This blog is the first of a series showing the unique ways human trafficking is discussed and present in cities around the world. Want to share about your city? Email Elaine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington, D.C. is a city of statistics and jargon.
If discussed at all, human trafficking and exploitation is discussed through reports and studies. For residents, however, these issues affect the city in ways that numbers can’t often explain.
In Southeast, D.C., two people were arrested in July for running a child sex ring. Since then I’ve read even more stories of exploitation in different parts of the city.
By my office in Northwest, D.C., there’s a bus stop where a digital screen shuffles between ads. There are many—one for a local community college, one for Ryan Seacrest’s new reality show, one for a new home security camera.
Sandwiched between these colorful slides is one from the FBI advertising a number to report child exploitation. Given the subject matter, it’s kind of alarming when you see it, but within seconds, it’s gone. Replaced by a slide selling a sleek smart thermostat.
The placement of this bus ad reminds me of the subject of exploitation itself. The topic can be brought up randomly—through a newspaper article or an activist’s event or a Facebook comment—but it washes away in our 24-hour news cycle unless we pay close attention.
In college, I was peripherally involved with Tufts University’s Love146 Task Force and recognized child trafficking and exploitation as a serious issue. I knew the talking points, but felt like cases varied so greatly that it would be impossible to target all, or even most, perpetrators. There was simply not enough information available to know how widespread trafficking was.
I thought I’d hear less about human trafficking after graduating from a campus of globally-minded activists, but I was wrong. Not fully understanding human trafficking didn’t keep the subject from cropping up in my life in D.C. I kept stumbling across more stories and more reports.
When I read about horrific crimes, I feel terrible, but those feelings don’t often amount to actions.
But I don’t think learning about the problem and its role in your city requires you to donate half your salary or become a crusader. I’ve seen people look out for kids in small but significant ways.
Last summer I observed a woman at a restaurant in Columbia Heights gently and discreetly ask a young girl if she was okay when her male guardian stepped away for a moment.
That could have been a potentially awkward moment—especially because child trafficking and exploitation can bring up more questions and uncertainty than answers.
For me, and others in D.C., it’s easy for that uncertainty to harden into cynicism. But I think there are still ways to take action against a problem, even when you don’t have all the answers.
You can seek out solid reporting when you suspect you are misinformed. You can inspire confidence and encourage healthy relationships among the young people in your life.
And you can, like me, save the child exploitation hotline number from the FBI bus ad in your cell phone—just in case.