Why Freedom Fund Matters #2

By Ryan Townsend, executive director

This is the second installment in a blog series highlighting how important our annual Freedom Fund challenge grant is. Every donation provides direct funding to our programs and services. We need your help to fulfill our mission of preventing human trafficking and exploitation in the Central Valley and beyond!

(This OpEd was originally published in The Fresno Bee on Sept 28. 2021)

I applaud Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) and the California Legislature for passing Assembly Bill 262. The bill, signed into law late last week by Gov. Newsom, provides important relief for human trafficking survivors looking to have their nonviolent criminal records cleared so they can pursue employment without hindrance. This victory (the bill passed unopposed) represents the kind of broad bipartisan cooperation we need more of going forward as awareness increases.

71 percent of an estimated 40 million trafficking victims were women and girls.

International Labor Organization

In the recent Marvel Studios film “Black Widow,” Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone) said he abducted, abused and brainwashed young girls to achieve his villainous master plan because they are “the only natural resource the world has too much of.” Watching in the theater, I grimaced when he said this because as much as I love escapist summer movies, I also happen to know a number of women who suffered abduction, abuse and brainwashing. In the movie, Deykov’s traumatized victims participate in their own cathartic rescue as the villain pays the ultimate price for his crimes. In reality, though, happy endings are rare.

Globally, women and children represent a disproportionate number of the worldwide population of human trafficking victims. According to the best data available, from a landmark 2017 report by the International Labor Organization, 71 percent of an estimated 40 million trafficking victims were women and girls.

For the last six years, I’ve served as executive director for the Central Valley Justice Coalition, a Fresno-based community benefit organization that seeks to prevent human trafficking through education, partnership and outreach. While we are careful not to limit our efforts to any specific gender identity, we recognize that locally, our own young women are increasingly vulnerable to human traffickers and exploitation. I watched “Black Widow” twice and both times I left wanting to clarify to my own daughters how the human trafficking survivors I work on behalf of weren’t kidnapped by a Russian supervillain, but by ordinary people from our own community.

The human trafficking survivors I work on behalf of weren’t kidnapped by a Russian supervillain, but by ordinary people from our own community.

Ryan Townsend

Last year, human trafficking awareness efforts exploded across social media, even spilling out into real life protests. Unfortunately, the hashtag #SaveTheChildren brought with it a torrent of misinformation and fear-based fallacies. Outside Fresno City Hall, I stood up in front of an impassioned group of about 50 people and implored them to do careful research and not give credence to invented (and unhelpful) stories. The most common handwritten signs I saw involved conspiracy theories about elaborate sex trafficking rings. Most of these involve some version of a Dreykov, an evil genius directing thousands of followers ready to pounce on innocent, unsuspecting children.

My working theory is that human trafficking is such a heinous crime that people often need to believe it is the product of pure demonic evil rather than admit that our children are most vulnerable to exploitation from someone they already know. The Polaris Project, one of the most authoritative sources of information in the field, reported that “many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, and by family members, including parents.”

The worst thing about our current climate of polarization over political, social and cultural issues is that it is difficult to get people from diverse worldviews to set aside ideological differences and work together. Here in the central San Joaquin Valley , 1,054 victims of human trafficking have been identified by Fresno EOC’s CVAHT project in the last 10 years. Over 91 percent of these victims were female, and nearly 30 percent were minors.

California’s AB 262 is an important step in the right direction, but it’s only one small part of ending slavery and exploitation. In the future, I hope we look back and see it as a turning point.

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