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.

This is the first 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!

As I reflect on my first year with the Justice Coalition, I am filled with a tremendous amount of gratitude for the blessings that have been provided to me! While countless others, myself included, lost their jobs when a global pandemic hit, after just a few short months on unemployment, God presented me with an opportunity to apply for a position with the Central Valley Justice Coalition to fill the position of Program Manager.

As an advocate and lived-experience expert (who has volunteered countless hours over the last 9 years in this field) it was an actual dream come true to start this new job. It was also a little scary to take on the responsibility that comes with building a program from scratch, in the midst of a shutdown!

As most of you know, volunteering and being an employee are very different things, and so I began the process of trying to figure out how to do a job no one had ever done before with only faces on a screen to help guide me.\nStarting out was rocky at best. A lot of my early days were spent engaging in Zoom trainings and soaking in how the day-to-day operations worked. There were days where I felt I was not doing much to contribute and I struggled with self-doubt. However, thanks to constant reassurance from the rest of the team over time I began to find my own groove. Beginning with tasks like managing our social media content and assisting Christa in the development of S.E.E. helped build my confidence and I could see (pun intended) that I was helping to build the coalition at the same time!

Arien Garcia was instrumental in getting AB 262 passed and signed into law in 2021

The biggest turning point for me in this first year was when I received the first referral to work with youth identified by the Department of Social Services as being extremely at-risk for human trafficking. Now, a year into the work, we’ve had the opportunity to reach almost two dozen youth with direct services in addressing at-risk behaviors that could lead to exploitation. My role at the coalition, by God’s grace, has become a very impactful one. This first year was a year for expanding on, not only my own capacities but the capacity at which the Justice Coalition serves the community. Being in this position has been a dream-made reality and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next few years!

“Now, a year into the work, we’ve had the opportunity to reach almost two dozen youth with direct services…”

Arien garcia
Arien shares in this video, giving her perspective as a human trafficking survivor and professional educator in the field

We are excited to announce that Freedom Fund 21 is taking place from October 18 through November 17. Once again, we are partnering with True Organic Products Inc. This year, TRUE has given $25,000 in the form of a challenge grant, which means that every dollar up to $25,000 will be doubled!

From our humble beginnings as a small, all-volunteer prayer group, we have grown to an organization with multiple staff members. Since 2015, we have been able to educate well over 27,000 people in the Central Valley and beyond. Hundreds of people have banded together to give thousands of dollars to fund this vital human trafficking prevention work.

To date, our annual Freedom Fund has generated over $251,000 in donations and every dollar makes a significant impact in preventing slavery and exploitation.

We are excited to announce that Freedom Fund 2021 is taking place from October 18 through November 17. Once again, we are partnering with True Organic Products Inc. This year, TRUE has given $25,000 in the form of a challenge grant, which means that every dollar up to $25,000 will be doubled! On Monday night, we went live on Facebook for a one hour, twenty minute broadcast. Here’s a reply of that livestream, edited down to a tight 59 minutes.

From our humble beginnings as a small, all-volunteer prayer group, we have grown to an organization with multiple staff members. Since 2015, we have been able to educate well over 27,000 people in the Central Valley and beyond. Hundreds of people have banded together to give thousands of dollars to fund this vital human trafficking prevention work.

To date, our annual Freedom Fund has generated over $251,000 in donations and every dollar makes a significant impact in preventing slavery and exploitation. Will you help us make this year the best one yet for our human trafficking prevention work?

Joined by survivors, including our own Arien Garcia, as well as Fresno’s mayor and police chief, Assemblymember Jim Patterson announced the passage of a bill that would allow human trafficking survivors to have their records cleared of non-violent crimes within a reasonable amount of time after escaping the life.

At the Justice Coalition, we sincerely believe that legislation like CA Assembly Bill 262 represents a step in the right direction for survivors of human trafficking who have been coerced into committing crimes by those who enslaved and exploited them. We are grateful that Governor Newsom signed this bill into law and are so proud to stand beside Arien Pauls Garcia as she tirelessly advocates for change. Not only does Arien use her voice publicly but she also privately has helped dozens of pre-victim adolescent clients this year alone through our youth prevention programming.

Read more about the process of getting AB 262 passed and signed into law:

KMJ story from Reporter Liz Kern

Fresno Bee article by Melissa Montalvo

It would be an understatement to say that the last 18 months have been a challenging time for us at the Justice Coalition. As the light dawned on 2021, we were presented with an opportunity to streamline our operations through converting two vacated part-time positions into a full-time associate director role. We conducted a thorough search and found the perfect candidate, Dan Carter, for the job.

Only trouble was, as she is a foreign national from Australia, we would need to get a work visa. What we thought would take 6 weeks wound up taking 22 instead but praise God, she has now finally been able to start! I can’t thank all you enough for your support, encouragement and prayers during these trying times.

As an education organization working with vulnerable populations, primarily through in-person presentations, trainings and gatherings, it’s been difficult (the last year plus) to measure our impact using the methods we spent years developing. Yet, even when we haven’t been able to see our efforts produce the numerical impact we desire, this time has been far from wasted.

Currently, we are doing the hard work to streamline our systems and increase our capacity because we know that our mission has never been more important than it is now! With Dan, Arien and myself we now have three full-time staff for the first time in our history and we are joined by Christa, Marissa and Jessica in part-time roles. As we move into the always busy fall season, requests for speakers and classes are skyrocketing. Like a cellphone plugged in overnight (or in this case for the last 8 months) we are charged up and ready to go!