Original appearing in the Huffington Post.
The bruised face of a woman on a billboard displayed in London’s Canary Wharf heals faster as more passersby look at her. This advertisement, which recognizes when people are paying attention to the image of the bruised woman, sends viewers the message that by not turning a blind eye to domestic violence, victims will start to heal.
Closer to home, female victims of abuse also began to heal by watching a survivor of domestic violence speak out to them, and for them. “Please reach out for help,”Brooke Axtell urged during her appearance at the 2015 Grammy Awards in January. “Your voice will save you.”
And hers certainly has. “I immediately received messages from women all over the U.S. who wrote that they were living in abusive relationships, and after seeing and hearing me on the Grammys, they were then ready to leave,” Brooke says. “I was stunned.”
Three months later, her amazement has turned into action, which is not surprising from a 34-year-old woman who was strong enough to survive years of sexual violence, which began as early as the age of seven. “I now believe that survivors, like myself, can be the best leaders to end human trafficking in the U.S.”
And that’s exactly what Allies Against Slavery, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping communities and cities create holistic solutions to human trafficking and modern slavery is doing. As its new director of communications and engagement, Axtell says, “The idea that slavery exists in our country is hard for most people to believe. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it continues.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States, and 86 percent of U.S. counties with populations over 250,000 reported sex trafficking as a significant problem, according to the NACo. Still, these numbers don’t accurately reflect the vast number of victims who fall prey to sex trafficking because modern slavery is such a hidden crime that it is difficult to quantify.
Axtell, along with Allies Against Slavery, has therefore made it her mission to increase awareness about sex trafficking, with the goal to ultimately eliminate it, one state at a time. “We are devoted to ending human trafficking in the U.S., starting with Austin and central Texas,” Axtell says. It was, in fact, in her hometown of Austin that a small group of citizens originally came together for the first meeting of Allies Against Slavery in 2010. Reflecting a diverse cross-section of individuals and organizations from around the city, these founding members shared the simple belief that they each have the opportunity to end slavery, and that it can be done best by working together. Growing by 340 percent in just three years as a volunteer-led organization, over 5,500 people have since been educated, and hundreds of local survivors have been supported through its work. “Making Austin the first slave-free city in the U.S. is our rallying cry,” Axtell adds.
Toward that end, stakeholders from Austin’s eight key sectors across public, private and volunteer domains will come together on April 17-18 for two full days to contribute their unique insight, skills and resources to create opportunities and solutions to the problem of sex trafficking and slavery in their city. Dubbed The Slave-Free City Summit, those in attendance will further address such crucial topics as the disruption of unjust systems, race, history, art, faith, immigration, transitional justice, technology, enterprise, and other issues that intersect with the problem of human trafficking in the United States. The organization’s goal is to increasingly work with its partners to empower local survivors, while finding safe ways for community members to support them. “Austin, however, is just the beginning,” Axtell asserts. “We are working with partners across the U.S., while planning to put forward a state slave-free resolution in the fall.” “We are looking at every possible strategy to interrupt trafficking and help survivors,” she continues, “And I strongly believe that we can ultimately make our entire country slave-free.”
And I believe her.
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an educational psychologist and founder/publisher of Difference Matters magazine.