A summit on human trafficking was held at College of the Canyons’ University Center on Friday, organized by several local groups associated with the issue.
The summit aimed to help community members identify, prevent and combat human trafficking by presenting red flags to look out for, statistics and studies conducted on the matter, theories and practices on how to combat it and by giving victims of trafficking a platform to tell their stories.
One of these people was Sandy Esparza, who now serves as the program director for The Power Project, an organization that consults and trains on the subject of human trafficking.
Esparza was 14 when she was first trafficked and said the work she does now makes her feel liberated.
“I think it makes me feel free,” said Esparza. “That was always the thing for me, just feeling really trapped or kind of like I had no direction. You know, when you’re in that life, a lot of it is a psychological breakdown. They constantly are telling you how unworthy you are and how worthless you are and good for nothing. So I think it really solidified my purpose and my calling, so it makes me feel free.”
Esparza and TPP founder, Meiko Taylor, gave a two-hour presentation on how to identify if someone is being trafficked, how to tell if your child is being blackmailed, and how to educate children on what grooming, baiting, recruitment, catfishing and extortion look like.
One of the things the presentation emphasized is how kids can be coerced into providing explicit images and videos, or outright trafficked, through the internet and social media.
“If you give your kid a tablet or cell phone, you can clearly see that there’s ways that traffickers can get to a youth and connect with them online and so they can be susceptible to that,” said Taylor. “A youth that’s just looking for love and connection can be a victim of that. [A youth] not having their basic needs met yet can also be a victim of it, but it really just runs the gamut.”
Taylor said sometimes there’s a stereotype of how a trafficker or buyer might look or act; same with a victim. But TPP’s mission is to help challenge those stereotypes by educating and bringing awareness to it.
For example, TPP says that traffickers and recruiters blend into society, can appear clean, attractive, or older and can seem trustworthy. They typically use their intellect to throw off suspicion but also have some common traits such as losing their temper quickly, showing off expensive things, or making someone feel uncomfortable.
An exploited teen may be dating someone that’s controlling or older than them, have unexplained money or expensive gifts, multiple cell phones, missing a lot of school, are frequent runways, or reference frequent travel to other cities.
Aside from these commonalities, a victim or trafficker can be any race, ethnicity, or gender.
“Everything that Hollywood has taught you, everything you hear in the movies, everything you think happens in other countries, a good starting point is to unlearn that and learn the reality of what’s happening and it’s in our backyard,” said Esparza. “That it happens to anyone you know, regardless of race, religion, color, it doesn’t matter. And just being fully aware of that, I think unveils a lot for communities.”
Esparza said the work is important in L.A. County because human trafficking is particularly prevalent in the area.
“I do advocacy work here in LA County, and we’re top tier for the whole nation. California is the No. 1 state for the most trafficking and has the three major hubs in all of the nation. We live in it, you know, and so that’s unacceptable,” said Esparza.
While the several organizations at the summit had different approaches and strategies, ranging from advocating for the abolition of prostitution to faith-based approaches in group homes, they all shared a constant: a will to prevent, combat, and ultimately end human trafficking in the world.