With January being Human Trafficking Awareness, advocate and activist Christine Watson talks about what she and others are doing to prevent the terrible practice.
Residence: Fort Valley
Q: When did you start working against human trafficking and for its victims?
A: I guess 2010. I heard a speaker at my church from International Justice Mission, a ministry which works to liberate victims of sexual exploitation, labor slavery, trafficking, abuse and related injustice. I was horrified. I cried. I cried for a year. The figures and the horrible, horrible stories were staggering. I learned it was a major international and local problem. Headlines prove it more and more. I’ve never gotten over how horrible human trafficking is whether it’s children or adults.
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Q: Besides cry, what did you do?
A: Looked for someone locally to educate me and get involved with. I couldn’t find anyone so I educated myself and started telling others: individuals, civic groups, church groups, whoever would listen.
Q: What do you recommend now for someone wanting to help?
A: Identify local organizations and start learning. Thankfully, they’re there now. Find out who’s doing what, reach out to them and make them tell you all they can. Go to meetings. Find out where you fit. Not everyone needs to re-invent the wheel. Take all the energy and outrage this issue brings and channel it into useful, wise action. Don’t lose your passion by any means, but use it effectively. One day you may fill a need no one else is but first it’s good strategy to get the lay of the land, so to speak. Collaborate. That’s so important and Middle Georgia has some great collaboration and cooperation.
Q: Over time you found and fostered local organizations. What are some?
A: Most directly, I volunteered with IJM. My first steps were meeting my local, state and national elected officials to help educate, speak for legislation and advocate for victims. You’ll find your representatives are receptive and it does a lot of good.
Q: What are other groups you’ve collaborated with?
A: I joined the board of MG ALERT — the Middle Georgia Alliance to End Regional Trafficking — and became its chair for several years. Sheila Stokes is chair now and I’m vice chair. It works to prevent and combat human trafficking through community education, victim advocacy and legal advocacy. We do a lot of things like helping locally trafficked victims who’re cooperating with law enforcement by providing safe places to stay, transportation home and things like that. As far as IJM, I’m now senior advocacy coordinator for Middle Georgia and a lot of my focus is on legislative action. I meet with legislators locally and have traveled to Washington. I serve on the advisory board of Out of Darkness Middle Georgia and have connections with other groups like Traffic Jam, a group of Mercer University students who help prevent Macon-Bibb County’s youth from becoming victims. They go into schools and take on projects.
Q: All of this as a volunteer?
A: Volunteer. We’re all volunteers in this. I have a normal, full-time job with Synovus. They’re a great, community-involved organization. As far as more anti-trafficking groups, I’m sure I’m missing some and there are more church and interest groups becoming aware and active. But wow, with the need as great as it is there needs to be so much more.
Q: What are pitfalls for someone just getting involved?
A: Again, I don’t want anyone to lose their passion, but please accurately educate yourself and don’t go wrongly blasting people and organizations for not doing enough when maybe you don’t know all that’s going on. We need outrage but what you want done may not be their task and they may be doing more than you know. Don’t get me wrong, there needs to be more awareness and change and who knows who might help bring it about, but know there are so many agencies and organizations in Middle Georgia dealing with at-risk individuals that are being educated and are doing a lot in their roles. Be sensitive to them. I think of groups like the Daybreak Center, Salvation Army, CASA, Family Promise, the area children’s homes, Rainbow House, the Macon-Bibb sheriff’s department, Byron police and so many more I’m sure. We don’t want to lose sight of what they’re doing and my hat is off to them. I’m proud of our community and how specific ministries have stepped up to do particular things.
Q: You mentioned your legislative focus. What’s happening there?
A: Positive legislation has passed in recent years requiring posters with human trafficking hotline numbers be placed in places like motels, transportation stations, adult clubs and other locations. MG ALERT helped get posters out. Penalties for traffickers have increased and purchasers of sex are being recognized as traffickers themselves. I’m excited about pending national legislation called H.R.767 SOAR to Health and Wellness that will help make sure health workers are educated on trafficking. That’s important because 88 percent of victims rescued report having had contact with health care workers. Those workers could have helped them if more aware. Another thing is Georgia’s lobby day coming up in Atlanta Feb. 20. We travel there to meet with our legislators and let them know we support anti-human trafficking measures and help for victims. They listen. Action is so simple: stay informed, go to events, sign petitions, call legislators. A little time doing these things can help in a big way. Remember this is about people, not just issues.
Q: What’s the most important change needed?
A: Well, stop trafficking — that’s the point right? But along the way I think perceptions must change so we see those trafficked, prostituted, young people involved, are victims and not criminals. They need help, not prosecution or scorn. Most of us can’t imagine what brought them to where they are.
Q: Can you direct people to information?
A: You can look up any of these groups and can call me at 478-213-5236. For general information I suggest www.ijm.org as a good place to start.
Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.