#ConnectionPGH Talk: “Pursuing Your Firm Persuasion: Combating Human Trafficking and The Criminalization of Kids in ‘Care'”

#ConnectionPGH Talk: “Pursuing Your Firm Persuasion: Combating Human Trafficking and The Criminalization of Kids in ‘Care'”

About The Speaker

Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm serves as the Founder and Executive Director to the Wichita State University, Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT). With a passion to better serve high-risk marginalized populations, Karen works to bridge the gap between direct practice, academia, research, and policy. Karen has been nationally and internationally recognized, receiving many honors and awards, for doing just that — particularly for her specialization in working with homeless, runaway, and throwaway youth (HRTY) and young people who are at-risk of, or subjugated to, domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) and other forms of exploitation.

About Connection 2017

The Connection 2017 experience took place in Pittsburgh, PA. To learn more about the event, visit http://connection17.manynet.org today.

About The Talk

What is your “firm persuasion”? Famed poet David Whyte defines this as the feeling we get when “what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at exactly the same time.” In this inspirational #ConnectionPGH talk, Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm defines her firm persuasion, passionately outlining the Center for Combating Human Trafficking’s groundbreaking research and tools and their fight against the criminalization of youth in “care.”


We’ve been having a wonderful time together, yesterday evening, and then today, exploring together this sweet spot between “what is” and “what if?”

I think this question, “what if?” is extremely critical right now in our country as we are faced with so many historically ingrained systemic issues such as racism, sexism, classism. I could go on and on with the “-isms.” And particularly for those of us who are engaged in work with children, youth, and families who are vulnerable and marginalized, this question is even more important because we see how these historically ingrained systemic issues are connected to other issues such as intergenerational trauma, violence, incarceration, mental and emotional health, suicide, access to education, housing, homelessness, right, we get it.

Making progress and absolutely resolving these issues demands that we do more than what we’ve been doing. Much of what we’ve been doing doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes much of what we’ve been doing even causes harm.

We can see the realities of this all around us. There’s a lot of great, well-intended folks. A lot of harm is being done.

I say this as structures are being set-up that create people who want to do good, that really just end up feeding a system instead of a population, or a person. We set up these multidisciplinary teams and Child Advocacy centers. That’s a great idea, but oftentimes, they equate to no more than a group of people that come together, and they engage in role drift, and groupthink, and typically, it leans towards the people of power who are law enforcement and have a punitive mindset.

And we see millions of dollars being thrown into shelters, and yet those shelters end up empty, and even worse, particularly in the world that I work in, we see a lot of law and policy being written and passed and praised and it equates to no more than the new Jim Crow.

Again, this is particularly true in the anti-trafficking movement. The anti-trafficking movement actually dates back to the late 1800s, but when I joined the movement a little over 20 years ago, really nobody was talking about the work. But then, over the last decade, media has caught hold, and there’s stories all over the place about trafficking. It is the buzz topic, and you see a lot of
well-intended people rising up and wanting to start their own anti-trafficking efforts, again, passing law, writing policy, engaging in awareness campaigns.

All of this may sound good to folks, but what we see from our end is that often times it equates to again no more than what we’ve seen throughout history, structures that lead people in a way that equates to eugenics, prison industrialization, these kind of things.

This is just one example of this. This young lady, her name is Hope. And I’m not going to share any details due to confidentiality outside of what’s already been released to the media.

But I told folks, you know, I talk all the time, I’m not nervous to talk, and you all are my friends, you all are my people, my family, but I feel such a sense of urgency because what is going on right now, not just in the state of Kansas, but all over the country. It’s something that folks are not talking about as they’re praising abolitionism.

The reality is that if you do not fall into this status of perfect victim, you end up jailed. Despite what federal law says, despite what state law says, if you do not say, “Yes, thank you for rescuing me! I will abide by all your program rules, I will be exactly what you want, I will go to church on Sunday morning and not ever smoke a cigarette!”

If you don’t do those things, they will wage a war against you, and that’s what we’ve seen. We’ve seen, in the name of abolitionism, in the name of anti-trafficking efforts, a war waged largely against brown and black-skinned people, but people who are poor. It’s become a war on sex, it’s become a war on color, a war against survivors, and this is dangerous, this is scary.

This is a young woman who was in our system of justice and care, and as a minor, she herself was trafficked. Yet because our system did not fully understand her issue, she ended up detained. One of the greatest injustices in this country is that we often times give folks who do not have financial resources a public defender who ends up just pushing them to take a plea and they never even get their chance at true justice. Again, this is happening all over the country as a result of the current anti-trafficking movement.

My hope, as I share these stories of people, is that there’s just one person in this room that can pull the trigger and do the right thing. Because this young girl is not gonna get better in jail. She’s not going to get treatment for her trauma, she’s going to be worse off when she gets out in 20 years, and that’s how our our system of service served her up.

I could try to think about all the reasons of what went wrong with all the millions of dollars in the anti-trafficking movement. How is it that Hope – and this is just one case I can give you because it’s been in the media – how is it that she got detained?

Why is it that she’s still there, if so many people care about trafficking, why is this occurring in our country? But that too would be going about this wrong because I would just be striving to seek an insufficiency, a deficit. And again, what we know is that just trying to fill deficits, trying to alleviate “something,” particularly the “what is,” oftentimes leads us to failure.

In his documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” James Baldwin does a fascinating job talking about unsuccessful attempts at dealing with issues of racism, and at the end of this documentary, he ends up saying: “ultimately you do not need numbers, you need passion.”

Building on this, in the same way that we would encourage strengths-based or empowerment approaches, I think that we need to do work that illuminates the “what if, what could be?” a lot more. A historical artist, poet William Blake, as well as David Whyte, talk about this, as we need folks to engage in a firm persuasion.

At the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, I absolutely believe in – and we’ve invested greatly – I believe in our tools: our formal, evidence-based, research-based tools, and practices to serving those who are at risk of or who have been subjugated to sex and labor trafficking. But I’ll have to tell you that one of the things we always start, where we start first, is by ensuring that the hearts of those people that we’re going to train and equip are really in the right place.

Because even the greatest, most well-trained folks without a firm persuasion will end up causing harm.

For us at the Center for Combating Human Trafficking a firm persuasion ultimately means having courage courage to act with curiosity, questioning, looking toward the “what if?”

But it also means truly remaining committed to your calling.

So frequently, I’ll talk to organizations and they will tell me, what we, you know what, we didn’t engage in Ferguson, we didn’t go rally for the young person that was jailed despite the law, because we’re supposed to remain neutral. We’re Switzerland, right, and we’ve got to make sure that we don’t risk losing our funding. Friends, it’s just my point of view that perhaps you don’t need that funding then. I don’t think that there’s space for being neutral in social service. I don’t think that you can say, “well, I just house this population but I never advocate for them.”

We have to have the courage to stand for those that we say we’re serving. Having a firm persuasion also means having the willingness to really explore and know ourselves, paying attention to our strengths as well as our struggles and recognizing and being okay with the reality that we’re all wounded healers, and we bring that to our work. Having a firm persuasion also means practicing with vulnerability, and absolutely, that means sharing your heart a bit, but more so, it means letting go of your prestige, of your place, of privilege, of your expertise, and recognizing that really it is the person that you’re serving, that you’re walking alongside, that is the expert of their own life. There’s a great freedom that comes, and that vulnerability, it means also recognizing and responding to people for who they were created to be.

And yes, I cannot help but show a picture of my daughter because she is the cutest little bundt cake ever. She’s actually a little bit older than this now, but I don’t care, this is still what I think of
anytime I’m getting like flipped off by a teenager and they’re like, “(BEEP) you, I don’t want your services!” I’m gonna respond to them for who they were created to be, and that means really looking at and assessing the “what is?” with wisdom.

I’m not just insane and posing this pie-in-the-sky thing but it means that also my job to help illuminate the what could be and draw that out of them, awaken who they were created to be.

That means also being, of course, trauma-informed, recognizing that the things that had happened to them, things that happen to all people, absolutely affect how we see, in how we interact, with the world. And that’s asking questions, and working with them in a way that empowers and encourages them, explores what has happened to you but isn’t shame-based, or blaming. Having a firm persuasion also means that we engage adaptively, and that means that we have to include the unusual voices, the folks who are typically not at the table in order to examine the real root issues of the problem, getting at things systemically instead of just putting a Band-Aid on the problem.

I always say to people, man, you, at one point in my life, you could have given me a house, a car, a whatever. But until my head was off the streets, I’d have gone right back on the streets have to deal with the issue and (deal with) it more adaptively.

And the last piece of having a firm persuasion is really falling in love with, and remaining in love with, and at peace, with your art of practice. What this looks like to me in the terms that we use at the Center for Combating Human Trafficking is that we’re ride or die, we are ride or die, and we re energized by the work that we do every day.

I firmly believe in these six core tenets. I do I think that this is what it takes to walk alongside an individual, and I absolutely think this is what it takes to develop law or policies and practice that don’t just protect, but embolden other populations, specifically people who are vulnerable and marginalized. And I believe in this because this has been applied, and this has been
illuminated, in my own life, and in the lives of other people that are a part of our programming.

Frank earlier today talked about how we need to remain grounded in our story. Oftentimes, people introduced me as Dr. Roswurm, and I could get a big head with that, but I know where I came from. I know where I came from, and that feeds into, and it grounds, the work that I do every day.

You see, I was born, and it was- it was really, born and bred, in a home where there was trauma. There was domestic violence, there was physical abuse, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse,
incarceration, all those things. For those of you familiar with trauma work, I was a model for ACES. And at the age of 13, my life worsened, still, when my one and only stable person, my mother, I walked home to find that she had committed suicide. And in an instant, my life changed, and for three years, between the ages of 13 and 16, I was in and out of shelters, of foster homes, and largely spent that time on the streets doing whatever I had to do to survive. The majority of the people, with all of their solutions, their shelters, their foster homes, all of their right programs, they were responding to the “what is.”

They saw me as a kid who had trauma, they saw me as a depressed kid sitting in a shelter, they saw me as a rebellious foster child, and they, they tried to serve me up things, that honestly, it just made me worse.

Thankfully, there was a few folks with their own firm persuasion, and those folks were extremely powerful. And they they believed in who I could be, they asked the question, “what if?”

There were times, absolutely, I could have never imagined then, at 16, I quit school, I wasn’t attending. I got my GED. I was the first and only person to be emancipated, made legally 18, to this day in Kansas. I was in state custody.

And even after the judge said, “you got to drop out of school, you won’t be able to do that and have a job,” I pursued my PhD ,and I found my own firm persuasion. My firm persuasion, in one word, is justice. Justice for all people, regardless of the color of your skin, your beliefs, your socioeconomic status, because I believe that all people are created with immeasurable
value and purpose. And thus, us, we people who are called to service and justice, it is our responsibility to empower hope, and not just hope, but trust.  That this immeasurable value and purpose can truly be realized, that people can grasp it. It is with this firm persuasion that I’ve engaged in work in the trafficking movement for more than twenty years, and it’s with this firm persuasion that I developed the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, including many of our programs, such as the Pathway-to-Prosperity program, where we help other survivors on the streets become who they were created to be.

One of these people is a young person that I will call “K,” and just a year ago, and still waiting, we’re waiting for a trial. She could easily become in a situation like Hope. She was trafficked as a minor, and at one point, law enforcement and social service agencies in our community viewed her as a perfect victim, needing to be rescued. In fact, they even wanted her to share her story of being rescued.

And to feed- to feed their ego rescue complex, they encouraged her to tell her story in a way that would raise funds, and gain them attention, and when she didn’t pander to them she easily became a villain. And oftentimes, again, in these movements we see people as either victim or villain.

Thankfully, we’ve been able to have her as part of our program. I would call her one of my sisters. It’s been amazing to watch her growth and development over the last year. A full-time student, she’s doing excellent in college, she has housing, she’s a part of our team at the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, and I think one of the most wonderful things is that she’s an absolutely lovely mother. Some of you even in this room have been able to meet her and watch her, not only as she works, but as she mothers her own child.

It’s a beautiful thing. So friends, as this Connection comes to an end, I think we have to ask ourselves: what are we manifesting into reality with the work that we’re doing? What are we manifesting into reality with the work that we’re doing? Why are we doing it? Are we doing it out of fear, are we doing it to respond to a buzz topic, or an assumed need? Have we really invited the voices of the people that we’re trying to serve to the table in a real, genuine way?

It’s so easy to come together but then pack up our reflections along with our clothes and go back to work and get right back into that grind. I ask that you guys challenge that urge, that you do
something different. And that you do something different by first and foremost figuring out what is written upon your heart, your own firm persuasion. Take a moment now or chew on some questions over the next several days or weeks and ask yourself what is it that makes you tick? Why is it that you do what you do, what experiences have you had that led you here when you
faced with difficult times? What individuals or institutions helped you, and what did they believe about you? Did they see you for what you were? Did they ask “what is” or did they look for “what if”? Did they believe in that?

Write that upon your heart, and when you do, I ask that you do so with courage, with knowledge of self, with vulnerability, treating people for who they were created to be and remain passionately in love with your practice. Thank you so much.

Aaron Hefelfinger

Aaron Hefelfinger

Aaron is the Digital Communications Manager at MANY.