Teachers Educate and Empower Students to Fight Human Trafficking

An important step to taking action against human trafficking is to raise awareness within our communities. Educators are a key ally in the fight against human trafficking. We chatted with Erin Regan, History and Religion teacher at Cristo Rey High School in New York City, who has been an extraordinary catalyst of change. For teachers, parents, administrators, paraprofessionals, and beyond, we hope this conversation can inspire you to bring human trafficking education and action to your institution! LifeWay Network offers education trainings for students and educational professionals, please inquire here.

Tori: How did you get involved in human trafficking advocacy?

Erin: Over a year ago, I attended the Now and Next conference hosted by World Without Exploitation. As an educator, I have always been interested in teaching people about human trafficking, and I hoped this conference would help me in that effort. Over three days, I heard from panels of survivors, lawyers, social workers, legislators, members of law enforcement, artists, therapists, journalists, and movement leaders. I had conversations with people from all over the country about the reality of commercial sexual exploitation, and the next steps that we need to take in our own communities. I left inspired and eager to bring this issue to my classroom at Cristo Rey New York.

Tori: At LifeWay Network, we believe society cannot end human trafficking without equipping the public with knowledge to identify and prevent it. We strongly invest in education as an approach to change. How has human trafficking education been integrated at Cristo Rey?

Erin: At Cristo Rey, we have a beautiful, flourishing community of students who are hungry to serve and bring about change in our school, and in our larger community of East Harlem and New York City. My coworkers and I brainstormed how to best create a program that both educated and empowered students. Sometimes the enormity of the world’s problems can be overwhelming. We wanted students to feel that they had both knowledge and agency in the face of an increasingly complex and difficult topic. We knew we had to begin by educating our students, by guiding them to understand the nuances, the history, and the complexities of this particular issue. After this we hoped they would feel empowered to invest their hearts, their time, and their energy into action.

First, we invited World Without Exploitation’s national director, Lauren Hersh, to come and speak to our juniors and seniors. Over the course of two days, Lauren engaged 200 students in a “Trafficking 101” workshop. Our students were shocked, moved, and motivated. They stayed after class to talk to Lauren, sent her follow-up emails with questions, came to follow-up Justice Club meetings to unpack their thoughts, and asked their school community to stay engaged in this work. We had one of the largest Justice Club meetings in history after she came to speak. Because of their interest, we invited Lauren back for two advocacy training sessions. In these sessions, Lauren walked our students through what advocating (getting people to care about your idea or position) really entails.

Tori: In addition to education, what are some of the other aspects of your human trafficking education program at Cristo Rey?

Erin: Our students have worked on social media campaigns to rally the student body around this issue. They learned about the importance of finding reliable data and powerful stories and sources. As a result of this experience the students started building connections with peers across the city, and country, to create a larger coalition of high school students in pursuit of ending exploitation.

Finally, we made tentative plans to travel to Albany in the spring to advocate for the Equality Model and against legislation that decrimalizes the entire sex trade. It seemed that our goal of building a foundation of understanding was leading to the confident, powerful action for which we hoped. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Although our trip to Albany was paused for the foreseeable future, we were then asked by World Without Exploitation to help plan their third annual Equal Not Exploited Youth Summit, an annual gathering of allies, activists and artists, ages 16 – 28. This year, we had to gather virtually. My students and I gathered weekly with youth activists and movement leaders across the country. We provided insight to World WE’s executive team and collaborated with the planning committee to make the event accessible and as successful as possible. It was so striking and meaningful to see students find their own advocacy voices, and feel seen and heard by professionals who have been in the movement for a long time. Students also did extensive outreach for the event, and participated in the fundraising and social media committees, which allowed them to build practical skills they can carry into various future opportunities. Rashel Colome, a rising senior at Cristo Rey, said: “Being a part of the planning committee for the World WE Equal Not Exploited Youth Summit truly inspired me. I was able to work alongside a team of compassionate and powerful individuals who strive to make the world better and create change. This planning committee helped me to find my voice again. It reminded me to always speak out and never ever fall into the hands of injustices that have become social norms. I can without a doubt say that this committee set the foundation of a future of advocacy for me.”

Tori: How can educators get their school to take action against human trafficking?

Erin: As any good educator knows, teachers must know when to step back so their students can step up. The Cristo Rey Justice Club stepped up and adapted during one of the most challenging times the world has seen. As we approach another school year, an upcoming election, and a new reality in the next phase of Covid, I cannot think of anything more hopeful than these young student leaders—hungry, passionate, and eager to create a world without exploitation. This issue and the conversations surrounding it are so crucial to our work as educators. If you are an educator looking for ways to empower and educate your own students on the topic of commercial sexual exploitation here are a few options:

      • Join the World Without Exploitation Youth Coalition, a group of young people dedicated to ending sexual exploitation and human trafficking through education, advocacy and awareness. This is led by students and educators for students and educators.
      • Reach out to fellow educators! Erin welcomes the idea of connecting, and brainstorming ways for our students to collaborate. Email eregan@cristoreyny.org to discuss making this a reality.
      • Inspire your student body. Invite LifeWay Network to your school. We offer free education & training about human trafficking for students and educational professionals. please inquire here.
      • Spread the word! Share this blog on social media, and tag an educator and/or parent you know.
Post by Tori Curbelo, Manager of Education, Training & Advocacy

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash