Photo: End Slavery Tennessee founder and CEO Derri Smith addresses the Friday, July 14 meeting of the Rotary Club of Brentwood at the FiftyForward Martin Center in Brentwood.
By LANDON WOODROOF
End Slavery Tennessee founder and CEO Derri Smith first got involved with the issue of human trafficking on the international stage. She helped teams of people in foreign countries come up with strategies to aid victims and try to curtail the crime.
Eventually, though, Smith began to turn her focus to trafficking in her home state of Tennessee. It made her realize something.
“I knew where to get help for a girl in Turkey or Uganda, but I had no idea where to get help for a girl in my own community,” she said Friday at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Brentwood. “And that is because there really wasn’t any place to get help. It’s a more hidden crime here.”
For the past several years Smith and her team at End Slavery Tennessee have been doing their best to push trafficking out of the shadows. They provide care for victims and train people how to be on the lookout for trafficking in their own communities. They advocate for new laws and work to prevent future instances of trafficking. It is demanding work that requires a significant amount of resources, including plenty of time and money, but those resources are all dependent on the most important of all: attention.
Smith said that when she first decided to devote herself to fighting trafficking in Tennessee she got the same response over and over.
“Oh, that doesn’t happen here,” people would say. Smith knew this was not true. To cite just one case, a man was convicted in Williamson County in March for trafficking a woman out of the Extended Stay America hotel in Brentwood.
“The truth is we didn’t recognize it here,” she said.
At the time police officers were not trained to recognize trafficking and even if they had been, the state’s laws regarding trafficking were at best mediocre, Smith said. On top of that, the lack of “coordinated, specialized care” often left trafficking victims in Tennessee feeling as if they had no place to turn.
The reality was and is that Tennessee has a significant trafficking problem, specifically sex trafficking. Volunteer leader Stacy Elliott told the Rotary Club that 94 children, the majority of them girls, are trafficked in Tennessee each month.
“That’s 94 minors who have been taken out of their childhood and have been forced almost daily to endure sexual assault by multiple strangers,” Elliott said.
Those numbers send a clear message to Elliott.
“If we are not doing something we are tolerating the presence of nearly 1,200 child sex slaves annually,” she said.
Hope Green knows this story all too well. On Friday, she talked about her life as a sex trafficking victim from early childhood to the age of 30.
Many aspects of her story point to the difficulty of the fight against trafficking. The people who trafficked her, she said, were church-going, seemingly upright members of the community. As a result, everyone assumed that Green lived a happy life as a part of a perfect family.
The reality was far different, and Green spend much of her life suicidally depressed. Even so, if people did notice her distress, they did not do anything about it.
“No one ever really took the time to say what’s wrong,” Green said. “Is there something going on with you? Is there something going on in your house?”
Green lived in a world of physical and mental bondage. She was often kept in physical isolation and was repeatedly told that sex was the only thing she was good for.
“My entire life I truly thought I was just this horrible, evil person that deserved to be treated this way,” Green said.
Eventually, Green was able to escape that life, and she urges others to do what they can to raise awareness so that other victims are able to do the same.
“My cry to you today is to think, What if this was my sister or my daughter or my son?” Green said. “What if this was somebody I love and care about? If you can’t muster up the compassion for me, think of those people you love more than anything.”
The message about trafficking has been getting through to more people the past few years. Smith talked about various ways in which the situation in Tennessee has improved.
“The tide is turning, and I want to tell you this so that you will have hope that there are solutions and you really can make a difference,” Smith said.
For one thing, she said the laws have improved significantly in Tennessee.
“In the last few years we have gone from mediocre laws to the strongest in the nation,” Smith said.
On top of that, there is now trafficking-related mandatory law enforcement training throughout the state to help officers better fight trafficking, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has four officers dedicated to the issue, Smith said.
Awareness of trafficking has also grown, and the state Department of Children’s Services is now referring more and more trafficking victims to End Slavery Tennessee.
With these successes, however, come challenges. To give an example, as everyone knows, Nashville has been something of a boom town in recent years, with people flocking to travel or move here at an astounding rate. Consequently, real estate prices have skyrocketed. This has made it more difficult for End Slavery Tennessee to procure safe houses for the people it helps.
“It has taken some extraordinarily generous people to keep the doors open on those facilities,” Smith said.
Smith had been invited to speak at the Rotary Club meeting by the club’s president Steve Grissim. Grissim learned about End Slavery Tennessee at the Rotary International Convention this past June in Atlanta. The group’s message resonated with him strongly. So strongly in fact that he wants to make human trafficking the Rotary Club’s next big focus.
“All of us can see the good in this,” he said. “We will always want to continue to alleviate polio, but this I hope will be our new mission.”
Grissim led a brainstorming session after the end of the meeting to encourage club members to come up with ways to help End Slavery Tennessee. Some presidents from other clubs in the district were present also.
“I hope it makes you mad,” Grissim said, about the story Hope Green and told and the statistics others had cited Friday. “We can do something. We are leaders in our community, and I hope for our club and for our district that this is what unites us.”