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Southeastern Wisconsin has emerged as a thriving hub for human trafficking and sex trafficking in recent years. While some programs exist to help survivors who have escaped that life, there are few prevention resources for those who are at risk of being trafficked.
Who is especially vulnerable to traffickers? Milwaukee teens.
In fact, the average age when a victim is first trafficked is a mere 13, according to the City of Milwaukee’s Human Trafficking Task Force’s Unlucky 13 campaign. What’s more, the majority of trafficking incidents in Wisconsin occur in the City of Milwaukee, per the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Fortunately, Neu-Life Community Development has been educating Milwaukee youth on the signs and symptoms of sex trafficking through ARTREACH, a human/sex-trafficking awareness and prevention program, which Neu-Life offers as an add-on to their Promoting Health Among Teens (PHAT) teen pregnancy prevention program. The teens then work collaboratively to create artwork and narratives about the dangers of being trafficked.
“This is all about prevention,” said Jody Rhodes, executive director of Neu-Life.
The youth-created images and narratives are direct and heartbreaking.
“Candyman” portrays an older man handing out “money, clothes, and jewels” to young kids “to get them to trust them,” the narrative states. “Once they have the kids’ trust, they turn that against them and the kids get trapped in the dangerous world of trafficking. Don’t let your friends fall into these traps!”
“Right Outside Our Door” depicts a sex worker on a street corner near Neu-Life. “This picture shows someone so young and intelligent that is entrapped in the sex trafficking world. She could be right outside our doors. Will you be ready to help her? We are.”
“Girl in a Box” states: “She is not a product. She is not a toy.… She’s a human being. She is priceless.”
“Barcode” shows a woman with a barcode on the back of her neck. “She is not for sale,” the narrative reads. “She is not a product to be sold. Human traffickers treat their victims as property and products. This is not humane.”
Rhodes said she added the ARTREACH component after two human/sex trafficking incidents occurred near the center, located at 20th Street and North Avenue, about five years ago. One girl was taken to Chicago by her older boyfriend and was trafficked. At around the same time, a middle-school student was abducted while walking home from school in the neighborhood and trafficked in an apartment overlooking Water Street. She was eventually able to escape.
“Five years ago, it wasn’t a big issue in the news, but now it is,” Rhodes said. “We were ahead of the curve. We saw these things happening and said we need to get ahead of this issue. We said, our kids are falling prey to this and we need to add this to our prevention arsenal.”
Partnering with the Zonta Club of Milwaukee, Rhodes added ARTREACH to the PHAT program shortly after those incidents, with additional funding from the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute-administered Milwaukee Brighter Futures Initiative, as well as the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. The middle- and high school students who go through the program learn about the warning signs of human sex trafficking and its impact locally, nationally, and internationally. Armed with this knowledge, they can protect themselves and become peer advocates with those at risk of being trafficked.
Creating awareness is a big hurdle to overcome. Rhodes said many youth don’t believe trafficking is an issue and think it’ll never happen to them. But then they learn how human/sex trafficking can result from an unhealthy relationship—perhaps with an older boyfriend who wants to take them away for the weekend, when they’ll be trafficked, or a new boyfriend who showers them with gifts, grooming them for trafficking and dependence.
“My kids are way smarter now,” Rhodes said. “My hope is that they will stay out of that world and won’t get trafficked. Kids get trafficked and they don’t see it coming. But with this information they can stay out of that world and help others stay out -- friends and sisters and aunties and cousins and uncles. They will think, ‘I think my auntie is in danger.’ It’s kind of like they become little advocates out there to try to prevent more victims.”
Besides learning about the signs and symptoms of sex trafficking, the youth create works of art and narratives to educate the community about its horrors. Artworks are typically paintings, but Rhodes said the current enrollees are also working on poetry, and a PSA or a video may be crafted in the future. About a hundred teens have gone through the program, and many thousands more have seen the artwork displayed publicly—for example, at Milwaukee City Hall in 2015.
Rhodes said they’re doing a lot of advocacy in Racine, where local leaders are raising awareness of sex trafficking along the I-94 corridor. Neu-Life is also working on a tool kit so other youth programs can benefit from the resources they’ve developed. Rhodes also welcomes groups to contact her if they want to display the artworks and narratives to expand their reach.
“Not everyone can go through the ARTREACH program,” Rhodes said. “But if it’s on display the public can get educated from the paintings and narratives from our own kids.”
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