Since its inception, the Church has been a staunch defender of human dignity. One violation of this God-given quality is human trafficking, which the UN Office on Drugs and Crime defines as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force […] for the purpose of exploitation,” which can include forced prostitution, other types of sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery, or forced removal of organs. The UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute estimates that there are 2.7 million victims of trafficking around the world.
The pervasiveness and horror of this crime make the issue particularly pressing. Pope Francis says, “It constitutes a grave violation of the human rights of those victimized and is an offense against their dignity, as well as a defeat for the worldwide community.” He calls for “a shared sense of responsibility and firmer political will to gain victory on this front.” Human trafficking clearly calls for a response from Catholics, especially as a violation of the Catholic Social Teaching principles of human life and dignity, human rights and responsibilities, preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, dignity of work and workers’ rights, and solidarity.
These principles guide many Catholic colleges and universities in their involvement in anti-human trafficking work and research. Saint Vincent College (SVC) received a Global Solidarity Grant for their anti-human trafficking project, “Connecting the Local Community to the Global Issue of Human Trafficking.” The grant, offered jointly by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and Catholic Relief Services, funded a special opportunity to learn about human trafficking to the college’s annual Campus Ministry Spring Break Service Trip to Brazil. On that trip, participants prepared meals, worked with orphans and abandoned elderly, served at an AIDS clinic, taught language, and played with the children at the Missionary Sisters of Christ’s schools in São Paulo. In addition, they heard presentations on human trafficking in Brazil from the Sisters, who work closely with survivors of human and sex trafficking. Speakers shared their firsthand experiences of sheltering survivors and educating the vulnerable population about the threat of human trafficking. Fr. Killian Loch, director of campus ministry, says it was “very powerful being with [the Sisters] and seeing their joy, and listening to them speak of true freedom.”
To engender true freedom for all victims and survivors of human trafficking, it is essential to raise awareness on the issue. On the SVC campus, the Global Solidarity Grant also went towards assisting students on an anti-human trafficking committee in observing the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint for victims of slavery and trafficking. The feast day coincides with the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, with students attending Mass and an awareness campaign. In addition, the committee hosts a Day of Awareness in April, which includes informational displays and activities such as prayer sessions, art demonstrations, letter-writing to trafficking victims, and speakers from external organizations like the Pittsburgh-based Project to End Human Trafficking. Overall, the events on campus as well as the spring break service trip flow from a desire among students and faculty “for ways to become more connected to Catholic Social Teaching,” says Fr. Loch.
Another example of deepening connections to CST in the area of human trafficking is found at the College of St. Benedict (CSB)in Minnesota. In 2016, CSB Campus Ministry’s Alternative Break Experience (ABE) ministry coordinates a yearly service trip on sex trafficking awareness in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Participants and coordinators partner with Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization that helps women and girls “escape systems of prostitution and sexual exploitation” through survivor-led and victim-centered “services, housing, and education.” The trip’s effects are lasting; in a reflection from last year’s ABE, one student wrote, “Breaking Free and the reality of sex trafficking demonstrated the importance of communities so powerfully and I will be very intentional about engaging and being a part of my community.”
CSB Campus Ministry’s Spirituality and Social Justice (SSJ) ministry coordinates a yearly Sex Trafficking Awareness Week, including a collection at Mass for a Sexual Assault Center; presentations on topics such as “Transforming Porn Culture,” sex trafficking basics, and advocacy. Carley Castellanos, assistant director of campus ministry, reports that around 200 students, staff, and faculty members participated in the activities, including the Handprint Campaign. Castellanos says the Campaign encourages the campus community “to stamp their hand and commit to ending sex trafficking.”
Participants also partake in advocacy by encouraging their senators and representatives to cosponsor the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, an initiative led by the CSB Catholic Relief Services Ambassadors. Castellanos writes that the activities flow from both CST and Benedictine Values, including Awareness of God, Community Living, Dignity of Work, Hospitality, Justice, Listening, Moderation, Peace, Respect for Persons, Stability, and Stewardship.
Another unique example of anti-human trafficking efforts at Catholic colleges is found at the University of San Francisco (USF) within the School of Management. Professor Marco Tavanti, Ph.D., director of the Master of Nonprofit Administration (MNA) program, president and co-founder of the World Engagement Institute (WEI), and director of the Academic Global Immersion (AGI) program, spearheaded the May 2015 USF for Freedom Symposium (USF4Freedom) with colleague Dr. David Batstone, who founded the Not for Sale campaign. Tavanti says USF4Freedom was organized by the students who participated in the AGI-Rome program, an immersion trip for MNA students “in collaboration with Jesuit Refugee Services on international practices and global policy challenges facing refugee service management, forced migrations, and human trafficking,” the program’s website states. The Symposium consisted of a day of lectures given by leaders in various Bay Area nonprofits that serve human trafficking and modern slavery victims, such as Jesuit Refugee Services, Not for Sale, and others that seek to “accompany and advocate for the underrepresented.”
Tavanti emphasizes that USF4Freedom, AGI-Rome, and the partnership with the WEI seek to inspire and equip students to act. He says USF4Freedom and AGI-Rome inspired the development of a Professional Graduate Certificate in Humanitarian Emergency Management “as a way to build capacity in building careers in this field.” He also notes the influence of USF’s Jesuit animation on USF4Freedom: “It sprang from the importance of addressing the Jesuit values of ‘accompaniment’ along with advocacy and service, to inspire our reflections and preparations.” Pope Francis also played a large role: Having met with the Holy Father in January 2016 during the second AGI-Rome, Tavanti and his students “have been further inspired by Pope [Francis’s] call for social justice and human dignity.”
A final example of a campus working against human trafficking is Loyola University New Orleans (LOYNO). LOYNO’s Modern Slavery Research Project (MSRP), founded and directed by English Professor Laura Murphy, Ph.D., “is working toward emancipating victims in Southeast Louisiana and the U.S. from modern slavery through data-based research and training that better serves victims and supports the advocates who make escape possible,” the project’s website explains. In addition to research and training, MSRP works on legislative advocacy and education in partnership with the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives; runs the Make Escape Possible campaign; publishes reports such as its latest on Trafficking Among Homeless Youth; coordinates events such as book talks, storytelling, and film screenings; and works with the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force in a project funded by the Department of Justice.
Undergraduate research assistants and interns are involved significantly in the MSRP. The lead intern, Lauren Stroh ’17, is “happy to be on board and working alongside the rest of [the] team to collect real data on the issue” to better inform a range of audiences, from legislators to “individuals involved in combating this issue firsthand.” Stroh has become one of those individuals as she has “had the opportunity to listen to survivor narratives at length” and has found that “there is truly no one who understands what these survivors have gone through better than they do, and hearing them speak about their experiences has done wonders to educate [me] about […] modern slavery.” Stroh hopes to extend her experience with this issue “beyond the United States to the world abroad” through a potential Fulbright scholarship.
From these examples, it is evident that Catholic higher education fosters a thirst for knowledge and a desire to act on human trafficking issues. The animation of charisms such as the Jesuit values of accompaniment and solidarity or the Benedictine principles of the dignity of work and respect for persons has allowed students, staff, and faculty to soar in their work against modern slavery. Pope Francis has said that part of our response to human trafficking must be to “provide victims with… the possibility of building a new life.” As we continue to contemplate the New Life given to us this Easter season, let us follow the example of Catholic higher education in providing that new life for our sisters and brothers in modern slavery.
Justine Worden is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.