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By Emily Hagstrom, Contributing Writer

A few summers ago, I was driving through my hometown of Hendersonville, North Carolina, with the radio blasting. When a commercial break interrupted my singing, I was ready to change the station. But as my hand reached for the dial, I heard the word “trafficking.”

Surprised, I kept listening, hoping to make some sense of the context. The disembodied voice continued to tell how trafficking can (and does) happen anywhere in North Carolina, including in Henderson County. It described the signs of human trafficking and offered a number to call if the listener recognized these signs among members of the community. Anyone in the community? I thought. Human trafficking—here in Henderson County? Yes, the radio ad confirmed. Human trafficking occurs all over North Carolina—particularly rural counties nestled along interstate highways like I-40.

The radio ad was part of the awareness Project NO REST brings to human trafficking of young adults across the state of North Carolina. And just like that, my entire outlook on human trafficking changed. It was no longer something abstract–far away from me; it was something that could impact my friends and family.

Even as a violence prevention and response advocate, I realized how little I knew about human trafficking. I knew that sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking are, tragically, common; I knew the signs, and I was trained in response. But trafficking? The last thing I expected was for an advertisement on the radio to disrupt the myths in my head about human trafficking.

And that’s part of the success of Project NO REST, or North Carolina Organizing and Responding to the Exploitation and Sexual Trafficking of Children, a five-year project funded by the US Children’s Bureau. It uses a multidisciplinary approach to help people across North Carolina become aware of and understand human trafficking, partnering with social workers, law enforcement, public health officials, doctors, university scholars, and others to achieve the project’s mission.

The goals of Project NO REST are: “to increase awareness of human trafficking affecting children and youth [under 25 years of age], especially those in the child welfare system; to reduce the number of these youth who are trafficked; and to improve outcomes for those who are trafficked.” Specific tasks include creating data sources that more accurately describe human trafficking rates in North Carolina, training community members across the state to recognize human trafficking signs and report human trafficking, and creating media campaigns to raise awareness of human trafficking—like the one I heard on the radio while motoring through Hendersonville.

According to Dr. Dean Duncan III, Principal Investigator for Project NO REST, the project’s greatest achievement has been raising awareness of human trafficking across North Carolina. “As a result of ads we ran, we were able to increase the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline,” Duncan said. “In the first year [of Project NO REST], we increased calls by 150%.” Duncan also noted that the Project NO REST team was intentional about creating media in which human trafficking survivors could recognize themselves and their stories: “We really focused on how we talked about individuals who get trafficked and the way they were represented in our media campaign.”

Initiatives like Project NO REST give journalists an opportunity to improve the way they report on human trafficking. And when community members (law enforcement officers, doctors, social workers, etc.) are trained in human trafficking signs and response, they are able to speak more accurately to reporters about human trafficking cases, while maintaining the privacy, safety and dignity of survivors/victims.

For anti-trafficking organizations, Project NO REST’s media (e.g., website, social media, advertisements) are a model for presenting information about human trafficking to the general public. Social media posts, radio advertisements, and fact sheets generated by Project NO REST reflect care with the facts communicated and how they are communicated. Authors take care with language to discuss the issue without shaming people who experience human trafficking. Importantly, Project NO REST also aims to make accurate North Carolina human trafficking data sources available to the public to bolster reporting on the issue—a desperately needed resource, as little accurate human trafficking data is publicly available. The more dependable and credible resources journalists have, the better equipped they are to report on human trafficking issues.

Further, knowing the signs of human trafficking allows journalists to identify and follow leads on human trafficking stories. In addition, that knowledge can help journalists to avoid perpetuating stereotypes about trafficking. Persistent human trafficking myths imagine human trafficking victims and survivors as “prostitutes” or as victims restrained with ropes or chains, filthy and with sunken eyes, snatched off the street or “taken” at a public event (like the Super Bowl). But as Project NO REST Investigator Kiricka Yarbough Smith notes, traffickers are more likely to use a “psychological bond” to control and exploit their victims. “It’s usually someone that people trust.” That simple fact could be instrumental in reframing news stories about trafficking.

Smith, who also serves as Human Trafficking Director at the NC Council for Women and Youth Involvement, said she’s seen a difference over the last five years in how reporters talk about human trafficking. “We definitely have come a long way,” she says. “I like that now we’re moving away from criminalizing victims of human trafficking.” Reporters still cover trafficking as breaking news, she noted, but are increasingly interested in more expansive stories that explore the causes and consequences of trafficking, and that examine initiatives to fight trafficking.

Project NO REST has already improved the way people in North Carolina—especially journalists—think and report about human trafficking. At the very least, thanks to one 30-second advertisement years ago, it changed me.

Note: The Irina Project co-founders served as members of Project NO REST 2016-2018 and were involved in the organization’s public awareness campaign.

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Emily “Em” Hagstrom is a freelance writer, researcher, and advocate for violence prevention and gender equity with a background in public policy and media production. She most recently managed the publication of the Status of Women in NC: Health and Wellness Report (PDF) and has written for several organizations including the National Women’s Law Center, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Women AdvaNCe.

Em can be reached at ehagstromnc@gmail.com and on Twitter/X @emhagstrom.

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