An interfaith coalition convened a community forum on the issue of human trafficking within city limits and beyond on Aug. 25 at the First Congregational Church of Escondido.
Brought together by the First Congregational Church’s Missions and Social Justice Team, the forum featured speakers from a cross-section of the San Diego County community. They included Mary Ellen-Barrett, deputy district attorney for San Diego County; Jaimee Johnson, a human trafficking survivor and founder of the organization Sisters of the Streets; Jonathan King Cretot, a case manager for the LGBTQ Center North County; Trish Martinez, the Native American liaison for the San Diego Human Trafficking Advisory Council; and Estela De Los Rios, executive director of CSA San Diego County.
The First Congregational Church is part of a broader interfaith coalition of groups fighting against human trafficking in Escondido and San Diego County named Escondido Together. Also part of that coalition is Mosques Against Trafficking, which is spearheaded by the Islamic Society of North County, overseen by Yusef Miller. Miller served as the moderator for the panel.
On the sidelines of the event, Miller said the bulk of the work his organization does — upwards of 90 percent of the workload — is educational outreach, akin to the forum hosted at the First Congregational Church. But his organization does other things, as well.
“The other 10 percent will be services, or connecting people with services,” Miller said. “So we give them references. Other than that, we go to Native American reservations and give the same lecture, we go to churches and give the same lecture, we go mosques and give the same lecture. Schools, we give the same lecture. So that’s mainly what we do: we give awareness. But once we get this awareness out, hopefully — the thinking is — the demand will drop and the actual contact with victims will stop.”
Ellen-Barrett, who serves as a deputy to San Diego County Attorney General Summer Stephan, opened the panel up by discussing that 80 percent of human trafficking victims are in California and they make up 100 percent of her case load. Tackling human trafficking — in particular sex trafficking — she said, is a major priority for Stephan.
Johnson, a former victim of sex trafficking and now an advocate for other survivors, now does volunteer work for Sisters of the Streets and the Survivor Leader Network of San Diego. She said that for Sisters on the Streets, she and others head to areas around San Diego County at which sex workers and trafficked women stroll the streets seeking business and attempt to be a positive resource for women looking to get out of what’s often referred to as “the life.”
“I do street outreach once a month, which is really healing for me,” she said. “So, basically we collect nice purses from the community and fill them with hygiene items and makeup items and a business card and we go out and just fellowship with the other women who are still out there. It’s not to go out and save anybody, but it’s to plant a seed to remind them that somebody cares and loves them and someone who’s been there and that they can relate to and that there is hope and there is another side to this.”
Johnson also noted that in San Diego County, those women who have more of an “exotic” look — which could mean of a certain race or biracial — go for a higher price on the sex trafficking market. She was also careful to say that she thought that the U.S.’ “oversexualized” and “lustful” culture was the root cause of the sex trafficking issue, as opposed to it being a case of good people versus bad people.
“It’s not that somebody’s evil or somebody’s good and we’ve got to fill the prisons up with them and all of the buyers are bad,” she said. “We have to get to the deeper root of this issue and that is pornography, and that is lust and that is an oversexualized culture.”
Human trafficking is not just a theoretical concern in Escondido. In 2013, a 13-year-old human trafficking victim was secured from a motel in Escondido by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, brought into the city from Fresno, California. The Escondido Police Department is part of the San Diego County Human Trafficking Task Force, which is overseen by District Attorney Stephan.
Fending off human trafficking, of course, is not only a concern for people with a religious life outlook. But for Holgie Choi, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Escondido, working on this issue is at its core an issue of faith and religiosity.
“We come together because we believe that faith can change our streets or faith can change our city,” Choi explained. “So, we try to tackle issues of homelessness, human trafficking, if there is a national crisis somewhere in our nation such as gun violence, we host prayer vigils. I’ve been very blessed to be part of this interfaith group of all traditions, whether it’s Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, we can all collectively work together for a common cause.”
Mosques Against Trafficking’s Miller said that Escondido Together will next play host to a backpack-stuffing event from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 22 at the First Congregational Church. An interfaith community will gather on that date, he explained, to prepare backpacks with objects helpful to saved victims of trafficking transitioning back to everyday life in the community. This will be the second annual gathering of the sort.
“They’re meant to be a first contact gift for anyone who’s coming out of that life,” Miller explained. “We give them some sense of humanity and warmth that people care about them. And what we did last year was we had different religious traditions volunteer to bring certain items for these backpacks.”
Miller further explained that Escondido Together focuses on having teenagers at the backpack event because teens are often the target of human traffickers.