Nikki Hanto and Brie Sweeney both found their life's calling on a poster that was tucked away in the back corner of a room in Davies Center.
A freshman at the time, Nikki was wandering through Blu's Organizations Bash — a UW-Eau Claire event that showcases the many student organizations on campus — when she came across a poster for Human Trafficking Abolitionists, a student-led group dedicated to raising awareness about human trafficking and other human rights abuses.
"Something clicked and I knew this was my calling," says Nikki, now a senior who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire in May with a degree in social work. "I knew nearly nothing of the issue, but I believe I was called by God to dedicate my life to this cause. I began researching the issue in my free time. I went to conferences across the country, and I talked to people who were currently working on this issue."
When Brie arrived on campus, she already knew a little about human trafficking because she'd done a project about it in high school. So when she saw the HTA poster at BOB her freshman year, she, too, knew immediately that she wanted to get involved.
Just a year later, Nikki and Brie were co-presidents of HTA and leading multiple initiatives on campus and in the community relating to human trafficking.
"HTA is an amazing organization that covers a lot of ground," says Brie, who will graduate in May with a degree in social work and a certificate in women's studies. "We're an org that focuses on some pretty scary and horrendous things in life, but as I tell people, if we can even change one person's life or change the system even an inch, we will have succeeded."
The group educates students, faculty, staff and community members about human trafficking — the use of force, fraud or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or soliciting labor against the person's will — and other social injustices.
Awareness-raising events range from the annual Human Rights Week to campus and community presentations that bring to light human rights abuses in the U.S. and around the world.
Human Rights Week events include speakers, films, lectures and workshops about human rights injustices.
“This is organized by HTA, but we encourage other groups to put on human rights events during the week along with our own,” Brie says. “HTA members present issues they’re passionate about. This year’s topics ranged from Syrian refugees to racism to the Planned Parenthood controversy.”
On campus, Nikki and Brie give classroom presentations to help students understand human trafficking.
“We’ve been doing it for three years and it’s awesome that we’ve raised the awareness of that many young college students,” Brie says.
This year, for the first time, HTA members worked with eight Blugolds who wanted to fulfill their service-learning graduation requirement by working on HTA initiatives.
Also for the first time, the students worked with local chapters of Big Brothers Big Sisters to educate staff and volunteers on recognizing human trafficking, and about the tools and strategies that are available should they suspect such abuse.
“One of the coolest experiences for me was to work with Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Brie, a native of Shoreview, Minnesota. “I’m a Big Sister and my supervisor heard about human trafficking but knew the staff lacked knowledge about the subject. She remembered I was co-president of a campus organization that was all about human trafficking and asked if I knew anyone who’d talk to them about it. I told her we could modify our classroom presentation for them. So we did.”
The students’ training helped the Big Brothers Big Sisters staff better understand what human trafficking is and what it would most likely look like in the kids that they work with.
“It was amazing to see the lightbulbs go off in understanding,” Brie says of the community group.
Nikki and Brie’s work recently was recognized nationally when they received the Impact Student of the Year award at the National Impact Conference. UW-Eau Claire’s HTA student organization won the Impact Activist Program of the Year honors.
This is the first year the NIC incorporated awards into its event, making the two Blugolds and the UW-Eau Claire HTA organization its first award recipients.
“I’m honored to have won because it’s a great platform to further discussion and awareness of the important issue of human trafficking,” says Nikki, a native of Rosemount, Minnesota. “It’s a tribute to the hard work of our members and community partners. We were surprised to receive the awards as there are so many amazing programs and movements happening all around the country on college campuses.
“The work we do is something we’re passionate about and isn’t something we do for a pat on the back. We do it because this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. We’re doing everything in our power to make an impact for those trapped in slavery. Survivors are the strongest humans I know, and their voices need to be heard and respected.”
The national honor has made her even more determined to continue her work, Brie says.
“In the field of social work and human rights, not much recognition is given to those who work tirelessly to make a change,” Brie says. “I’m overcome with gratitude. It’s given me a boost to do what I do. It means so much to have received this award and was a great honor to have gotten it with my best friend.”
During their years as Blugolds, Nikki and Brie have helped lead Human Rights Week events, created and distributed informational materials to area hotels about human trafficking, given dozens of classroom presentations, and created and led training sessions with community organizations.
While all have been rewarding, Nikki says she’s most proud of her work with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“Throughout college I’ve been mostly working with awareness raising, which is important because you can’t do something about an issue if you don’t know it exists,” Nikki says. “Through the training with Big Brothers Big Sisters, we were empowering others to recognize the red flags. Because of our training, someone may recognize what’s going on with a little brother/sister, and they have the resources to do something about it.
“It was amazing to be in a room full of professionals and see the understanding as we described red flags or when we described a common process in which victims are recruited, and to see the shock as we talked about how often this kind of thing happens.”
Another initiative the students are proud of is their work to create brochures for area hotels and motels.
“We researched, created and distributed pamphlets about human sex trafficking to the hotels and motels in the Eau Claire area,” Brie says. “We handed over 350 pamphlets to 25 hotels and motels. This was done solely by the members of HTA in less than one semester.”
Nikki hopes their work will motivate other Blugolds to take action and make positive change in the world.
“As Blugolds, we’re encouraged to do service work and embrace our position as global citizens,” Nikki says. “It took me a while to realize I had the power to make a difference in this world. I think everyone has a cause they care about, whether it is big or small. But passion isn’t enough.
“People often are overwhelmed with an issue and don’t know where to start or don’t feel they can make any real difference. To those people, I say research, learn about the issue, take every perspective into account and then take action.”
Nikki is taking her own advice.
She’s in the midst of a semesterlong internship at Jackson Correctional Institute, a medium security prison, where she is working directly with sex offenders.
“It’s important to get that holistic view of an issue,” Nikki says of how her internship relates to her human trafficking awareness efforts.
Both Nikki and Brie says their work with HTA changed their student experience and has given them confidence to chase their dreams after college.
After joining HTA, Nikki changed her major to social work because it’s a field that makes her feel empowered and able to make a difference in the world.
Her work with HTA — combined with her social work studies — has given her the skills and knowledge she’ll need to succeed after graduation.
“HTA has forced me out of my comfort zone and created a space where I could become a public speaker, an informed researcher and an advocate,” Nikki says. “I’ve become open minded and learned from my mentors about how to be the best social worker I can be.
“HTA has shaped my entire college experience and has given me aim and direction for my life.”
HTA also has shaped the way Nikki sees the world and her place in it.
“I have a better idea of what it means to be a global citizen, and that awareness and understanding shapes the way I see and interact with people who are different than me,” Nikki says. "Professionally, it allows me to feel like I can do something about this issue. I intend to work with survivors in any capacity I can. I’m molding myself to be a tool to the movement.”
Through her experiences with HTA, Brie says she has developed the kinds of skills that will help her succeed as she begins her career in the human services field.
“Employers are looking for future hires who have the kinds of skills that you gain in this org,” Brie says. “HTA has made me so strong. I started as very shy, quiet and an introvert.
“I can now present to a room with 50 people in it, I can think clearly through complex and intersectional issues that are the root cause of the problem, and I’ve made awesome connections. I now have leadership, research, collaboration and communication skills. I wouldn’t want my college experience any other way.”
As she prepares to graduate, Nikki is applying for jobs at shelters for trafficking survivors around the country.
“I want to work in a shelter to interact with survivors, showing them their worth, and giving them back the freedom and self-determination that was stolen from them,” Nikki says. “Further down the line, I hope to open a shelter with Brie in a place that doesn’t have one to give survivors a safe place to live and recover.”
Brie also plans to incorporate all that she’s learned through HTA into her future career.
“This organization has given me some amazing clarity about my professional future,” Brie says. “I know that I want to work with human trafficking victims and, hopefully, one day help implement social policy.
“I’d like to run a human trafficking shelter with Nikki. I’d like to work on policy to affect real national change in the way human trafficking is handled. I’d like to travel the country as an expert in human trafficking to educate others about what it is and what they can do to help. My wish is to do all three at separate times in my life.”
Like Nikki, Brie also is applying for jobs that would allow her to work with survivors of trafficking, preferably as a social worker or case manager.
“It is all up in the air, but I am currently applying everywhere,” Brie says. “I have no desire to just stay put. I want to try to make a difference wherever I can. And I’m super excited to do it.”
To learn about human trafficking red flags and resources, see the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Photo caption: Blugolds Nikki Hanto (left) and Brie Sweeney work to raise awareness on campus and in the community about issues relating to human trafficking.