When most people think of slavery, they think of the stain on American history left by the Civil War era; of the destruction, loss, and heartbreak caused by a nation at odds who so viciously treated people of color as less than human.
What isn’t taught in social studies classes, or anywhere else for that matter, is America’s most recent wave of slavery: human trafficking. Human trafficking is a form of slavery used to illegally abduct human beings and transport them around the nation, sometimes even around the globe, and utilize them for forced labor or sexual exploitation. Essentially, human trafficking is classified as, “the business of buying and selling people for the purpose of physical or sexual exploitation…it is modern day slavery.”
Often times, victims are classified as runaways before authorities come to the realization that they may have been trafficked. Polaris, an organization fighting for freedom and an end to human trafficking, estimates that 1 in every 6 runaways are likely to be victims of sex trafficking.
According to the International Labour Organization, there are more than 40 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Of these 40 million victims, approximately 75% are women and 25% are children. As a whole, human trafficking is a multibillion dollar business, generating over $150 billion globally.
Due to its highly lucrative potential, many people want in on the business but have to stay as discreet as possible, often flying under the radar and gaining the trust of their victims before the abduction occurs. Because of the dark and clandestine nature of the business, many people fall unaware or in denial of how deeply woven the business is and the likelihood that it could be happening in their own backyard.
Keenly aware of this substantial lack of societal awareness and ready to fight for change is UW-Eau Claire senior, Erin Skarivoda. Erin, an English major and creative writing minor, paired up with Eye Heart World, a nonprofit in her hometown of Green Bay that combats human trafficking through awareness, prevention, and aftercare.
Beginning in 2010, Eye Heart World started with a mother and daughter’s efforts to fight human trafficking by selling handbags.
On their official website, the organization notes, “what started out as an awareness and fundraising effort has exploded into a full scope of resources.” With roots in both Wisconsin and Alabama, the organization now offers “aftercare resources for trafficking victims, prevention for at-risk youth, and training for professionals and community members.”
As for Blugold Erin Skarivoda, she became involved with Eye Heart World after taking an honors class entitled Power, Privilege, and Inequality, taught by Dr. Katherine Rhoades.
Tasked with a research project on human trafficking, Erin took a shot in the dark and decided to find out if there were any documented cases of trafficking near her hometown in northern Wisconsin.
“Growing up, it never crossed my mind that there might be something so dark and bad in my safe little town,” Erin commented; “that’s how I found Eye Heart World, just from a google search.”
Upon realizing that the organization was actively searching for an intern, Erin said she considered applying but put it in the back of her mind and sat on it for awhile.
Then came November 2016, and with it, the presidential election.
Discouraged by the results, Erin decided to apply for the open intern position at Eye Heart World. “I figured I may as well do what I can to make the world the kind of place I wanted to live in … which is a world with less human trafficking, or at least one where people know that it’s happening and feel empowered to fight it,” Erin said. With that, she filled out an application and the rest is history.
Erin landed a position as the communications intern, where she handled the organization’s online presence. Her internship began at a pivotal time for Eye Heart World, as their plans for an official aftercare center were finally coming to fruition. Just weeks after her internship began, Erin was able to witness the opening of The Rose Home, a safe haven where women who have been trafficked can seek refuge.
“These women will be able to live safely and hopefully transition out of the [trafficking] life into a lifestyle where they are in control and on a path that can lead them to a successful, happy life,” Erin said of The Rose Home.
As for her personal involvement on the project, Erin felt simultaneously excited yet guilty. On the one hand, she had the chance to be part of an organization that was doing so many great things in this world. On the other hand, however, she had seen firsthand how dedicated to the cause her colleagues have been for years, compared to the few short months she served as an intern.
“I feel a little guilty, almost, that I get to be the voice talking about this project to these volunteers and donors who have been with this organization since the beginning, and speaking on behalf of these people who have poured years of their lives into this project,” Erin reflected.
In addition to witnessing the opening of The Rose Home, Erin also remembered another highly notable moment from her internship: being able to witness how instrumental the Green Bay police force has been in the fight against human trafficking.
“I was blown away by the police in Green Bay and how supportive they are of Eye Heart World. They rely heavily on the police to connect them with pretty much all of the survivors they get in contact with,” Erin said; “It’s really fantastic that the relationship they have with the police is so cooperative and positive, especially since the normal perspective to take on for so many years would be to treat these women as prostitutes and criminals instead of victims of a larger institution.”
When asked about whether or not she feels like her service to the greater community has made a difference in the world, Erin commented on the opportunity it provided to spread hope in an all too often dark and scary world: “[Getting to see] how talking about what real women are going through...being exploited and dehumanized, it’s all so emotionally draining. But then the wonderful people I’m around always have hope, are always working to share that hope.”
After her internship began, Erin realized she could count it as part of her service-learning graduation requirement, and noted how amazing it was to find a service to her community that she is so deeply passionate about.
“I feel like [this project] is one of the most positive things that has happened to me … as dark as the issues that we deal with are, the people that I’ve met at Eye Heart World are so full of light,” Erin stated; “It has been a huge relief to find something that I enjoy so much.”
By pairing with Eye Heart World for her service project, Erin was even able to narrow down her career goals. Initially unsure of where to take her degree, her experiences with Eye Heart World gave her some important direction.
“I’ve been terrified of graduation pretty much ever since I started college, because I could not imagine a single job or even a career field that I would be happy in for thirty, forty, fifty years straight,” Erin admitted; “[but] now that I’ve been introduced to the nonprofit world, I think I’ve at last found some direction for where I might want my life to go.”
The jury’s still out on where Erin’s life will take her post-graduation, but one can hope that she, like so many Blugolds before her, will be a pioneer in creating a safer world; a world where women and children feel empowered to speak about their experiences, a world where no parent ever has to wonder if their runaway child may actually be enslaved.
One of the most harrowing, but highly important, aspects of Erin’s service project is the reminder that sex trafficking could be happening anywhere to anyone. If you think someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline immediately at 1-888-373-7888.