This interview is from our “Voices From the Field” series, which explores career paths in human trafficking prevention, research, and activism.
Current Position: Independent Researcher
Location: New York
Background: Ali Wolf recently conducted an eight-month independent research project on human trafficking throughout the United States. Prior to that, she spent eight months working with a Thai-run non-governmental organization, Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities Center (DEPDC), which works to prevent human trafficking in northern Thailand.
How did you get involved in human trafficking research?
Although my interest in the issue of human trafficking began when I was very young, my dedication to preventing this crime was cemented during my time working for DEPDC, which provides programs for both at-risk and victimized youth in the Chiang Rai region of northern Thailand.
When I returned to the U.S. after working in Thailand, I began to see the parallels between vulnerable populations in the U.S. and communities I worked with in Thailand and around the world. It is not uncommon for people to assume what occurs overseas in less developed countries could not possibly happen in the U.S. Many individuals who are trafficked overseas are vulnerable to severe exploitation and trafficking because they seek to find a better life, or what may sound like a better life. This is no different in the U.S., only instead of vulnerable hill tribe and undocumented women and children, we see different populations of vulnerable individuals.
I became committed to understanding what was happening here and I partnered with a close friend, Mona Sulieman, to conduct our research tour. The knowledge I have gained over the last decade has only reinforced my commitment to combating this issue by dedicating myself to working with at-risk and victimized youth, as well as other extremely vulnerable populations.
Why don't we talk more about trafficking in the United States? Why is it so difficult to implement policies about trafficking here?
Speaking from my own research, this issue is too often minimized or even ignored. It is a difficult topic for many people to feel comfortable discussing, especially when they find out how prevalent the crime is within their own communities. These individuals and communities are even less inclined to come to the aid of victims and survivors when they find out who they often are: impoverished, ethnic minority, foster care and juvenile justice system-involved youth, undocumented immigrants, refugees. There are, of course, many risk factors, but individuals are made particularly vulnerable through poverty, social inequality, and the lack of real opportunity.
Fortunately, by bringing the issue of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in the United States into the forefront of our nation’s conscience, we can begin to shift the stigma that currently surrounds the victims to the exploiters.
But, as you mention, it has been difficult to implement policies to counteract trafficking in the U.S. Changes in our legal system will only come as we train agencies to be proactive, rather than reactive, to this issue and to make it a top priority.
Why are concrete trafficking statistics so hard to come by?
Whether we are speaking about human trafficking in the U.S. or abroad, it is difficult to find reliable statistics, and we hear this criticism often. How can we expect people to understand the magnitude of the issue when there are hardly any numbers to prove it?
One reason that we see a limited number of reliable statistics is that the issue is often ignored or disregarded. Those who have been attempting to combat this human rights abuse for decades have faced challenges in educating communities to recognize and to work with these victims, much less to identify and count them. Unless individuals are more regularly identified and served, there can be no reliable statistics.
Additionally, many states, agencies, and organizations have developed their own definitions of human trafficking. What certain agencies consider to be a victim of trafficking may not meet the definition that others use. In order to see good statistics, there must be a uniform definition that all agencies, organizations, and states use when identifying victims of trafficking.
What do you think is the biggest myth about human trafficking that exists today?
There are many myths that affect the way individuals and organizations perceive this crime. A myth that I feel is imperative to debunk if we are going to combat this issue is the myth that all victims must be “rescued.” Dr. Laura Brumberg has made a great case for challenging this perception. She has said that “when we look at vulnerable populations and see them as victims, as those needing to be saved, we do them a great disservice. When we look at these same groups and focus on their strengths, their talents, and their inherent right to be the creators of their own lives, we add our strength to theirs.”
I mention this because there are many communities joining the anti-trafficking effort who do feel that victims of human trafficking must be “rescued” and I challenge them to actually work on the ground with survivors, with communities suffering from extreme poverty and social injustices, to see how no amount of rescue can prevent yet another vulnerable individual from falling into a life of severe exploitation.
What might recent grads want to consider if they are to get involved in human trafficking as a career?
I am a strong advocate for finding a mentor to guide and inspire you. It is imperative that you surround yourself with individuals who feel just as passionately as you do about this issue and are willing to teach and share their experiences and their insights. An incredible movement around these issues has been developing and I suggest that you do as much background reading as you can while reaching out to those leaders and organizations with whom you agree. Then spend the time understanding where you can best get involved.
Any resources you’d like to share with our readers?
There are a lot of great organizations and individuals working in this movement and I suggest looking into what’s in your area. GEMS and the Polaris Project are both great sources for information. My research partner, Mona Sulieman, and I also have a blog. Although we have not updated it since our research tour ended, we plan to continue writing for it as we solidify our research.
What does your daily routine consist of?
I continue to work with my research partner on our U.S. research, hoping to share our wealth of knowledge with the greater community through videos, articles, and perhaps a book, which would discuss methods we observed that might be effectively used to prevent and end human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children throughout the country.
More Voices From the Field
Iveta Cherneva got involved in the field of human trafficking after her cousin was trafficked—and escaped. Read on for an interview about her work.
SriPloy MacIntosh works for the Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia (COSA), a trafficking prevention organization and shelter for at-risk and formerly trafficked children in Mae Rim, Thailand.
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Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author