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How I Came to Work on Human Trafficking

I spent my early years in Iran, where I was raised by parents who extended support to those in less socially, politically, personally, or economically fortunate situations. My family immigrated to the United States when I was in my teens. I grew up in a family with more socially inclusive beliefs and attitudes than many in Iran at that time. Kant’s universal value for human dignity and integrity was a core moral principle instilled in me long before I formally studied philosophy.

During my graduate studies in Philosophy and Women Studies at the University of Kansas, I took a course on Women and Violence, taught by a psychology professor. That class introduced me to the pressing social issues of sexual assault and domestic violence, and it also raised deep philosophical questions. These were not simple ethical questions—since it is obvious that intimate partner violence and family violence are morally wrong. These social issues raise complex ethical considerations about victims’ identity and agency, about the nature of psychological trauma that leaves no physical scars, and about the continuation of domestic violence in a well-off, democratic society that recognizes women’s rights.

However, I did not draw explicitly on what I learned in those, and related Women’s Studies classes, until I began my teaching position in Philosophy at South Texas College (STC) in 2006. At that time, I contributed to the Women’s Studies committee organizing a conference on human trafficking. The interdisciplinary nature of the conference brought different groups and perspectives together, including not just members of the college, but also professionals and community members. Conference organizing while at STC widened my perspective on how philosophical issues are expressed and handled outside our disciplinary framework. Conference organizing is a common academic function, and not itself philosophical fieldwork, but it was a valuable step toward doing fieldwork because it introduced me to networking outside my department and to seeing how social problems fit into a structure that includes interlocking social systems.

After six years in Texas, life events brought me to Oklahoma City, where I taught online courses and pursued further education about domestic violence and sexual abuse. My initial interest was personal, social, and political, but not professional. As a feminist immigrant woman of color and a survivor of attempted sexual assault, addressing violence against women was essential to my sense of self as a citizen. The web of experiences and identities that I embody moved my sense of civic responsibility. I felt that my privileged position in the community as an educated woman, and my ability to contribute my specific skills and knowledge, compelled me to take an active part in local efforts to support survivors of violence. I took a 30-hour crisis response training course organized by the Attorney General’s office and offered by the YWCA in order to train as a community member who can be called on in times of crisis to assist victims of violence.1

After a year, I began a full-time faculty position at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. This is where my personal civic commitments became integrated with my professional life, and I moved from involvement with issues of domestic violence to those of human trafficking. These two social problems have different causes, and victims of human trafficking have different needs than victims of domestic violence, but the victim-centered response strategy is similar. I helped students organize conferences on the issue of human trafficking, started teaching courses on human trafficking, and for two years chaired a multidisciplinary committee on human trafficking research. The research committee did not result in any publications of my own, unfortunately, but it educated me on how other disciplines engage with this issue and gave me a better understanding of empirical research methods and how they can be used to illuminate hidden crimes and the experiences of victims. I became convinced that multidisciplinary collaboration is the key to understanding and solving complex social issues.

Human trafficking is a multifaceted crime. It affects the victims physically, emotionally, and financially, and is also hard to detect. The victims do not live isolated lives. They are individuals who have a history, families, hopes, and dreams. They occupy differing socioeconomic and political locations, and come from different demographics. Their victimization is due to a web of factors and not a single cause. As Audre Lorde puts it, “There is no such thing as a singleissue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” (Lorde 1982).

Human trafficking requires multidisciplinary and multi-agency responses. The Attorney General’s office in the state of Oklahoma formed a taskforce on human trafficking to bring different agencies and service providers together to find a solution. A colleague’s spouse, who was at that time the director of sexual assault prevention for the state, connected me to the committee, and I was invited to join. I have served on the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office Taskforce on Human Trafficking for over four years. Most taskforce members engage in direct care, and the taskforce is predominately made up of direct care providers—individuals from state law enforcement agencies, medical staff, and attorneys—but it also includes a handful of academics, including me.

Candidly, I initially felt ill-prepared to engage with practitioners and to offer advice on policy. Graduate school in philosophy did not prepare me to deal with issues at a practical level. Although my doctoral dissertation focused on race and oppression, it was my education in Women’s Studies, my training as a civic volunteer, and my experience as an educator that were most relevant when I first joined the taskforce. It took me some time to see how my philosophical insights could be communicated to others on the taskforce such that they would connect to practice.

I had two goals when I joined this committee: (1) to improve services for survivors, and (2) to prevent victimization. Considering that I was not a counselor or law enforcement official, direct care seemed out of my reach. Additionally, I did not possess the tools to conduct empirical research. So, it seemed that my major contribution would be in improving our understanding of how victimization happens in order to prevent it.

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