To understand what activists in the fight against human trafficking are up against, you need only go to amazon.com. There, amid the five-star reviews for Theresa Flores’ bestselling book The Slave Across the Street, you’ll find the doubters. “It’s obvious that this isn’t a true story,” one commenter says, and “not true in my opinion,” says another, illustrating that for many, human trafficking is a far-away problem that doesn’t affect teenagers from intact families in affluent suburbs.
But Flores, in a Convening Leaders 2020 Trending Now studio session at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 6, will share how just such a thing happened to her: At age 15, she became a victim of sex trafficking after being drugged, raped, and photographed by a high-school crush in Michigan.
In the session, “Human Trafficking: Closer Than You Think,” Flores will aim to raise awareness about human trafficking and help show the business events community how it can play a role in the effort to end it. She will be joined by a team member from ECPAT-USA, the anti-child-trafficking nonprofit that a year ago began offering online training for meeting professionals in how to recognize and report suspected cases of human trafficking.
Like ECPAT-USA, Flores is on a mission. “There are still so many people out there that have no idea what we’re talking about,” Flores, a social worker and mother of three, recently told Convene. “I mean, generally when I share my story, you can hear a pin drop.”
“But,” she added, “I don’t just share my story. I am an educator as well and a social worker and I have worked with hundreds of survivors. And so I have been blessed to be able to tell people what it takes to survive, and what trafficking does to a person.”
Flores said that after she has told her story, at countless events, “an amazing thing that happens is that women will come forward and they will tell me that they are a survivor as well. And many times they had no idea that this was what it was called. They are … putting the pieces together when they hear my story.”
That’s a path Flores knows well. “I went to a conference on human trafficking as a social worker to learn more about the issue,” she said. “And when I learned the signs and how it happens, I instantaneously realized that that was me.”
In addition to her work at events, Flores leads the SOAP — Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution — project, which has distributed 1 million bars of soap to motels and hotels, where trafficking frequently occurs, with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number on the back of each bar.
“It’s definitely about raising awareness all the way around,” Flores said of her efforts to end trafficking and help people understand how they can help.
“If you see somebody [or see] something happening and you just have that kind of weird feeling inside, what do you do? Do you call the police? Do you do nothing?” Flores said. “I mean, people have been doing nothing for years. And so, at what point do we stop and say, ‘Okay, we need to help out here and come together as a community. It’s our responsibility.’”
Human trafficking has been reported in all 50 U.S. states, according to UNICEF, yet many find it inconceivable that it could be taking place in plain sight. “I realize,” Flores said in the introduction to her book, which was co-written by PeggySue Wells, “that this is a difficult subject for many to embrace.” But “it is vital that people understand how easily this can happen to any child.”
Cristi Kempf is executive editor at Convene.