They walked through the noise of the crowded college campus, leaving stunned faces and pointing fingers in their wake. One observer shouted, “What the fuck are you guys doing?” Some of them could have answered that they weren’t quite sure. Some were nervous; others were defiant. These fifteen or twenty students marched single-file through the University of Oregon, their hands bound to a single length of rope.
The “chain gang” never responded to the queries of curious or offended onlookers. That was Huston Hedinger’s job. Hands free, he stayed behind whenever someone dared to ask just why they were parading through their school like captives. The simple answer was spelled out in thick black letters on their red t-shirts: Slavery Still Exists. They were walking in silence for the 27 million enslaved men, women, and children who couldn’t speak for themselves.
In 2008, former UO student Huston Hedinger brought the issue of sex trafficking to the attention of his friends and schoolmates, hoping to do something to raise awareness on campus. Fueled by student support, efforts grew from events – like the chained march – into Slavery Still Exists, a full-fledged anti-slavery student organization.
In the Pacific Northwest, student movements have risen to combat domestic human trafficking. Slavery Still Exists is merely one example of how students are using countless resources and a diversity of skills to help obliterate modern slavery.
With an international airport, access to Canada, sea-ports and the Interstate 5 corridor, the Northwest has become a hotbed for sex slavery. “Seattle and Portland are numbers one and two in sex trafficking in the country,” says Steve Gutzler, president of Compassion2One, a Washington-based organization that facilitates the rescue and rehabilitation of enslaved children. “Victims are systematically trafficked from Canada across the border into Seattle, prostituted there, then taken to Portland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, the East Coast, and taken out of the country again.”
Traffickers are also attracted to the area because of lax prostitution and child pornography laws. “Offenders are often just given a slap on the wrist,” says Gutzler. “People who are into that go where they can get away with it.”
Experts like Gutzler agree that a widespread misunderstanding of prostitution is a huge part of the problem. “In Portland, prostitution is so normalized,” says Lexie Woodward, interim state director of Not for Sale Oregon and a senior at Portland State University. “But there is a clear link between prostitution and sex trafficking. It is sex slavery.”
Many underage girls who enter the trade as victims become criminals as soon as they turn 18, says Celeste Goulding, a Pacific University student and an intern with the Council for Prostitution Alternatives. Celeste works with victims of this cycle as both a friend and an advocate. She became overwhelmed by the scale of this problem after writing a research paper on the issue. “It seemed like the epitome of inequality,” she says.
For students like Woodward and Goulding, the decision to get involved happened in a flash. It was a no-brainer response to the shocking knowledge that human beings are still enslaved today.
Woodward struggles to recall the moment she committed to the cause. “I don’t even remember it. I took a course at school, did research… and I was hooked,” she says. “I felt called to it, not in a religious way, but I felt called.”
Oregon State University student Kristin Rudolph happened to be visiting her boyfriend at the UO during a week-long awareness event. There, she attended a speaker night featuring Bill Hillar, a retired colonel of the U.S. Army Special Forces. He told the story of his daughter, who was abducted by traffickers and sold to a brothel while traveling in Thailand. For Rudolph, that story shifted everything. “I tried to shrug off the feeling that something about this was so wrong, too wrong to be ignored. I had to do something.”
That something turned out to be taking the awareness week to OSU, helping to found The Student Abolitionists group on that campus. She eventually transferred to the UO as a junior and became co-president of Slavery Still Exists with junior Jennifer Gubbe.
One research paper, one lecture, and one exposure to the disturbing particulars of human trafficking has been enough to convince these three students to devote their time, studies, and in many cases, their futures to fighting modern slavery. Several non-profit organizations have taken notice of this enthusiasm and have made room for student activism in their programs.
“[Students] have energy, creative ideas; it’s inspiring to my generation,” says Wynne Wakkila, executive director of Oregonians Against the Trafficking of Humans (OATH). “My generation doesn’t understand it, we fought for women’s rights, but this — we don’t think it happens.”
“Students are good at taking up social justice issues,” notes Brianna Hodge, a student at the University of Portland and founder of the university’s chapter of OATH. “We want to get in the action and help as much as we can. We get frustrated that we can’t do more for the victims.”
Compassion2One recently partnered with organizations such as the Polaris Project and OATH in an effort to hinder trafficking along I-5 in anticipation of the winter 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Gutzler estimates that 30,000 to 60,000 women, girls and some boys have been trafficked into Canada for prostitution for the games. “There will be a huge influx of people. It is a huge, international venue. This makes for an enormous opportunity [for traffickers] to prostitute these victims,” he says.
For the I-5 campaign, Gutzler found a willing infantry in Slavery Still Exists members, who turned the campaign into a day-long event. Participants spent hours driving up and down I-5, speaking to gas station attendants and posting flyers with a help hotline number for victims of trafficking in restrooms.
But the student organization is not without its own innovations. They recently hosted a screening of Call + Response, a documentary about sex trafficking, and they will host a 5k run around the UO campus this spring. Behind each effort is a youthful, almost idealistic belief in the possibility of change. “Any real revolution has had its place on college campuses. At this age we really feel we can change the world, but we lose that as we grow,” says Rudolph. “We need to plant the seed now.”
As in the example of the chained march, anger is an obstacle these activists often face in their awareness campaigns. “People, if they know about it, know about India and Cambodia,” says Hodge, “but not here.”
When people first hear about the millions enslaved in our modern, freedom-loving society, denial is a common response. “It’s a depressing topic,” says Gubbe. “People back away angry because it’s too hard to fathom. They say ‘I don’t believe it’ because they can’t deal with it.”
But the sometimes thankless task of spreading the word is starting to pay off. Today, anti-slavery organizations exist at more than seven universities in Oregon alone, but when Woodward, Goulding, Rudolph and others consider what still must be done to abolish slavery, they see a much larger task. “I want to spend my life doing this,” says Rudolph, “but there’s no set career path called ‘fighting human trafficking.’”