By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—When trafficking survivor and activist Jessa Dillow Crisp placed a pair of her running shoes on the lectern at the beginning of her keynote speech to the third annual Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Awareness Conference earlier this month, it was to symbolize the rekindled life force that has brought a measure of liberation to her life.
At the same time, the simple act set the tone for a gathering dedicated to resilience, recovery and empowerment.
Over 300 guests from survivor groups, law enforcement, victims’ services and other parts of the interested community spent the day in presentations, workshops, breakout sessions and networking opportunities around the issues of human trafficking.
It was the third straight year that IU Southeast has hosted this important event.
While policy and policing were prominently represented, this year’s conference was particularly strong in bringing to light the complexity of human trafficking as it is experienced by those who are trafficked, and as it is confronted by those who seek to help them.
In her keynote to launch the conference, Dillow Crisp did not dwell on her years in the darkness, but recounted instead her journey to the light.
That journey involves a new life in Colorado, where she and her husband direct a nonprofit called Bridgehope whose initiatives include mentoring boys rescued from trafficking and partnering with a program in Kenya dedicated to nurturing victimized girls.
It has also involved education, personal growth and a new sense of self.
And it involves running, which Crisp sees as a metaphor for the need to think long-term when confronting any and all aspects of trafficking.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Crisp said.
Case in point: trafficked individuals are strongly tied to their perpetrators through a series of manipulations and forced dependencies. Even when freed, either through their own agency or with the help of outsiders, they frequently return to their traffickers, where they perceive security.
To understand relapse, as well as the resilience of victims and the process of recovery (Crisp’s three R’s), victim advocates need to work harder to understand the complexity of the neurological changes that are wrought in victims by their situation.
At the core of this challenge is building trust, and that starts with recognizing that there is no universal victim story. All victim stories are unique.
“We need to see them for who they are,” Crisp said.
According to Crisp, victims need space and guidance to develop inner strength, powers of self-regulation and confidence through creative expression.
This expression, be it poetry or drawing or, in Crisp’s case photography, can help survivors explore the deeper meaning of what has happened to them, and build a stronger sense of self.
Crisp, who travels the country and the world to share her insights, sees efforts like the conference as positive steps toward broadening the conversation around trafficking.
“It’s exciting for me, because when I see people raise awareness and talk about vulnerabilities, I believe that we can then eventually help the children, men and women who are still enslaved,” Crisp said.
One theme touched upon by Crisp that reverberated throughout the conference was the uniqueness of the trafficking experience for those who live it.
While many victims are lured into trafficking as runaways, by total strangers, that classic image of recruitment is not the only pathway to enslavement. Nor are shopping malls necessarily the main recruiting grounds for traffickers. Rather, the conference presented a more nuanced and multi-layered picture of a phenomenon that routinely evolves out of myriad other human relationships, in locales ranging from the childhood home to college campuses.
Such insights amplified the scope and seriousness of trafficking, but also the ability of individuals to recognize signs of trafficking and make a difference in their own spheres.
Workshops on familial trafficking, the role of trauma and technology, and survivor-led services supported law-enforcement oriented presentations on investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases and forensic interviewing. A survivor panel reinforced the first-person immediacy of the proceedings.
To address trafficking effectively, that complexity must be understood and internalized.
Ann Carruthers, president of Clark-Floyd Prevent Child Abuse and Clark/Floyd System of Care coordinator, believes this understanding, when communicated simply and patiently, can help local communities become more self-aware and effective in tackling the problem.
“Unless you’ve encountered trafficking, you’re not going to know what’s going on in your community,” Carruthers said. “This is not a political issue, it’s about living in your community, and empowering it because you’re part of it.”
As a member of the Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Coalition, Carruthers now coordinates efforts in several areas that are commonly correlated with trafficking, such as child sexual abuse.
“Events like this show us how many people are working with us,” Carruthers said. “Seeing the boots on the ground makes our efforts more worthy.”
For the author, speaker and educator K.D. Roche, events like the conference can help survivors in concrete ways.
Attending a conference five years ago, Roche for the very first time met survivors that weren’t part of her trafficked group.
“They were professional and poised, doing what I wanted to do,” Roche said. “That made me confident that I could heal.”
That confidence was evident when Roche delivered, in slam-poetry style, a reading of her experience being groomed and trafficked. It was both searing and cathartic.
“In doing this through poetry and creative writing and theater, it meets people in a way that telling a story can’t,” Roche said. “It goes beyond, touches a spot, and people have greater understanding, and there’s nothing more empowering than bringing understanding where there wasn’t any before.”
Roche also empowers others through Free to Be Me, a support network for those who have overcome significant hardship.
For Crisp, the conference was beneficial to all of the groups involved in the effort to help trafficked individuals, and even for those who are not yet aware.
“For people who know nothing, an event like this raises awareness and provides tools that they can utilize, because when you start learning about trafficking, you start seeing it,” Crisp said. “For advocates, it gives a breath of fresh air and hope, and for survivor leaders, it gives us the ability to engage with each other as well as advocate on a different level.”
Homepage photo: Trafficking survivor and activist Jessa Dillow Crisp with the running shoes that symbolize liberation and recovery.