Thomas and Natika: Finding Purpose and solving for Human Trafficking

Natika Washington was enlisted in active duty in the military for 10 years prior to joining the State Department as the Director of the Office of Global Women’s Issues. It was through her experience in the military that she decided she wanted to do more to help women on a global scale. She described the military as ‘very much male dominated’ and experienced grave amounts of discrimination and sexual harassment. ‘The first time it happened I thought I was alone,’ she recalls. ‘I was 20/21’ and didn’t know what to do but I knew it wasn’t right.’ ‘I knew I couldn’t stay silent and I knew I needed to say something.’ Natika slowly started speaking out on her own behalf but begin to realize that there were others who were experiencing similar harassment. ‘It was almost as though we’d developed an accepting trait,’ she said, ‘after not speaking out for so long, we accepted when it happened.’ ‘It wasn’t right.’ In efforts to help, Natika rallied groups of women and started talking about exactly what was happening. The women made a plan to help each other, speak out and stick together. From this point on, Natika knew there was more she needed to do to help solve for the things women were facing, in the military and beyond.

In 2008 when it came time to transition out of the military Natika knew she wanted to help women speak out about the issues that they were facing. While in the military Natika was a flight attendant and had the chance to fly around global leaders, of them included a senior staff of Secretary Condoleezza Rice. She loved being around global leaders and when she met the Staff she suggested that Natika apply for the internship program at the State Department. “I knew the military was not my last stop,” Natika recalls. She got the internship and shortly after, Natika was told about an opening in Secretary Clinton’s Office of Global Issues, where they needed some help. ‘I’ll give you this opportunity but you have to make this position your own and use networking as a way to make your way through,’ the staffer advised Natika. ‘I’d never done anything of the sorts but it sounded exciting, so I applied and got hired, I didn’t know what I was doing but I was a sponge for absorbing and understanding the problem.’ In 8 years, Natika grew the office from a $5 million operation to $70 million; here she issued small grants to grassroots organizations and developing nations. ‘I wanted to do more, and felt it was my calling to help those who don’t necessarily have the means to speak out,’ Natika mentions.

Thomas had a similar calling, not around women but around writing. He’s now a leader in the Human trafficking space where he uses media to solve for the issues of trafficking, but he didn’t always focus on social change. Thomas is a writer of many years but at one point felt like he should be using his talents for something greater than himself. At church one day he heard the pastor talk about giving back, and doing more for others than you do for yourself. This message resonated with him. He admits he wasn’t big on giving back, not because it wasn’t important but because he wasn’t raised this way; his parents didn’t volunteer, he wasn’t very familiar with the concept. But as an adult he attended church often and heard of ‘purpose and giving back.’ Here, he felt it was his calling to do more.

He met with a friend who at the time was involved in FBI rescue missions where they would go into countries and camps where young girls and boys were being trafficked and sold and pull them out of the brothels, businesses and homes. ‘A form of modern day slavery,’ he says, ‘where people are bought and sold for sex.’ “It’s not right and we can’t afford to look away.” He remembers listening to his friend who happened to mention, ‘these girls were looking at magazines in the brothels.’ Even in the midst of these brothels, void of the outside world, they were still exposed to some sort of the outside; comic books and magazines were common. He had an idea; what if the girls read things that resonated with their situation and helped rescue them; from this Freedom Ladder and Abolitionista was born; a nonprofit and a comic book that talks about the trials and tribulations of girls and boys who are trafficked, what they go through and how to help.

It’s a way to tell their story but also speak to the signs of persons being trafficked, and ways to be a part of the solution. Thomas’ hope is that someone who knows a person being trafficked or someone in danger will read the book and seek help. On the receiving end of help are organizations like Polaris, a global organization that helps eradicate trafficking through programs and data. Of there 3000 outside partners, they work with the national trafficking hotline to gather data and information on persons being trafficked so they can work with partners to solve for some of the nearly 25,000 cases. Natika, after leaving the State Department, now works as the Chief Development Officer at Polaris. Here, she sees how important data is in helping people. She applied to about 70 jobs and finally landed this job. ‘There are so many ways to help solve for human trafficking,’ she said. ‘I feel my experience at the State Department and the military has led me here, to do more.’

Unfortunately human trafficking is a 150 billion dollar industry and there are more than 30,000 cases in the US, last year alone the human trafficking hotline received 100,000 phone calls. The data they collect help law enforcement disrupt cases and save victims. There are about 25 types of trafficking and they can take place in public where children sell magazines door to door, work in cafes and restaurants and they also take place in more closed-off, private areas- like Cantinas (See the More than Drinks Report) to massage parlors (a recent case in Modesto).

It happens in places closer than you think, like airports where one flight attendant was able to rescue a victim on board her flight. There are victims who come and go through hospitals, many in emergency rooms because the grueling work forced upon them; like shifts lasting up to 12 hours to 18 hours. They can be in restaurants where cooks, cleaners and workers are forced to work against their will and not get paid a fair wage. Just because it happens, does not make it right. And just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. To learn more on human trafficking, visit Polaris’ website or download Abolitionista the comic book. If you are in danger, know someone who is or need help, please text the Polaris BeFree Textline at “BeFree” (233733) or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (1-888-373-7888).

If you are struggling to find your place, tap into your talent or find a sense of belonging- find something larger than yourself, align with your values, be honest with yourself, and work towards a larger purpose, you are here for something much greater than yourself.

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