The Women’s Fund has set its sights on an utterly daunting issue: human trafficking in Birmingham.
The cover story for Weld’s February 28 issue dealt with the fact that Birmingham has become a destination location for modern-day slavery, as organized and independent criminals alike prey on the most vulnerable members in the community to a degree scarcely imagined by many in Birmingham. Jeanne Jackson, executive director of the Women’s Fund, said her organization is attempting to attack that pernicious problem at its roots.
“We’re a granting agency,” Jackson said. “We look at issues facing women and girls, bring people together and facilitate research. That’s what we did with sex trafficking. … And then we go and fund innovative change. With sex trafficking, we funded the training of first responders, and we facilitated different groups of people coming together, because we’re in a unique position – we don’t do direct services.”
Jackson said the Women’s Fund is the only organization of its kind solely supporting women and girls in the state of Alabama, researching such issues as single motherhood, wage inequality and occupational segregation, then directing funding and connecting various public and private organizations to combat each issue.
In cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, the Women’s Fund sponsored three sessions training about 270 different people on how to spot the telltale signs of trafficking. The participants – emergency room staff, police and other law enforcement, social workers, counselors – were instructed by members of the Polaris Project, a 10-year-old program dedicated to fighting trafficking, and by authorities from the Michigan Office of Homeland Security.
When fighting such an intractable and subtle problem, the need for systemic change is all the more apparent in Jackson’s eyes. “After listening to DHR, [shelter for trafficked women] the WellHouse, and the FBI, we learned that there’s so much misinformation about it among first responders, so we decided to bring in groups from places that had moved farther along in the fight,” Jackson said. “That’s the only way we figure we’re likely to move away from what is now an invisible problem toward bringing light to it.”
Even operating from an outsider’s perspective, Jackson and the rest of her small staff at the Women’s Fund ran into many of the unique obstacles that impede the day-to-day fight against trafficking in Birmingham. “Most times, the minors don’t see themselves as a victim,” Jackson said, echoing Tajuan McCarty, executive director of the WellHouse, herself a former victim of trafficking. “Either somebody they know did it or somebody offered them shelter and protection, and they don’t really see themselves as victims.
“Another thing we found is that they’re very unlikely to want to be involved with any kind of enforcement activity,” Jackson continued. “They may be runaways, they may be immigrants, they could be involved with a family member, and so their willingness to go to an authority figure isn’t really there. It’s not a group that has a lot of trust in the establishment.”
The combination of transience, lack of documentation, desperation and mistrust of authority has contributed to sketchy data, slowing ameliorative efforts from the Women’s Fund. “There are pretty good statistics on domestic abuse, on women in poverty, female single heads of households…we know those figures,” Jackson said. “The difficulty with trafficking in Birmingham is getting a hold of quantifiable hard data.”
Even so, the Women’s Fund managed to sponsor the most important research yet conducted on the issue in Birmingham, 2010’s Invisibility study. The document, available in its entirety here, provides as comprehensive a breakdown of the data and methods of trafficking in the area as one could reasonably hope for. The study is just one example of the Women’s Fund’s broader commitment to change through education and accurate research.
As valuable as the boots-on-the-ground approach to dealing with the appalling symptoms of trafficking is – best exemplified by the WellHouse rescue shelter – it’s the academic commitment to long-term philanthropic change that sets the Women’s Fund apart. “Charity is responding to direct needs that are there; people need houses, people need food,” Jackson said. “And I think that’s really important. But…how can we give people jobs? How can we give people education? In short, how can we move policy so that we’re not having to do what we’re doing today?
“Really, we’re looking at what prevents you from being a victim,” Jackson added. “I see us focusing on very aggressive programs to get you skills and education – whether it’s in the healthcare world, data entry, welding, plumbing – where you can start becoming financially independent and your likelihood to become a victim is lessened, where you would have the confidence and the maturity not to be susceptible.”
Like many similar organizations nationwide, Jackson is steering Birmingham’s Women’s Fund “toward building confidence and providing sustainable opportunities.” In other words, Jackson aims at effecting a broader change in the culture and economy of Birmingham that would prevent the dire conditions that make phenomena like “survival sex” and youth homelessness facts of Birmingham life.
For the former professor of leadership studies at Birmingham-Southern, seeing the real-world impact of coordination, research and strategic planning is plainly exhilarating. But Jackson, along with the Women’s Fund and other philanthropic organizations in Birmingham, knows she is still climbing a tall mountain indeed.