are incredibly rare. Trafficking victims are usually rounded up in stings when law enforcement officials get a tip. However, many of the TAT stories are victims who are one-by-one being rescued by regular members of the public. Direct civic engagement like this is hard to come by in the field of human trafficking. More often than not members of the public can’t see what’s going on and feel stuck in their attempt to help. To truly address human trafficking we need to view our nation’s roads as the perpetrator’s weapon. Through equipping all of our nation’s truckers with awareness we can have an extra set of eyes on our roads at all hours of the night. Truckers Against Trafficking is one group with the potential to make a huge difference in how we fight.
Follow Truckers Against Trafficking on Twitter: @TATKylla