By Leah Williams
The University of Toledo hosted over 500 local high school students from public and parochial schools on Wednesday, September 18 as a part of their Annual International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference.
The conference, which celebrated its 16th year, has welcomed high school students to campus for the last six years. Anna Schramm, Research Assistant at the University’s Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, said that conference organizers were purposeful in creating an opportunity to address teenagers.
“Six years ago, when we decided to start the high school day, we realized that these were the people we were really needing to get in front of because they’re the ones who are confronting this issue; their friends might be dealing with it, they might come in contact with it,” Ms. Schramm said. “So, we really wanted to make them aware of [human trafficking] and then hopefully they learn something and take it back to their schools and spread the word.”
The day for the high schoolers started en masse with a Human Trafficking 101 session presented by Kizzy Williams, a Toledo area social worker and victim advocate, who provides legal advocacy services to victims of sex and labor trafficking. During the session, Ms. Williams spoke to the students about relationship warning signs, victim grooming, and how predators use social media to target vulnerable youth.
Among the sea of students and teachers in the Thompson Student Union Auditorium was Community Activist and Educator Mona Al-Hayani, who attended the conference, with nearly 50 students from Toledo Early College High School. This included members of the Young Women for Change student organization who will be presenting along with Al-Hayani in November at the Ohio State House for the Ohio Human Trafficking Prevention Youth Summit.
“It’s so important to have students come to conferences talking about human trafficking and the risk factors and how social media plays into tracking vulnerable youth,” Ms. Al-Hayani said. “Our students think that they’re invincible. Conferences like this makes them see that they are vulnerable.”
Sarah Sahmarani, senior student and president of Young Women for Change at Toledo Early College, said it was important for students to attend the conference especially for those who identify as female. Ms. Sahmarani said that young women needed to be active in the fight against human trafficking.
“It’s really important to empower women and girls to stand up and realize that they have a voice and can make a difference. They can make a change and stand up for themselves,” she said.
Following the opening group session, the high school students’ day rounded out with pre-selected breakout sessions, lunch, and the naming of winners from both the spoken word and visual art contest.
Art contestant and Maumee High School junior Jadyn Greisiger wrote that her digital art piece was meant to highlight the misconceptions that all human trafficking victims are female and victimized by strangers. She said that many victims are males and most people being trafficked were manipulated and abused by people they had come to be in relationship with on some level.
“Sadly, things such as ‘You have nowhere else to go’ or ‘No one else will love you’ and even physical abuse are used to keep the victim captive and vulnerable,” Ms. Greisiger wrote. “I tried my best to show that sex trafficking and abuse isn’t always as black and white as many people view it to be.”
The final two days of the conference were sold out and the University of Toledo saw nearly 1200 people attend 75 breakout sessions that focused on diverse topics including research, direct services, legal and law enforcement, and survivor stories. Dr. Celia Williamson, Distinguished University Professor and director of the University’s Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute said the following in a statement to the press.
“We are proud so many people want to learn about human trafficking. Our conference brings sex and labor trafficking out of the shadows and helps end abuse. More than ever before, we have the opportunity to educate, collaborate, and save lives,” Dr. Williamson said.