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On Trafficking Andrea Powell

Slavery is not dead in America, says Andrea Powell, co-founder and executive director of FAIR Girls (Free, Aware, Inspired, Restored), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that assists survivors of human trafficking through education and empowerment. She serves as FAIR Girls’ chief liaison to the D.C. Anti-Trafficking Task Force and has trained hundreds of law enforcement personnel, social workers and others in how to identify and assist victims of sex and forced labor trafficking. She is also an adjunct professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

From Washington, D.C., headquarters, Andrea Powell heads FAIR Girls rescue and support operations for young trafficking victims.

What is the focus of FAIR Girls’ work?

The majority of the young survivors I meet each day at FAIR Girls are American girls sold right here in our own backyards. Through a Department of Justice-funded grant, we interviewed over 100 runaway teens and found half of them were sold into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home. The average age of entry into a life of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States is 13, and more than 100,000 American girls and boys live at risk of being sold into sex trafficking every year. Our focus is to provide support to girls who are on the edge, and also to provide critical emergency response and aftercare for those who have already fallen prey to trafficking.

What is the ideal interaction of law enforcement and service organizations such as FAIR Girls?

As the liaison to the D.C. Anti-Trafficking Task Force, I tell police that while they conduct their investigation and focus on the crime, we in the nonprofit sector will help the person who has been affected. It’s a dynamic group working together: FBI, local law enforcement, service providers, attorneys, U.S. Attorney’s Office, judges.

How does education fit into the solution?

Education is the only way out of this deep-rooted problem. We give lectures and workshops to about 3,000 teenagers every year in Baltimore and D.C., and we partner with other organizations to provide educational opportunities nationwide. The collaborative model is vital: By getting the community to identify and assist victims, and by educating young people to see that this is about a girl’s liberty being taken from her, we address the problem from the supply side. On the demand side, there are as many as 20,000 online sex ads a day, and boys and girls are bought and sold over the Internet. Where there is demand for purchasing sex there will be sex trafficking victims, so we must educate this side of the equation, too. When we reach the children, their families, the community and the purchasers, then we will see significant change.

What must happen on a grand scale to arrest this problem?

I think that we’re making big strides by educating people to look at the people around them and report signs of trafficking—the U.S. Health and Human Services national hotline receives a hundred calls a day. But it is important for people to help the person right next to them, too, because when you help a girl to survive slavery, you’re helping her transcend to freedom. You are also helping her future children and family, the community, and everyone around her. She goes from draining the community to actually being an asset to the community. And that’s real power. You also have to educate those who are at risk. You have to focus on empowerment and justice. And you can’t have one without the other.

Is there any reason for optimism?

Our sub-motto at FAIR Girls is “We are relentlessly optimistic.” We have seen a critical shift in public awareness, and amazing, innovative ideas are surfacing and others are picking up on them. The White House convened a collaborative of interfaith and nonprofit leaders to pool their experience and expertise in combating trafficking, and the United States Congress is taking strong measures to provide services to victims.

On a more personal humanitarian level, to truly assist survivors of trafficking, the whole community must be willing to open their hearts, their homes, and their wallets.

A young woman who had been trafficked came to us when she was 18. A lovely host family gave her a home—not a wealthy family, but a middle-class family with willingness and a spare bedroom. Now that young woman is going to college, and she has a bright future. We need thousands of families to open their homes to these survivors. It is the best investment we can make. As a society and as a community, we have to take back power from the traffickers. We need to send a united message that we will not tolerate this human rights abuse.