“I want to believe that this can end,” Sharmere McKenzie said. “Let’s do this together. Let’s do this together. Are you with me?”
Yes, a capacity audience in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall was with her. That was because of far more than the riveting personal stories told by McKenzie and several others at a day-long conference, “Restorative Justice and Human Trafficking – from Wisconsin to the World.”
The people at the conference were with McKenzie because of their commitment to dealing with the entirety of the issue of human trafficking, starting with understanding the realities of it and expanding to include prevention, prosecution, and repair of the lives of those who are victimized by it.
The emphasis at the conference was particularly on the “restorative justice” aspects of responding to trafficking. Janine Geske, a retired professor at Marquette Law School, continues to be a central figure in restorative justice work at the Law School and far beyond. She led the conference and set the tone of focusing on what harm is done by human trafficking and what can be done to repair the harm.
The conference opened with McKenzie, Rachel Thomas, and Lisa Williams telling the stories of how they became caught in the world of sex trafficking, how they got out, and what each is doing now to help other victims. Each of the three heads organizations around the United States that assist victims in regaining their lives.
“We’re more than a story,” Williams said. “Our motives are, let us be very clear, for (increasing) prevention and intervention.” She said the organization she leads, Living Waters for Girls, based in Georgia, works to rebuild the lives of women who have been victimized by involvement in “one of the most devastating things to the human spirit.”
Thomas, co-director of Sowers Education Group, based in California, described how an invitation to get involved in modeling while she was a college student in Atlanta, led within weeks to her being involved in a life in which she believed she was a worthless piece of property, coerced into degrading acts and unable to escape. The group she heads promotes messages related to prevention of trafficking and help for those caught up in it.
McKenzie was a track star, attending college in New York City on a scholarship, when an injury ended her sports career and led her to a state of financial need that was exploited by a man she met. The Sun Gate Foundation she now heads helps survivors of trafficking to resume their education. Near the end of the conference, she used a chant and small dance to teach the audience to remember the national hotline number for reporting suspected trafficking (888-373-7888).
But, if in the public mind, trafficking involves sex, a lot of human trafficking involves forced labor, said Martina Vandenberg, president of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
Vandenberg spoke at a Thursday session that preceded the main conference. She also took part in the Friday event. She described cases involving people – men and women – who were forced to work in extreme circumstances, endure abusive living conditions, and face threats of violence against themselves or family members if they escaped.
Efforts to deal with trafficking have improved on several fronts in recent years, Vandenberg said, but there is a long way to go. “We can pat ourselves on the back and say how well we’re doing, how much better than in the past,” she said at the Thursday session. “But I think it’s very, very important to think about what’s not going right.”
She said restoration of the lives of those who are trafficking victims is important, but there are cases where efforts to help have actually harmed people. Cultural sensitivity is one important aspect of restorative work, as is seeking financial restitution for victims from perpetrators. She said one encouraging development is that former victims are beginning to take leading roles in anti-trafficking work.
The conference included panel discussions on facets of human trafficking in Wisconsin, including law enforcement efforts, programs for assisting victims, and efforts to keep both men and women from engaging in trafficking.
Bevan Baker, commissioner of health for the City of Milwaukee, said Milwaukee is a hub for sex trafficking. “We don’t need to study this any more,” Baker said. “We don’t need to ask why. We need to go fix it.”
Vandenberg described the life of a woman who was forced to endure horrible working and living conditions before finally escaping. She showed a photo of the woman with a smile, holding an American flag on the day she became an American citizen. “This is restorative justice,” Vandenberg said.