Lincoln Freedom March calls attention to modern-day slavery


Anna Woita, president of Nebraska University Students Against Modern-Day Slavery, paused on the sidewalk, a large banner grasped in her hands.

The walk sign came on.

"OK, here we go," the University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior advertising major said.

Behind her, the column of about 100 UNL students, professors and other Lincoln residents set in motion. Together they made up the Freedom March, an event organized to call attention to human trafficking within the state and support state legislation to address it. At the time of Woita's pause, the crowd was about halfway between the Nebraska Union and its destination at the north steps of the Capitol.

Human trafficking is an umbrella term for the global trade in an estimated 27 million people in total - ensnared by coercion, fraud or violence and spirited across any political border - for work in construction, agriculture and sex, including street-level prostitution of men and women alike.

Several of the marchers had become familiar with the term just in the past several months through friends, churches and conferences. Connections of chance, it seemed, had brought them all together for the march, which the students of NUSAMS had been planning since early this year.

"We're all just our own little informal groups that are supporting each other to get awareness out there," said Tara Sherman, who came with her 4-year-old son, Rowan, and others from her church. "It's crazy to me how there really is an issue right in our backyard."

And that was one of the messages repeated again and again throughout the day: human trafficking reaches around the world, including here.

"(Human trafficking is) in this country, in this city, in this state right now," said Paul Yates, director of involvement for Tiny Hands International, a Christian-based organization that combats sex trafficking in Nepal. Yates spoke to the crowd before it set off from the Union.

"I really believe it's been silenced for too long, and it's time for us to say, 'Enough is enough,'" Yates continued. "We can be a leader in this country. We can, and I think we will be."

The march coincided with a period of heightened scrutiny on the issue - and related state law - within Nebraska. State Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln led the charge at the State Legislature this year, introducing two bills related to trafficking. One, LB 1145, creates a statewide task force to research the extent of the problem and provides for training of public officials. The bill was passed without opposition.

"This was an issue that, until about a year ago, I knew nothing about," McGill told the crowd from the Capitol steps. "I plan to come back next year and build on this legislation ... I think we've taken some good steps, but more needs to be done in terms of services."

Advocates of trafficking victims have long said in addition to punishing perpetrators and traffickers more harshly, the issue requires more resources devoted to helping victims escape their world.

"The problem is men that are buying women and girls," said Kristy Childs, a human trafficking survivor who ran away from an abusive home at age 12 and entered Colorado's underground world of prostitution as a way to survive.

"We want to do something about demand," Childs told the crowd spread across the tower's sandstone steps.

After dampening the demand side of prostitution's business equation, Childs said, local governments must give victims a way out. She's also director of Veronica's Voice, a Kansas City-based organization that aims to do exactly that.

"The biggest thing that women and girls need is safety," she said. "If she doesn't get other skills to move forward with her life, she's going to do what she has to do to survive."

Childs, drawing on her 24 years of personal experience and years more of working with other women, also had sharp words for anyone who called prostitution a victimless, consenting arrangement that's separate from human trafficking.

"I want you to know," she spoke into the microphone, "women that are in it are going to wear that mask that says, 'Oh yeah, I love what I'm doing.'"

Under that mask is something quite different, Childs said, adding that after doubting she'd make it to 20, she was grateful for her 50th birthday Tuesday.

Her testimony left an impression on Zach Christensen, a sophomore biochemistry major and self-described "adopted member" of NUSAMS.

"Sometimes you see a lot of statistics thrown around," he said afterward. "That's the first time I've heard from a victim."

And gatherings like Wednesday's were the way to make a change in cultural attitudes, knowledge and government policy, said Ron Hampton, a retired UNL professor who has undertaken extensive research in human trafficking in Ukraine and elsewhere.

"Even as we stand here today, our research suggests that there are 2,000 people enslaved in our state," Hampton said to the assembly. "It'll take people like yourself to come together with a voice loud and clear ... It takes us in our cities to make a slave-free city, and then a slave-free state."

At the march's conclusion, participants released about 100 light blue balloons they'd carried from UNL's campus. Then the marchers dispersed in the same way.