Bringing Hope to the Hopeless Around the Globe

Episode 22 with John Cotton Richmond of the Human Trafficking Institute

Are you overwhelmed by the problem of sex trafficking and forced labor in the world? Sometimes it feels like a hopeless reality. What can really be done to make a difference? Well, today I have a leader in the fight against human trafficking and he is on a mission to bring hope to this hopeless situation. Once you hear what he’s done for the fight in the U.S., you’ll see that with people like John at the head of the fight, it just might be possible.

John Cotton Richmond leads the Human Trafficking Institute as it works to combat slavery at its source. Numerous survivors of sex and labor trafficking have found victim-centered advocate in John. He has been named Prosecutor of the Year and expert for the United Nations and every trafficker’s worst nightmare by the head of the FBI’s human trafficking program.

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Hey, hey! It’s Andrea and welcome to the Voice of Influence podcast. Today, I have with me John Cotton Richmond. I am really, really honored to have him on the show today because he is doing some amazing work, and has done some amazing work in the area of human trafficking and justice in general.

Aaron and I met John a couple of years ago at a workshop. I was immediately struck by, not only his authority and competency in this area but, his ability to communicate it very empathetically and truly care about the person that he’s talking to.

John leads the Human Trafficking Institute as it works to combat slavery at its source. Numerous survivors of sex and labor trafficking have found victim-centered advocate in John. He has been named Prosecutor of the Year and expert for the United Nations and every trafficker’s worst nightmare by the head of the FBI’s human trafficking program.

As you can tell, this is going to be a great interview. So let’s dive in.

Andrea: Well, John, welcome to the Voice of Influence podcast.

John:  Thank you so much! It’s great to be with you Andrea.

Andrea: Why don’t you introduce us to this idea of the Human Trafficking Institute, the human trafficking issue and why this all got started for you?

John: I think that it all starts with the realization that there are at least 20 million people in the world today who have the same problem. They don’t get to make the most basic decisions about their lives. Someone else decides when they wake up, where they work, and even who touches their bodies.   And I think it’s hard to sort of awaken ourselves to this reality that these people are trapped in modern-day slavery, and they’re trapped by a group of individuals who are traffickers, who are trying to profit by exploiting them.

As I began to be confronted with this over 15 years ago, I was in private law practice. My wife and I decided to move to India to help with International Justice Mission’s slavery work there and I got to direct their office and learned about forced labor in the Indian context and see and meet victims, see and meet traffickers and the law enforcement officers that we’re trying to intervene. And I was overwhelmed by the reality of the problem, by the scope of the problem.

And then I shifted to United States Department of Justice where I was a federal prosecutor for over a decade in a specialized human trafficking prosecution unit, and I started working sex trafficking and forced labor cases across the United States. And again, meeting with survivors every day, hearing their stories,


trying to figure out how do we bring their voice to courts so they can speak truths and let the world know what the traffickers have done to them so that we could stop and restrain them.

By doing that, I got to work with the United Nations on the human trafficking protocol and travel around the world training judges, prosecutors, and police. And through that we just begin to see these really predictable patterns and these proven strategies that can work to stop traffickers. And the Human Trafficking Institute was born out of the desire to help criminal justice systems in the developing world grow in their ability to stop traffickers and bring rescue to the victims.

Andrea: Where are you at with this Human Trafficking Institute at this point?

John: Human Trafficking Institute started just over a year and a half ago. I stepped down from the Department of Justice along with Victor Boutros, who was a federal prosecutor with me there and we’d worked cases, like we even tried a case together and Victor co-wrote The Locus Effect with Gary Haugen from International Justice Mission in which he has a ton of experience. And then we added to our team Dave Rogers who’s the former head of the FBI’s human trafficking unit out of their headquarters office. We worked together for years and we’re all in government and we come together with sort of these years of experience.

And the Human Trafficking Institute is actually going in and doing a few simple things. One is helping government establish specialized units so they can actually have people freed up to work these cases and then take them through an academy where they learn not just some sort of two or three days at a hotel conference room with Power Points but they really learn the way adults learn which is by digging into material over an extended period of time. It takes these specialized units through and advanced to county.

And the third thing is embed the inside of those units. Experienced and experts who have done these cases before who have gone to office with the specialized units and worked day in and day out with them as they work on these cases. And then wrapping around that the Human Trafficking Institute is to provide research, writing, and best practices in trying to move the thought leadership in this space towards recognizing ways that we can specifically stop this problem. We really believe that institutionalized systematic slavery can end because we’ve seen it end where it’s been attacked before and that just give us a lot of hope.

Andrea: So what is your role in the different processes that you’re talking about here?

John: Victor and I together had set out the vision for the institute and the different projects we have. And a lot of my works over the last years have been building relationships with government actors in the different countries as well as in the US on bringing people together to think about how we can identify and then use these proven strategies that actually work.

And then I also lead research efforts in terms of the type of work that we’re putting out on understanding the cases here in the United States where justice is going so that we can use these as examples in the developing world when we work with leaders.

Andrea: And I’ve also seen a number of news articles that the Human Trafficking Institute has shared that indicates that you have been at a United Nations, you’ve been at the White House, you’ve been sharing this thought leadership in these various faces what’s that been like?

John: It’s been so inspiring. There really are people of goodwill who wanted to do this work. And so yes at the United Nations, there’s amazing group of people that have been carefully thinking about this issue for a long time. We were very grateful that the White House wanted to call together leaders and just got a briefing and learn about the issue of trafficking. We were happy to participate in that and just share of what’s happening in the field and what’s actually going on the ground.

We’ve also met with prime ministers, attorneys, and generals from different countries and we just hosted two cabinet level, guests from police here in Washington D.C. One thing, Andrea, that is so important is that all of this is driven by people. There are people in government, in places of influence who have a voice on this issue and there are people who are trapped in slavery whose voice is currently being muted.

And the desire is how do we use the voice that is out there from leaders and from the general public as a springboard to un-mute that, to stop the traffickers from actually harming those victims. It’s been a great honor and privilege to have had a career building the relationships that are allowing us to do that.

Andrea: I want to come back to this idea of un-muting voices a little later, but I want to ask you how did you really get involved with human trafficking in the first place? You went to India 15 years ago, you said, and I’m curious why? What brought you to that point where you were ready to go to India and start learning about this?

John: That’s a great question. My wife and I, we’re processing it at the time with our friends and we really felt compelled to go. It was very simple and clear in so many ways. You know, I’ve been practicing law for about four years. We had worked hard and paid off all our school loans, and so we were to taking a fresh look at where do we want to be and what do we want to do. My wife was actually eight months pregnant when we left the United States to move to India.

Our second child was born in India, and she actually never even been in the country before. She went on faith and she went on a belief and a strong, clear compulsion that we could do something to stop slavery. And what was amazing is we had never met a slave before. We had never been involved in this work. I have been doing commercial litigation and employment law but it really sprung from seeing with real clarity the need that exists and then thinking how do we move to a solution. And we’ve been so up close as I began to travel in India and China and different places that there was such a need. There are people who are suffering because they don’t have food or water or shelter and there’s been a natural disaster and those people need aid and we can help them.

But then there’s this whole other set of people whose main problem isn’t that they don’t have food, shelter, or water, their main problem is that an individual is oppressing them and those people aren’t able to get the development aid that is out there. They’re not able to participate in the food program or this child’s fostership program or to go to the educational institutions that are nonprofits funded. They’re trapped.

And so how do we move in to solving that problem. We really feel like it was quite simple. There were lots of lawyers that wanted to work at my law firm. They were really smart and their resumes would flood in, but there wasn’t a whole lot of lawyers that wanted to go and say “We wanna be a part of changing this system. We wanna be a part of liberating individuals in restraining perpetrators.”

And so we thought “Let’s give that a shot.” And so it went and honestly, we built vision, we built strategy, and we built our understanding of the issue after we started. It all wasn’t clear. It was sort of like you start with a limited amount of information and as you go it becomes more clear.

Andrea: So you had this desire to change the world in a different kind of way. There’s such a tendency for people I think to get comfortable and stay where they’re at and a fear of adventure or moving fast where they are in order to be able to do some things significant. What was it about the two of you, you and your wife that made you willing, desiring to do that?

John: I think it was a couple of things. One was this understanding of the status quo not existing that there’s nothing stays the same. I think our desire to not venture out or the desire to not start something new is because we’re worried that it may not work out or that we may lose the safety security or comfort we’re currently experiencing. And the truth is it may not work out, so the risk is real in launching, in going forward. But the lie is that the status quo is real as well. There’s nothing really stays the same. If I don’t take the risk, I’m not guaranteed to have my current status quo remains. Everything is always changing.

The number one running back in the NFL this year is guaranteed not to be the number one running back in the NFL 10 years from now. Life changes: car accidents happen, unemployment, jobs shift, everything is a risk. And so once you realized that “I can’t really keep the status quo, I can’t, in the sense have an ice cream cone on a hot summer day and just hold it and expect it to stay the same. I can either enjoy the tasty treat or I can end up with a mess all over my hands,” right? The reality that if we’re not moving forward, we’re going to deteriorate. And I think that launching forward to do something really stands from the idea that we’re risking far less than we really think we are.

The other thing that motivated us, honestly was our faith, we were motivated by a really clear vision for what could be and by the sense that if I was stuck in slavery, if someone was trapping me or my family, I would want people to go and stop them. I want people to come for me. I want people to love me in a demonstrated way, not just by wearing the right color ribbon on the appropriate awareness day, but I want someone to make my pain stop. And if that’s true for me, I bet it’s true for those 20 million who are currently trapped. And believing that people have value really is a fundamental philosophical pivot point that allows us to confront evil.

Andrea: So you came back and you started working for the justice department at that point, right?

John: I sure did.

Andrea: And you started working with victims, talking to traffickers; what do you bring to those conversations? What did you get out of these conversations?

John: Oh I got so much. But what I brought honestly was time and availability. I’m going to make myself available and I’m going to spend a lot of time with the victims and hear their stories and allow them to tell their story at their pace. So it’s not rush in “Just give me all the facts.” If you ask someone to open up about some of the most traumatic abuse that they’ve ever experienced, it’s going to require a relationship. It’s going to require time of moving forward slowly to help them feel like they’re in a position where they can tell the truth they don’t want to share initially.

And with traffickers, it’s very much the same. It’s coming in and listening to their stories and hearing where they’re coming from and how they approach their crime, what they thought about and how they profit it. And understanding the crime from their perspective, add so much value as we try to stop others from committing it. But I learned a great deal about evil and trafficking and abuse from all of these conversations and then my job was to try to bring empathy.

Try to understand the situations that we could create for juries who are sitting in judgment in these cases and create empathy within them for what the victims have experienced and help them understand kind of how non-violent coercion works. How manipulation really works, how the traffickers was able to solve quickly sometimes to get the upper hand and control someone when it just doesn’t make sense to the averaged person. And so I think creating empathy for people is a real pathway for truth to be shared.

Andrea: At what point did you start thinking there’s another step beyond this one for me and my work in this particular realm and you have this friend, Victor, at what point did you guys start to dream of this Human Trafficking Institute?

John: It was in the last few years that I was at the Department of Justice. The first seven or so years was me just learning how to be an effective prosecutor and working these cases kind one after the other. In the last half of my time where I began travelling a lot internationally and I saw what we were doing to educate and help empower criminal justice systems around the world. We would go into these two or three days seminars or weeklong seminars and then we come back and work our cases and I saw very little changing. It just didn’t seem to have an impact the way we wanted it to and I worried that there was a lot of busyness but there wasn’t a lot of progress.

So we just begun to think “How could we impact this in a more substantial way?” About that time, we were ruling out a new program at the Department of Justice to improve the federal approach to prosecuting human trafficking cases and they were called the ACTeams. And the director of the Human Trafficking Prosecution unit at DOJ pioneered this and I was lucky enough to work with her. We developed the advanced curriculum and we basically created specialized units of federal agents from the FBI and Homeland Security and federal prosecutor counterpart in the region.

We took those groups to an advanced human trafficking course that I got to produce in developing and delivering. And then I would get on the plane fly to those districts and we would work cases together, either I would be on the ground doing the case with them or just advising and helping shepherd those cases and we saw dramatic results, Andrea. In two years, we had six districts that were selected. There are 94 total prosecutorial districts in the United States, six of them agreed to participate. We took them through this and create specialized unit, have significant academylike training and then we have people working cases within day in and day out.

And when we did that, we saw a 114% increase in two years in the number of traffickers charge in those six districts. The other districts saw a 12% increase. So they still improved some but the difference between a 12% increase and a 114% is tremendous. And what’s most amazing is that those six districts which represent about 5% of all the districts in America were responsible for over half of all the human trafficking convictions in those two years. 56% of all the human trafficking convictions came from those six districts alone.

And so we were like “Wow, this system really works.” And we realized there is nothing like that in the developing world where right now trafficking is exploding. Traffickers feel absolutely no risk that any law enforcement agency is going to come in and restrain them and stop them from making money by harming others. And so where traffickers seeing no risk where you are actually more likely to get struck by lightning than prosecuted for openly owning a slave, traffickers just operate with impunity. They can do whatever they want. So we thought, “we want to change that calculus. We do not want traffickers operating with impunity. We want them to feel a very real risk to engaging in their crime and we want to do it in a way that honors and values the victims at every stage of the process.”

Andrea: Wow, so at that point you guys started thinking about how do we do this? How do we turn this into a global effort?

John: Exactly!

Andrea: And how did you choose the model?

John: So we’re not for-profit organization. And we chose that I think because we wanted to work with government throughout the world. We wanted to work with the government here in the United States. And to that effectively, we thought the nonprofit model was far better than a for-profit structure. It would allow us to engage a whole community of people in this process as partners with us.

And so we are building a small army of individuals that are passionate about this issue and they want to make a difference. They’re tired of just people constantly telling them stories about injustice and then they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to engage or how to really make a difference. There’s a lot of passion about ending human trafficking but there’s not a lot of clear structured plans about how to make that happen.

I think we just get fatigued sometimes. We experience in a very real way compassion fatigue or awareness fatigue. We feel like, “stop just making me aware and to know more stories in the sense of another 13-year old girl in a moon by brothel. Stop making me aware and making me feel like I don’t have a place to go with my awareness.” We want people to feel that there is hope because we can draw near pain if we have hope. It’s really hard to draw near the pain and have compassion if you think nothing could be done.

But I think what is animating about this is that we not left just to deal with the consequences, just to mitigate the outcomes of traffickers. So it’s not like a natural disaster where we don’t know how to stop earthquakes. So when earthquakes happen to the country, we all rush in with food and water and shelter and try to help out.

Unlike earthquakes, human trafficking is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not a weather pattern. It’s not like a tsunami or typhoon or a hurricane, it’s a choice that an individual is making, and it’s a crime and we know how to stop crime. It’s just question of are we going to do the things necessary that we know where to stop this criminal activity that is trapped in 20 million people.

Andrea: The hope that you talked about, part of it comes from this idea that we’re not victims to the idea that it’s just going to keep happening and we don’t have any control over but there is something that we can do.

John: Absolutely, and I think where there’s hope we can come up with a plan. And when we can clearly identify what the problem is and we believe that a solution is possible, we can figure this out. I think the hard part is that you see a problem, even clearly see a problem but if you think “there’s nothing I can do,” it’s not really going to make a difference. And that causes people to give up and move on to another structure or another project.

I think that people trapped in slavery are worth our consorted intentional efforts over a long period of time, or what Eugene Peterson called “A long obedience in the same direction.” Like if we have longevity in this space and we are willing to commit ourselves, we can see massive change in the next few decades.

Andrea: I’ve also heard you say before that slavery have been around forever and it’s only recent phenomena that we begin to really realize that this is wrong. Could you talk about that?

John: Absolutely! This is one of the reasons for hope. So for most of human history, slavery has been legal. It’s been on every continent, in every culture from the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Romans, and the Greeks and all over. It’s been enshrined in our own US constitution. Slavery has been assumed as something that is always there and it’s been supported even by people of faith. It wasn’t until about 250 years ago that countries began to say “Wait, we think slavery is wrong.” Not that it needs to be regulated or the impacts of it needs to be minimized but just that it is illegal and what is stunning is most of human history, thousands and thousands of years, slavery has been legal. In the last 250, we’ve seen every country in the world pass a law that says slavery is illegal.

That is why in its major pivot point, historically where at least now we have the laws that say, slavery is wrong. Now, we need to take those protections of law that are written on parchment and extend them down to the people they were intended to protect. Now we have a delivery system challenge. How do we get the legal protections that say every human being has intrinsic value and should not be owned all the way to the people that need those protections?

That’s what we get to be about. I think the historic part of that is inspiring because it shares with us that this is doable, where there’s a special place in history that there’s never been a better time to fight human trafficking. As our friend, Gary Haugen has said “It’s not a question of whether trafficking would be defeated, it’s whether this generation will be a part of sweeping it into the dustbin of history.” And I just find that concept motivating and inspiring and it makes me want to move forward.

Andrea: Oh yeah, definitely. Somebody like me who isn’t on the frontline of this is thinking about this problem and feeling guilty, feeling stuck in my own inability to make much of a difference. What kinds of things can I do to help, you know, aside from giving money to organizations such as yours, what else can I do?

John: I think there are a number of things that can be done. One is to get informed about it because there’s human trafficking happening in the United States, in Western Europe but it’s exploding throughout the world. We’ll begin the process of understanding how the problem looks and what it’s like. There’s a lot of myths about human trafficking, a lot of misunderstandings about it and so kind of deconstructing those is a fantastic use of time because it means that we’re going to be able to detect it and we’re going to be better able to understand the scope of it and what strategies would work. So getting people informed really matters.

The second thing that you can do is think about how their talents could be employed in this fight. I think a lot of people think “Well, I’m not an FBI agent and I’m not a prosecutor, how do I get involved?” Or “Maybe, I’m not a trauma certified counselor or how do I help individuals.” But the reality is if you’re a web designer or you’re an accountant, all of these skills sets need to be employed in this fight.

We need forensic accountants. We need all sorts of people who can communicate the vision clearly, who can tell the stories and who can honor these survivors. And so I think thinking through and inventory of our own skills and talents and then beginning to explore “How do I get involved?” Or “How do I encourage young people to go become FBI agents. How do I encourage young people to go and engage as a career these big, hairy global issues and take them on.” So I think that is something that individuals could do.

I think individuals can also find organizations and there are so many good ones out there who are active in this fight and come alongside and learn from them. You mentioned earlier that there’s a group of people that have been joining us as justice partners where there’s sort of a monthly communication about what’s happening around the world with trafficking. There are many organizations out there that they could connect with the local and global and I think that matters.

The other thing that I think people can do is develop a culture of justice in their own lives and in their own communities on issues that are far ranging not just limited to human trafficking. And what I mean by that is that pursuing justice, seeking justice can become a habit. When I was studying philosophy in college and when I was learning about these things, people would bend themselves into pretzels trying to understand what is justice and it’s so unhelpful.

But oh yes, justice is quite simple. Justice is making wrong things right. It seems something wrong and working to make it right; big things, little things, local things, or global things. And I think if people want to develop culture of justice, they start making wrong things right in their community. They’re identified on their street, on their neighborhood, on their school system, or on their companies and they see problems and start working to make them right. And as we build a culture of justice on the local level in the little things in our lives, we build the muscle and create a platform that allows us to seek justice and make the wrong things right on the big picture global level including trafficking in persons.

Andrea: I love this. There are a couple things that come up as questions for me as you’re talking about seeking justice in our own personal spaces. And one of those is that I see a lot of people struggling to know what to do with- recently this issue in Charlottesville, the event that took place in Charlottesville with white supremacy- and there’s a lot of angst and confusion about how to approach the subject.

And for this one thing, I might be against this other things that matters to me too and there’s so much confusion it seems about when to speak out and not to speak out, when to do something about it, and when not to. Do you have anything to say to this confusion that we feel and conflict that we feel about things that might in some ways feel wrong but then another aspect of it feels wrong too, so we’re not sure how to deal with that?

John: I would say where there is that conflict, move towards it. We move towards that conflict because it’s going help us clarify where we’re at. And I think we have to be able to embrace nuance, that there are different positions or different thoughts even within ourselves. But I think the other thing to move forward is really clearly and boldly identifying what is wrong and identifying what is right and then speaking to that. And I think that oftentimes, we don’t want it in their end because we don’t want to even admit to ourselves sometimes that these are paragraphs answers in a Twitter sort of world, right?

Andrea: Yeah.

John: These things aren’t solved with 140 characters, it takes more information and more new ones but once we process it, I think worth understanding in our own hearts that we want to move towards love. We want to move towards good and I think we go there full esteem ahead. We want to see the problems of the world and we want to bring hope by the truckload, I mean just lots of it. And where there is pain and there’s suffering, we want to push that away and resolve it.

I think that sometimes, we over complicate things. I think sometimes, we want to access that everyone on the team that there’s white hats and black hats out there, good guys and bad guys, and the reality is there’s a lot of us who are just gray hats. We’re messed up and we need to move for its clarity and truth and we’re going to address the issues in our own hearts and address these issues in our culture.

Andrea: I find that for myself it was difficult… You know, couple of years maybe when I was still trying to figure out what do I do with this voice of mine. It was difficult for me to want to identify my voice with any particular issue because I was afraid of being thrown into a box, categorical box and then I would only have a voice with those people in that particular box. So religious, political, whatever it might be but usually a combination of those two things, how do we have a voice of justice to sort of transcends these boxes so that we can actually have dialogue that’s going to move things forward?

John: Hmmm that’s a great question. I would love to learn from you as you maneuver through that. I believe that if we’re going to develop expertise, if we’re going to develop experience in a space, we have to dive in and get into the deep end of whatever pool that we’re going to swim in and figure it out and develop mastery. And so I would, in some ways, tell people don’t worry about getting in the box. Go deep into an issue. Work over the long term and really become good at it. But then find that principles that make it work because the principles out there that are going to really allow you to do well at a specific thing are going to have general impact and applicability across the board. In a sense, they’re going to work in lots to different boxes.

So the real principal behind the idea of trafficking is that people has value and that we should go love other people in a demonstrated way that we can go and actually change systems to benefit people. Well, those same principles applied to lots of things. People have value. We should go address and meet the needs in other spheres and in other topical areas. So I think diving in deep is worth because I think it builds expertise, it builds credibility, and you can have a greater impact on a specific thing, but then find those threads that are common to all and they’re always there. Speaking up close to encourage others in this big, big fight to go and seek justice around the globe.

Andrea: Yeah. You’ve mentioned before this idea of different hats that we see people wearing, these teams that we feel like we’re on and I guess that was sort of the same thing as this box that I’m picturing. But I think we’re looking for identity, wanting to identify ourselves with something that’s bigger than ourselves. And it’s tempting to have it be a pat or box rather than a principle because principles seem to be a little bit more messy. If you’re in a box, you know what the rules are and you just follow these particular set of beliefs or things that we’re supposed to do or to be and to talk about. But if you focus on a principle then you have to kind of wrestle with every issue that comes up based on that principle. It’s just more complicated it seems.

John: Right. I mean, every relationship is complicated and messy and unstructured and these principles of joy, hope, love, and truth that are going to win the day. And so I think that the great joy of life is getting in that mess of all of these principles and figuring them out in midst of all these wonderful relationships and seeing them grow and flourish. When you think about that who would want a tidy little wife inside a small box? It would be much more fun to live out our days pursuing something bigger and more joyful than that.

Andrea: Yes. And I love that you can bring the philosophical side of things but also you’re taking massive action. I don’t know, when we talk about peace, joy, love these sorts of things, it feels a little you know heady and not practical but you’re making it very practical.

John: It is in the practice. It’s in the day to day kind of ordinary moments where I think these ideas are really refined and shaped. And I think that people do want to see practical actions. People want to have concrete plans that they can take and things that they can do and they’re there. If there’s a destination that we want to get to, we can find a path to get there and it’s just going to be a question of are we going to do the hard work of finding that path or creating that path and I think it’s worth it.

Andrea: I do too. I really also appreciate the fact these threads that you said run throughout other things. They really reached to a personal level as well and so I’m curious how you and your wife’s values about the importance of human life and dignity and voice, how these things reached into your own home?

John: Hmmm. You know, it has a huge influence. In fact, the way we parent to our kids and the way we think about our marriage and the way we think about finding trafficking are so inextricably intertwined and I don’t know which feeds the other. They very much go together and our kids have lived this life with us as we have been working on these cases and travelling the world and obviously their time growing up in India has had a big impact on them.

But I think it comes in some really clear ways. We have a group of kind of family rules that apply to every phase of our lives and they really shaped how we think about each other in our marriage but they also impact how we think about work. And so like one of them is that people are more important than stuff. So we have a choice to make and it could be reduced down to whether we’re choosing people or stuff. We should almost always choose people.

And so when we think about what shall we do on this next case, how do we approach this? What’s the cause of it going to be? There’s a person at risk there and we’re going to out that person who’s a victim ahead of stuff or material interests. We also applies that at my kids when they were learning as toddlers to share, building that friendship is more important than who’s playing with that toy. Or it applies as we plan out, now that we have adolescence and two kids and high school, like how we’re dealing with the demands of their schedules and thinking about how we value people at each turn.

And so I think that these ideas of making wrong things right and honoring individuals as well as respecting systems and authority and thinking about innovation or how we want to refocused on getting things done more than the forms that we’re building. Each one of these ideas is just another step towards integration and flourishing and that’s what we want to be about. So we’re really happy to be engaged in this journey both as in the messy parts of resolving conflicts at home and loving each other well. Or the messy parts of resolving conflict at work and loving our team well but also loving survivors well and trying to demonstrate what real love looks like to traffickers.

Andrea: It’s beautiful! So what’s the future for the Human Trafficking Institute and how can we get involved or support you?

John:   Right now, we’re in the process of working with agreements with a couple of countries that are interested in building out specialized units and having them trained and having _____ and really trying to end the impunity that traffickers enjoy. So we’re very excited over the next few years to see the results that can come in the individuals that will be free but also how deterrence and ending impunity can be reflected.

We got a group of amazing law students who are joining us in the next few weeks at Douglass Fellows and Dr. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist who went on after he had gained his freedom and taught himself to read and write. He ended up being; I think most people don’t realize this, the chief law enforcement officer for the District of Columbia. He was a United States Marshals and he had just this amazing life. In his honor and with his family’s initiatives, with their participation, we formed the Douglass Fellowship and we got some law students who are going to be Douglass Fellows this year doing research and writing and helping us build out these practices.

I’m excited that new process and we’re excited about that new process and we’re excited for people and your listeners to join in this movement. They can join us as justice partners on our website and connect to a monthly community that is thinking about this in finding new ways and innovative ways to tackle this problem. And we’re excited for what’s going to come over the few years. We got a great lean team that we’re building. We’re developing the model that we think can have the greatest impact.

Andrea: I love it. I love every bit of it. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention before we sign off?

John: I’m just so grateful for you, Andrea, and for letting your voice into all this and encouraging people to have the influence in the communities that they’re engaged in. I think that as more and more people stepped forward and say they want to be a part of making wrong things right, the world is going to continue to become a better place.

Andrea: Well thank you so much for your time here today, John. I really appreciate the way that you’re using your voice in the world.

John: Thanks Andrea! I’m glad to be with you!




It’s Bigger Than A Dress: Part 3

As a team, we declare that every woman, man and child is valuable, no matter their socioeconomic status, culture, race, age or gender. Every voice, every life, every heart matters. We do not speak for others, we can only hope that our voices (what we say and do) will turn our ears to hear the voices that are hidden, diminished and abandoned.

The boy sent out on the small boat to fish 14 hours a day.

The girl whose manipulative relative visits her room at night for his own pleasure.

The man who is told he must work or his family will be killed.

The woman who gives herself away to pay for the medical needs of her young child.

What you can do:

  1. Recognize the power you have and use it to empower others.
  2. Refuse to use other people to make yourself feel more valuable.
  3. Don’t blame victims.
  4. Believe you have dignity so you can recognize the dignity of every other human being and help them recognize it.
  5. Support – through prayer, relational interaction and finances.

What’s better than raising $1,000 for a cause? Doing it arm in arm with others. Donate through our Dressember team to International Justice Mission and A21 here: #YourVoiceMatters team page.

If you are inspired to donate to another organization fighting human trafficking (there are many!) or to act/think differently, would you let us know? It would be so encouraging for us to hear that our advocacy is making an impact.

Stephanie Sutphin, Wife/Stay-at-home Mom/Lover of crafting

StephanieWhy did you decide to participate in Dressember?

I saw a blog post about Dressember through a friend. I wanted to join in right away! Human trafficking has always been something that deeply bothered me, and learning more about the injustices people are enduring daily made me want to fight for them, do anything I could. I rarely wear dresses and am nursing my baby girl so I knew it would be a challenge for me. That made the choice to participate even more meaningful. I choose to put on a dress every day because there are millions out there who don’t get a choice. I am also making decorating glass candle holders to raise money that are available to buy here: Etsy Candle Holders.

What does the phrase “your voice matters” mean to you?

It never seemed like my voice could matter. I’m not on the front lines with IJM helping people, or even a writer who could raise awareness. Recently I learned that sex slavery is happening in the United States, not just the rest of the world. That really hit me, but I still didn’t see how I could change things. Participating in Dressember has made me feel empowered. My voice does matter. I can make a difference by being an advocate to people who are treated wrongly, by valuing myself and others, and by raising my family to treat every single person they meet with dignity and respect.

Rosanne Moore: Homeschooling Mom of 4, Reading Instruction Specialist, Writer/Editor/Spiritual Director

RosanneWhy did you decide to participate in Dressember?

I think I grew up with the wrong belief that women involved in the sex trade did so as a matter of choice. As I became more involved in ministry that allowed me to sit with women of a variety of backgrounds and hear their stories, I learned about the realities of human trafficking and have prayed for opportunities to do something about it. Since becoming a single mom about 4 years ago, I live with a strong awareness that single mothers in other parts of the world – women who are without my family support and educational opportunities – are incredibly vulnerable to sex trafficking. And as a follower of Jesus and the mother of a daughter, I want to intervene on behalf of victimized girls and women with the same passion that I would want shown by others toward me and my daughter, if we were being harmed. Dressember offers me an opportunity to support my sisters around the world actively.

Andrea made me aware of Dressember last year, and this year, I decided to participate as well. Seeing Andrea’s daughter Amelia involved made my middle school-aged daughter decide to join me. It’s been a stretch for us both as she’s active kid and I haven’t worn dresses much since my kids were born. (I spent too much time on the floor w/ little ones!) However, we’ve both unexpectedly discovered a new freedom to embrace and celebrate our own femininity during this time of solidarity with our sisters around the world.

What does the phrase “your voice matters” mean to you?

There have been some dark seasons in my life during which I surrendered my voice, both with God and others, because I felt powerless and discarded. Believing my voice matters is tied to a greater hope – that no matter what the result of speaking truth looks like in the short-term, in the long-run God hears and answers our cries. He is always at work to make all things new, and when I refuse to be silent in the face of injustice or deception or the status quo of self-interest, I affirm the truth of His character in the midst of circumstances would otherwise call for despair.

Living in the US and having spent some time in a 3rd world country also gives me a sense of responsibility to use the place of blessing that I’ve been given as an opportunity to serve those in far more challenging circumstances. All that we have, both in terms of material possessions and of options unknown to most of the world, are gifts that we can steward for God’s eternal purposes. What a privilege that is!

It’s Bigger Than A Dress: Part 1, Part 2

It’s Bigger Than A Dress: Part 2

We didn’t know who he was, but someone else at our workshop pointed him out. On the way out to lunch Aaron and I walked over to John Cotton Richmond and thanked him for his work as a federal human trafficking prosecutor and former International Justice Mission-India director. We visited for a few minutes, astounded at the his confidence in the idea that it really is possible to end human trafficking, and end it soon. I’m not sure I would have believed it coming from anyone else.

IMG_5044“What can we do?” I asked. He encouraged us to support those doing freedom work and participate in Dressember again. He’d just visited with Blythe Hill, founder of Dressember, the week before.

I admit, that’s not what I wanted to hear. I was leaning toward not participating this year. Though we’d raised $1,000 last year for International Justice Mission, I remembered how discouraged I was through most of the month, wondering why I bothered wearing dresses when most people didn’t realize why I was doing it. Most of December 2014 I felt discouraged, uncomfortable, frustrated, ignored and insignificant. But then I remembered that those very feelings are what gave me a sense of solidarity with others fighting for freedom. Maybe participating in Dressember is worth it.

So this year when it came time to register, I took a bit of a leap and created a team #YourVoiceMatters. It is  a phrase used in other contexts, but it has great personal meaning for me. I not only want to believe that my voice matters, I want to encourage others to believe their voices matter, too. It’s one of the themes of my life. I was surprised when we ended up with 13 participants on our team. A couple of women even did it because they saw me do it last year. Maybe my quiet month of everyday-advocacy did make a difference. Maybe my voice matters.

December is the giving month. It’s the month that every non-profit hopes to collect what they need to make it into the new year. It’s the month that we look at our pocketbooks and wish we had more to give. But don’t let the enormity of the need and the smallness of your ability keep you from believing that you can make a difference. Your $5 , $10 or $100 matters. Your attitude toward others matters. Your prayers matter. Your word of encouragemet matters. Whatever it is, your offering matters.

Donate here: #YourVoiceMatters Dressember Team

In Part 1, we heard from four of our Dressember teammates. Allow me to introduce you to two more impactful young women in North Platte.

Alena Evans: Reader/Writer/Chinese Restaurant Hostess/Babysitter/Home-school Student

Screenshot 2015-12-16 at 5.58.47 PMWhy did you decide to participate in Dressember?

Let’s see…last year my friend posted a picture in her dress with the Dressember link. She never wears dresses so this really caught my attention. When I read about what she was doing I was kind of like “That’s interesting.” and moved on–the issue at hand didn’t really stir anything in my heart. I saw Andrea post a picture about it too and I remember feeling like maybe I should pay attention to this, but I really didn’t.
Then over the summer another friend of mine went on a missions trip to Thailand, and when she came back she talked about how much human trafficking there is in Thailand. She told me about a woman she had met who had been able to get out of trafficking, and about just the way these girls end up there, and it was all so heartbreaking to me!
Well I had forgotten all about Dressember until November when Andrea posted about starting a team. I actually kind of wrestled with it the moment that I saw your post, because it didn’t seem like I would be doing a lot, and it’s not like New Mexico where you can get away with not wearing pants in the beginning of the winter–I live in Nebraska! But then I thought, ‘Get a hold of yourself! This is what you’ve been waiting for, and you wear dresses for work half the time anyway.” So I jumped in, and I’m really glad I did! It feels great to be a part of the team, instead of on my own.

What does the phrase “your voice matters” mean to you?

I guess to me that means that I can have influence over people with my words, and so I should be careful with what I say. The way I speak and what I pipe up about matter because it is what the Lord cares so deeply about. At least, I want it to be that way.

Megan Wullschleger: 17 year old Avid Writer/ Lover of Stories/ Blogger/ Musician/ Student

HaitiWhy did you decide to participate in Dressember?

My friend, Olivia Youngs got me involved with Dressember. I didn’t understand what it was all about until I had watched the video on her blog of what Dressember was and I fell in love and I knew that I really needed to do this. I knew it was going to be a challenge, and it is! But it is for such an amazing cause. And it holds a place in my heart.

What the phrase “Your Voice Matters” means to you?

At times we feel as though we aren’t heard. And though we may feel that, we really can be even though we think we aren’t. That’s how the victims of sex trafficking feel and so through this we are showing them we care and that they are heard…your voice matters in any situation. And someone does care.

It’s Bigger Than A Dress: Part 1

It’s Bigger Than A Dress: Part 1


Sometimes I scare myself. I think of crazy ideas to connect people and make an impact on the world but then every once in a while I actually say them out loud. Eeek!

After participating in something called “Dressember” last year, it occurred to me: “It would be awesome to gather a team of people to participate in Dressember with Amelia and I next year!” All they would have to do is wear dresses every day in December, raise money and spread the message. Right? By this November, I was nervous as all-get-out to throw the idea out to the world. What if no one joins us after I put myself out there and actually ask for help? But I was committed, so I explained our mission and invited others to participate with us (read more about Dressember here). After a few days with no response, a number of women and some of their friends joined our team called #YourVoiceMatters. These women are passionate and powerful and I am thrilled to introduce some of them to you in a couple of posts entitled It’s More Than A Dress.

As of today, our team is comprised of 13 adults and two girls. We have raised $975 of our $3000 goal! Check out the creative ways each of these women are using their voices and their gifts to amplify the voices of others. Each woman has her own fundraising page that connects to our overall #YourVoiceMatters team page. Donate through them and you’re donating through our team.

Olivia Youngs: Wife to AJ, Mom to two girls, Writer and Coffee Lover – View More: about simplicity        North Platte, NE

Why are you participating in Dressember? 

My roommate from college participated in Dressember last year, but because I was breastfeeding my oldest daughter at the time, decided not to join in (wearing a dress isn’t the most convenient choice for breastfeeding moms). This year though, as I’m nursing my second baby, I realized that it was too great a cause and too huge a problem for me not to participate. I’ve blogged about it here and am selling handmade items to fundraise here.

What does the phrase “your voice matters” mean to you?

“Your voice matters” is an incredibly empowering phrase. To me, it means that I have the ability to make an impact; that my words mean something, no matter how inadequate they may feel.

Rachael Miller: Author, Artist, and Wife to a green-eyed Tolkien enthusiast.    Greeley, CO

Why are you participating in Dressember? IMG_0776

I was approached by my sister-in-law Olivia Youngs about joining Dressember. She was really passionate about participating this year, and wanted to know if several of her friends and family members wanted to join. At first, I was hesitant about joining the movement. Though I do care about the issue of sex trafficking, I didn’t feel passionate about it like I thought I should. The “challenge” of wearing only dresses for a whole month was intriguing, but I wanted my heart to be in it for the right reasons. I didn’t want Dressember to become just another thing I was doing because my friends were doing it. Also, I lived far away from the other members of the #yourvoicematters team, if I were to do this, I would be practically alone.

Even now, though I still do not feel a burning inside my heart for the cause, I’ve realized that supporting something can function a lot like love. When you love someone, you may not always feel passion for them; love is a choice to remain committed. From the moment I put on my first Dressember dress, I was choosing to offer more than my passion. I was offering my support and my commitment to ending this great evil of our time.

I’ve made origami dress ornaments available for a donation of any amount to the cause.

What does the phrase “your voice matters” mean to you?   

It means that whoever you are, whether you have a large circle of influence or a small one, you still leave your mark upon the world. Choosing to speak up or remain silent—both have an impact on the future.

Jenny Maestas: Lactation Consultant (I help moms breastfeed their babies)       Lincoln, NE

IMG_0991Why are you participating in Dressember?

I would hear about human trafficking, but really had no frame of reference for it. I didn’t really know any of the statistics or have an idea of how wide spread it was. I wanted to be forced to really look at the issue and learn more, that putting on a dress every day wouldn’t just be a normal routine in my day, but would serve as a reminder to look outside of my everyday and see what was really going on in the world. I work with babies every day in my job, and I want to play a part in creating a safer, more secure world for them in the future, as well as for my own children.

What does the phrase “your voice matters” mean to you?

It’s so easy to listen to all of the horrible news around the world and in our own backyard and think that there’s really nothing you can do to make a difference in it. It’s easy to live in fear. But that’s a lie that I can so easily believe, when in reality, each of our voices collectively has the potential to create real change in our world. We can give a voice to those who are unable to speak for themselves.

Lanae Pierson: High School Biology Teacher     Columbus, NE

Why are you participating in Dressember? 10317804_10204216190274706_8704194780087415230_o

I saw that my friend Jenny Maestas was doing Dressember.  I spent a few days thinking about whether I should donate to her campaign or just join her team.  Since ending human trafficking is something I believe strongly in, but have never done anything about, I decided to join her team.  Though I do want to raise money to help International Justice Mission and A21, my primary reason for joining the Dressember campaign is to build awareness.  I’m doing so by taking a daily picture of me in a dress holding a sign that gives a fact about human trafficking.  I further expand on each fact in my blog (

What does the phrase “your voice matters” mean to you?

It means that although the issue of human trafficking is huge, what I have to say about it is important.  I, as a single person, can make a difference in this world.  This is why I didn’t just donate money to the Dressember campaign; I became a part of it to build awareness.  My voice matters (and yours does too)!


Click here for the #YourVoiceMatters Dressember Team page.

A Short Message for LEADERS


I know. I need this message more than anyone else.

There is a place for self-evaluation and growth. But when self-awareness turns into self-deprecation, you turn into someone who JUDGES.

Belittling yourself in front of other people makes you UNSAFE and influences others to believe that it is normal and even good to belittle themselves.

I want to see people grow in their positive impact on the world. I want to see an END to slavery in my lifetime. But my voice is counterproductive to the #enditmovement when it is self-deprecating.

So I’m calling all leaders and all activists and all mothers and fathers and older siblings and anyone who has influence over anyone else…

If you want to be a leader and make a difference in the lives of others, take this to heart:

build up - tear down

Let’s end it.

A Call To Dignity

Sometimes the written word just doesn’t cut it for me. Today I made a video. Please watch to the end. And regardless of how I feel about how I look or sound in this video, I care about the message and I want to get it out. So please share it if you are inclined to do so. (Transcript below.)


Andrea Joy

p.s. If you want to make a donation to our Dressember campaign this year, follow this link:


Transcript of the video: A Call to Dignity

This morning my 8-year-old daughter is playing with play dough and listening to Kids’ Bop music while 2 million girls as young as my daughter’s age…MY daughter’s age…wake up believing they have no choice but succumb to sexual exploitation to pay back a “debt” or earn their freedom or keep their families from being killed. Most of these girls are under the age of 12 and serve up to 1,500 clients a year.*

Sometimes hearing numbers makes me numb to the need. I get so overwhelmed with the horror that I turn and walk the other way because I can’t handle it.

Did I just say that?

I can’t handle it?!

And yet an 8 year old woke up today believing she is nothing other than an object to be intimately violated – and may not even realize that she has anything so sacred that could be violated.

While my daughter plays with play dough.

I don’t like to wear dresses because they make me feel vulnerable. I am stronger and more protected in pants. I don’t call attention to my own beauty in pants.

But every day in December I have slipped into vulnerability to declare its dignity. I have put on clothing that makes me feel weak and unprotected to begin to identify with women and children who feel helpless – who no one protects. I have “dressed up” and put effort into my appearance, proclaiming that beauty can be enjoyed without being objectified and exploited.

And my 8 year old wore dresses nearly every day this month in her own innocence – because she likes wearing dresses and wanted to identify with her Mommy.

Each one of us has the opportunity to fight for dignity and freedom and justice of all people. You don’t have to donate to International Justice Mission through our Dressember campaign to make a difference. There are LOTS of worthy organizations that live as bright beacons of light in the darkness of horror. There are LOTS of horrors in the world to fight – that we each unknowingly contribute to every day.

If you want to have a significant impact on every single one of them, you can…

BELIEVE in your OWN dignity and beauty.

BELIEVE that you have something sacred that can be violated.

BELIEVE that when you objectify another, you diminish your own humanity.

BELIEVE that when you put yourself down, you influence others to question their own value.

BELIEVE that you really do make a difference.

BELIEVE that you are Loved.

Because you are.

And in so doing, we will change the world.