Human trafficking isn’t often talked about, but it happens every day in all communities. Two organizations that are trying to fight trafficking are The Hope Project and The Lakeshore Human Trafficking Task Force. Brenda Nordstrom, a volunteer for The Hope Project of Muskegon and a healthcare trainer for The Lakeshore Human Trafficking Task Force, recently gave a presentation to the students at Ross Medical Education Center in Muskegon. The presentation discussed what human trafficking is and what it looks like in the community. Brenda also had the opportunity to share a little bit of her own background and what led her to this career path.
Both organizations share the mission of fighting trafficking and preventing further cases through mentoring and education. The Hope Project primarily focuses on females and sex trafficking. The organization helps women navigate their physical needs and acts kind of like a case manager, connecting them with the proper services. The services vary depending on the needs of each woman. Some may need car rides, others counseling, and some may be in need of an advocate who helps them as they go into the courtroom.
The Hope Project realized that it needed a broader look at trafficking and was instrumental in creating The Lakeshore Human Trafficking Task Force. The Task Force is also a nonprofit, but while The Hope Project is faith-based, the Task Force is not. The community-based program brings in services like Bethany Christian Services, The Child Abuse Council, Rescue Mission, the Boys and Girls Club, and law enforcement. The organization’s primary goal has been to raise awareness about trafficking, so it does a lot of community awareness events and offers various educational opportunities.
Although The Hope Project primarily focuses on females and sex trafficking, human trafficking is much broader than that. One of the main topics that Brenda discussed during her presentation is the fact that human trafficking comes in many shapes and forms. There is no single way to define what it looks like. In addition to sex trafficking, there is forced labor, organ trafficking, debt bondage, etc. It’s also different depending on the trafficker, the victim, and the venue.
Labor trafficking, for example, is fairly complicated and not always the easiest to detect, but it’s also not as uncommon as we may think. Many countries have a culture where being in debt is not acceptable, so some individuals will continue to work in a bad situation and try to pay off the debt, even though the traffickers set it up so they will never finish paying off that debt. But, because culturally it’s not acceptable to walk away from debt, the victim will stay. As Brenda explained, it’s super important to realize that trafficking doesn’t necessarily have to occur inside of a huge network or system. It can be as simple as a person of bad moral character taking advantage of one or more people.
Even though traumatic experiences can have long-lasting effects on mental health, they oftentimes serve as a catalyst for a strong desire to help others who went through or are going through the same thing. This is especially true for Brenda. She stated, “I was not trafficked, but I do have childhood experiences that helped me relate to those who have been victimized. I had people who invested in me and helped me overcome some of the issues I had. I have a very strong faith and I believe we are all called to help our neighbors, wherever that neighbor is. My personal experiences, followed by my education and work experiences as a professional, have given me a particular opportunity to be able to help.”
Although trafficking is not something that can be stopped overnight, as a collective we can do our part in fighting it. When asked what individuals should look out for to prevent trafficking, Brenda stated, “The biggest thing you can do is invest in young people. Studies are showing that it only takes one positive relationship with a young child to help prevent them from getting into things like trafficking and drugs. We connect a lot of that with adverse childhood experiences. Everybody needs to have a connection, and that is either done through a formal organization or through family.” In addition to investing in young people, Brenda stressed the importance of listening to that gut instinct. When you see something that doesn’t look or feel right, it’s usually because it’s not.
Brenda hopes to get her message across to more individuals in the community. She believes that education and empowerment is the key to fighting trafficking. She is in the early states of planning a conference on human trafficking in 2021. She stated, “I personally would like to see all healthcare organizations be trauma informed. If all healthcare organizations were more educated on this topic, it would not only help traumatizations, but human trafficking as well.” Adverse childhood experiences can sometimes lead to emotional and physical trauma. As a result, that trauma has the ability to manifest into health problems if not properly addressed.
Brenda is aware that psychology plays a huge role in the healing process. It’s important to not be judgmental when dealing with victims. “We all need to approach people as if they have a trauma in their past and that totally reframes how you approach someone. For example, instead of asking someone what is wrong with them, it would be better to ask what happened to them,” stated Brenda. She hopes that with more education, we will be able to reframe how we look at behaviors, and instead use kindness and empathy to help victims. She explained, “Oftentimes, people who suffer from trauma, especially those who are trafficked, experience complicated and difficult behaviors. It is their way of getting out of defense mode. Healthcare professionals, in particular, see people who are needy, manipulative, and dramatic, but we need to see that as a red flag that something has happened to them in the past instead of being judgmental.”
It’s really important to remember that healing is not an overnight process. It’s a work in progress that takes a lot of time, patience, and support. When asked about some effective ways to heal from trauma, Brenda suggested counseling and learning how to develop healthy coping mechanisms. She stated, “People naturally tend to lean towards unhealthy and negative behaviors after experiencing trauma, so it’s super important that we learn how to handle stuff like that. For example, when you have a bad day, it is really useful if you are aware of the anxiety that you experience and you learn about ways to control it. That can happen through counseling, healthy relationships, and getting plugged into the appropriate service.”
Trafficking affects millions of people worldwide, but organizations like The Hope Project and The Lakeshore Human Trafficking Task Force are fighting everyday to educate as many individuals as possible. The students at Ross Medical in Muskegon were able to expand their knowledge on trafficking through Brenda’s presentation and take away some useful tips.