With the Super Bowl around the corner and Human Trafficking Awareness Month underway, there is a lot of talk about human trafficking right now in major news organizations and around the web. It’s the global issue that my students and colleagues want to talk about the most, but they often don’t know where to begin.

A lot of the rhetoric around human trafficking encourages folks to “end trafficking now,” but it’s hard to know what that really means. And unfortunately it’s not that easy: In order to end the practice of human trafficking, or even make a small impact, it’s important to understand the origins of trafficking, its context in the world today, and the many approaches to the issue.

But it’s even more important to know that we can all make a difference, no matter who we are or what we do. Here are a few ways to engage in the issue and have an impact on trafficking in your daily life.  

1. Increase Your Knowledge, Set the Record Straight

“Human trafficking? Thats like the movie Taken, right?”

This is something I hear all the time. And it’s easy for many of us to default to these media images, because that’s what we are used to, but in fact, global human trafficking is very different than what is often depicted in film and TV.

Trafficking happens not only abroad, but in the United States as well—and not only for the Super Bowl, but every day of the year. And it’s far different than what people expect: Labor trafficking happens far more than sex trafficking, for example, and contrary to popular ideas, trafficking doesn’t have to involve movement. Further, there are many complexities in understanding force, fraud, or coercion—sometimes people even consent to be trafficked because of a severe lack of options. To understand the origins of trafficking, we must understand the vulnerability that causes it; whether it is economic, social, or structural.

To really learn more about how human trafficking looks today, get to know the myths (my previous column on the issue explains this in detail), and brush up on your definitions and statistics through organizations like Walk Free and Polaris Project, which do a great job of illustrating the magnitude of the problem. Then, share that knowledge with others. If colleagues or friends start talking about trafficking myths, share what you’ve learned, or point to a local case, event, or happening that better explains the realities.  

2. Know Your Slavery Footprint

It’s easy to feel like human trafficking is far away from your own life, but there are probably trafficked persons working on your behalf right now. Just check the tag on your shirt or bag, and more likely than not it will be from a place that has a reputation for forced labor or worker exploitation. (For example, harsh working conditions in Bangladesh came to the forefront last year, when several different fires and a building collapse took over 1,000 lives at garment factories.)

For an even more realistic look, the folks at California-based Slavery Footprint have created an app that calculates how many modern-day slaves work for you based on your daily activities—enter everything from the food you eat to the cosmetics and electronics you use, and you can find out your approximate number. It is a powerful tool to drive the reality of trafficking home and remind us that, like it or not, trafficking exists within our lives.

Of course, it can be intimidating to change our habits and try to combat trafficking day to day, especially when “fair-trade” products can be out of budget. However, you do have power as a consumer. You can put pressure on the companies you buy from to adopt policies against forced labor and human trafficking, as well as encourage them to enforce good working conditions and a transparent supply chain. For example, Walk Free has an action center on its home page where you can send letters urging business leaders to change their practices. You can also reach out to your local policymakers and express your concern about the issue or encourage them to support more efficient legislation, such as the upcoming Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination Act, which focuses on preventing labor trafficking.  

3. Take Initiative at Work

A lot of companies are supporting counter-trafficking initiatives by creating policies and campaigns that raise awareness, and many other hotels and airlines are trying to do the same. For example, Delta was the first airline to sign a Code of Conduct that protects children from sex tourism, and it has implemented a training program for employees to identify signs of human trafficking. And companies like The Body Shop have launched campaigns to raise awareness and fundraising to stop child trafficking.

But what about your own company? It’s worth checking your company policy about trafficking and learning more about its supply chains. You can take a further step by monitoring and evaluating your company's impact. To learn more, Slavery Footprint has launched the “Made in a Free World” site that helps small businesses recognize vulnerabilities in policies and supply chains.

And if there isn’t a policy in-house, consider how you might create one, or if there are other ways to get your colleagues involved—it can be as simple as sponsoring an event, taking a day of action, or hosting a fundraiser. Your company might also consider creating a recognition program; whether it's a fellowship or an award for someone who has been able to take on this issue.  

4. Get Out There

One of my mentors in the trafficking field always used to tell me, “You have to be here on the ground to understand it, and you have to work with the community first.” And he’s right. You can read about it in books and the news media, but the only way to understand trafficking is to get involved.

Gaining experience through volunteering, internships or fellowships, and jobs offers invaluable skills to better understand the landscape of trafficking. My list of seven organizations is a great place to start, and also check out sites like Idealist and ProFellow for rolling opportunities. And just as there are a number of opportunities to work with organizations abroad, I would recommend gaining experience in your own backyard. Learn more about how you can get involved at home and abroad with organizations like Walk Free, Amnesty International, Not For Sale, Nomi Network, Polaris Project, and Love 146.

Of course, even after spending years in the field, you will only scratch the surface in understanding human trafficking and how it varies across the world. I’ve researched the issue all over the world, and I still find myself always learning.

But that’s the important part: to acknowledge that this field is very new and that we all have a lot more to learn about trafficking and ways to combat it. Though we won’t end trafficking overnight, working to better understand the issues—and making these small considerations—can go a long way in making an impact and working toward sustainable change.  

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Photo courtesy of A Campaign Designed to Drop Sales.