Columbia Links students research human trafficking

By Assistant Metro Editor

Six high school students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools learned about human trafficking in Illinois through an investigative project this past summer.

The students, all enrolled in Columbia Links, a program that enhances the journalistic and leadership skills of Chicago teens and teachers, presented their research on human trafficking at a Nov. 6 town hall meeting held at the Columbia College Music Center, 1014 S. Michigan Ave.

The teen journalists—Nathan Cordero, a senior at Lane Tech College Preparatory High School; Solomon David, a junior at Marist High School; Maria De Leon, a junior at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center; Kaylah Harrington, a senior at Robert Lingblom Math & Science Academy; Tonyisha Harris, a senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School; and Byron Mason II, a junior, also at Whitney M. Young— worked hand-in-hand with professional reporters, social workers, legal directors and local prostitutes to uncover the story, titled “Human Trafficking: Teens Caught in the Shadows,” over an eight-week period during the summer.

Along with the six students, the panel at the town hall meeting included Renee Ferguson, a former NBC 5 investigative reporter; Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder and executive director of The Dreamcatchers Foundation, Kalyani Gopal, clinical psychologist and president of the Sex-Trafficking Awareness, Freedom and Empowerment Coalition for Human Rights; Al Krok, a retired Chicago police detective and consultant on the commercial sexual exploitation of children; Christine Evans, a legal director for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and Sgt. William Leen of the Cook County sheriff’s vice unit.

“What our students uncovered is the fact that slavery never ended in America,” Ferguson said. “The abduction, the forced labor, the broken bodies, the broken spirits, the buying and selling of human beings for huge profit is happening every day—all around us—while most of us just live our lives oblivious to what’s going on.”

The students who participated in the investigative program, or “I-team,” were allowed to choose what subject they wanted to research. Topics such as the cost of college and the relationship between students and police officers were discussed as possible research projects, but the group decided on human trafficking.

“I was the one that advocated really hard for [a project on] human trafficking, but I had no idea what I was getting into until [speaking with] Brenda,” Harris said.

Myers-Powell said she was once a prostitute. After she got out of prostitution in 1997, she went to a shelter to seek help. Years after recovery, she decided it was her duty to help others who are also stuck in the cycle of human solicitation. Myers-Powell said she goes out to neighborhoods known for prostitution frequently to pick up vulnerable young girls and bring them to proper shelters.

“At the end of the road, my last customer drove me six blocks, tore all of the skin off [of] my face and the right side of my body,” Myers-Powell said. “It seemed like I had no identity.”

The students said they were moved by Myers-Powell’s story and called her their hero.

Gopal explained the psychology behind human trafficking at the meeting, saying that the solicitation is less about sexuality and has more to do with money and the feeling of having power.

“There’s an invisibility about these women and men,” Gopal said. “They’re young, they do not have a voice and they do not have power.”

Gopal said human trafficking and prostitution begins most commonly at age 13. Children who have gone through foster care tend to be more susceptible to falling into it.

“The dark side of foster care is that these children are paychecks,” Gopal said. “They’re paychecks to parents, so by the time they grow up, being a paycheck for a pimp is not a foreign concept.”

Mason said the I-Team’s compiled research articles were published in a 2014 White Paper publication. One article stated that 11 percent of males who pay for sex are ages 10–15.

The students told the audience that pimps, or “Johns,” typically present themselves as a good friend or romantic partner at first but will eventually trap victims and force them to work in human trafficking or prostitution.

“We’re teenagers,” Harrington said. “We face a lot of vulnerabilities. They will sniff out your insecurities, they will come to you and they will try to coerce you into this line of work and make it seem like it’s OK.”

Throughout the presentation, the students emphasized the idea that different organizations  need to start working together  in order to combat prostitution.

“In all the people that we’ve talked to, one of the biggest things is that in this arena of combating human trafficking, whether it be from the federal government, organizations or nonprofits, is that they all work together,” Cordero said. “When they work together and team up, that’s truly when they do the most change.”