By Jennifer Reyes Lay, Executive Director of USCSAHT
We are just days away from Christmas and a little over a week from welcoming in the new year. As the Advent season draws to a close, and we prepare to celebrate the birth of God-with-us as the light begins to return little by little, we take pause to reflect on all this past year has held.
2020 has certainly been full of unexpected challenges and sorrows. The arrival of COVID-19 shut down business as usual and forced us to change many of the ways we went about our daily lives and work. We mourn with the families of the now more than 315,000 souls who have passed away due to COVID complications, and to all those who have lost employment and worry about providing for their families, paying the bills, and keeping a roof over their heads. This year has also shown us in these challenging times the power of community coming together to care for one another and protect the most vulnerable, even with an act as simple as wearing a mask. As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to be felt well into 2021, we remain committed to doing our part to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable to prevent a rise in human trafficking and exploitation during these difficult times.
As a network of congregations, coalitions, churches, and individuals committed to ending human trafficking and supporting survivors, I am truly proud and humbled when I look back at all we’ve been able to accomplish this year despite the many challenges. The work reflected below could not have happened without your support and collaboration, and I look forward to continuing this work together in 2021!
Education and Prevention
We started the year strong with January as the National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month, participating in various activities and communications to raise awareness about human trafficking. At the end of January, we were exhibitors and presenters at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington D.C., engaging hundreds of Catholics from around the country. Little did we know that would be our last in-person conference of the year! As cities began shutting down in early March, other national conferences and meetings we were planning to attend were canceled. However, by mid-year many groups had adapted to online platforms for their conferences and we were glad to be able to participate virtually in the LCWR national conference and the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. With in-person gatherings cancelled and school classes moved online as well, we have adapted to virtual presentations and are grateful to have been able to meet with groups and students around the country teaching about human trafficking, prevention, and identification. Our working group, which includes both lay and religious members, has also been hard at work to review and update all of our current educational modules, and we created a new one focusing on sex trafficking of indigenous girls and women. We also hosted five educational webinars for our members throughout the year covering topics like advocacy, giving a human trafficking 101 presentation, an intro to the new website, human trafficking and indigenous communities, and socially responsible investing. We look forward to continuing this work in 2021 with new modules, new webinars, and even launching a children’s coloring book on the life of St. Josephine Bakhita which is in progress!
Thanks to the purchase of a new software system to manage our advocacy initiatives, we have had a great year of increasing engagement on a variety of advocacy initiatives focused on prevention and protection of vulnerable populations. We kicked off the year with a joint campaign for Lent with Catholics across the country, engaging Sysco Corporation to prevent slavery in their seafood supply chain. Thousands of members sent in postcards and we collected almost 1,000 signatures on our online petition. In collaboration with the education working group, we hosted a training webinar on advocacy for our members in March. As Congress debated COVID relief packages, we engaged over 400 supporters in contacting their senators about ensuring migrants and refugees were included in this much-needed support, and signed onto a joint letter about additional funding for survivor services during the pandemic. Hearing that children were at greater risk of online exploitation due to increased screen time and shifting trafficking trends during the pandemic we created an online petition to Attorney General Barr to enforce the Protect Our Children Act of 2008, collecting over 1,200 signatures. We also created a page on our website dedicated to information about keeping kids safe online and currently have an ongoing campaign to support the EARN IT Act which would help prevent online trafficking and exploitation.
We were excited to start the year being able to support a survivor with an educational scholarship to successfully finish her Master’s degree, and are ending the year on a similar note having given out a second educational scholarship to support another amazing survivor pursuing her Master’s degree! This is thanks to your generous support of our survivor services fund. We were also able to meet some emergency survivor needs this year including covering legal fees and travel funds for a survivor returning to her home country. In collaboration with the Hilton Foundation, we were able to meet some emergency funding needs of survivor shelters and organizations run by our members to provide additional support during the pandemic. This allowed houses to adapt to online learning for the women living there, cover additional food and utilities costs with everyone at home, assist with temporary housing costs, and provide health and safety products to women on the street. We also had a productive year internally as our survivor services group worked on the development of mentorship program guidelines, established core values of our survivor services work, updated the resources available on our website, and strengthened connections to member-run shelters.
With more people than ever relying on electronic resources and communications during the pandemic, we were proud to be able to launch a new, updated website in July 2020. This website has brought in more views than ever (over 3,000 visits per month!) with people able to easily access accurate and current information about human trafficking and get involved in one of our current campaigns. The new website also includes special portals for members and for our survivor services working group to improve collaboration and access to important information. One important resource shared through our website is the monthly Stop Trafficking Newsletter, which underwent a successful transition to a new editing and design team at the beginning of 2020, providing the same great information with a new, modern look. This year we also grew our presence and messaging through social media, introducing new daily hashtags to highlight our members, share facts about human trafficking, offer inspiring quotes to encourage us in our work, and highlight the voices and stories of survivors. If you aren’t already following us, be sure to connect on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube! We’ve also grown our mailing list to include almost 2,000 supporters interested in staying involved and taking action to end human trafficking. We are excited in 2021 to launch a new USCSAHT brochure, a downloadable monthly calendar highlighting anti-trafficking days and resources, and a Spanish version of our current website!
Even though the pandemic has kept us from being able to gather in person across borders, technology has allowed us to maintain strong ties to our sister networks across the globe through Talitha Kum. We are grateful for the leadership of Sr. Ann Oestreich, USCSAHT Board President, who represents the Northern Hemisphere networks on the International Coordinating Committee of Talitha Kum. Talitha Kum leaders this past year have given many online presentations, highlighting the work of Catholic sisters and challenges during the pandemic, and continuing to inspire hope in difficult times. Through Talitha Kum connections we were also able to help a survivor of trafficking successfully return to her home country in West Africa, and provide free art therapy to survivors in New York. In the Western Hemisphere we continue to share events and resources to prevent trafficking, and recently completed a joint campaign for the 16 days of action against gender-based violence, highlighting the reality of human trafficking and violence against women in each of our network countries over the 16 days. We are gearing up for the February 8thDay of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking which will involve a day-long prayer marathon hosted by Talitha Kum networks all over the world, including U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking. The theme this coming year is “An Economy without Human Trafficking,” and you can help participate by downloading this sign, writing in your message, and sharing on social media.
This year has also included ongoing capacity building and strengthening of the organization. We are proud that our work has attracted new members to join us in realizing a world without slavery, and that our improved website and database systems have made that easier than ever. We are grateful to all our members who collaborated in a capacity assessment survey to improve and strengthen our work together in the coming years. We continue to build strategic partnerships with other anti-trafficking organizations, recognizing and valuing our collective power together. As a young and growing organization, we were thrilled to be able to welcome a second staff person to the team in March of 2020 – Rebecca Guzman who serves as our Development Coordinator. We are also excited that in 2021 we will continue to grow our team as a search for a full-time Program Coordinator is currently underway.
Overall, we are so proud of what we have been able to accomplish together in 2020 and look forward to all that 2021 will bring. Despite the challenges of this past year, our donors and supports have remained strong in their commitment to fighting human trafficking and supporting survivors. We are so grateful for all you have shared with us this past year and appreciate your ongoing support into 2021. If you would like to make a final year-end donation to support our continued work in 2021, you can do so easily HERE.
On behalf of all those at U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, I wish you a safe and peaceful Christmas and a happy New Year! May 2021 bring some much-needed relief to all who are suffering, and may our message and vision of a world without slavery touch even more hearts to join in this work together!