The term “abolitionist” might conjure memories of history textbooks and musty tales of social advocates long gone. But that’s all the more reason why a group of parishioners from Mountainbrook Community Church in San Luis Obispo, dedicated to fighting against human trafficking, chose to call themselves the Mountainbrook Abolitionists.
The name alone implies that what we might think of as a problem of the past is one that we still face today.
The Mountainbrook Abolitionists were founded by parishioner and volunteer Rebecca Turner, who said she felt compelled to do something about the problem of human trafficking after attending the 2012 Justice Conference in Portland, Ore.—an annual meeting that focuses on social justice.
With the stated objective of “bringing awareness to and action against modern-day slavery,” the group meets regularly on the second and fourth Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at Mountainbrook Community Church. Although it’s a faith-based group, it’s open to the public and to people of all religious backgrounds.
“There’s a spot for everyone, and we need everybody,” Turner told New Times.
Part of the group’s efforts includes organizing the upcoming Justice Summit, which takes place Nov. 15 to 17 at the church. Featuring 10 speakers from advocacy groups across the state, the summit will include six talks on a range of topics related to human trafficking, as well as four interactive workshops focusing on responsible consumerism, resources for first responders, faith-based organization, and business leadership.
“Our intention for hosting it was to basically equip ourselves and offer it to the community,” Turner said.
In addition, the summit will present a production of the play Letters From My Mother by Udaya Kanthi Salgadu, at 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, featuring cast members who are actual survivors of human trafficking. A survivor herself, Salgadu based the play on her own experiences, having been forced to move from her native Sri Lanka to Los Angeles where she was made to work as a nanny and housekeeper for more than two years without pay.
According to the organization Free the Slaves, there are an estimated 21 to 30 million people currently held in slavery worldwide. In 2012, a Paso Robles couple was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $600,000 in restitution in a case in which they admitted to luring Filipino nationals to the United States under false pretenses, forcing them to work under slave-like conditions at elder care facilities the couple owned.
Assistant Social Services Director for SLO County Tracy Schiro told New Times that other instances of human trafficking, specifically in the form of underage prostitution, have also occurred locally. Schiro believes that underage prostitutes should be treated as victims of trafficking rather than criminals.
“They can’t give consent to prostitution,” Schiro said. “These are kids; these are children under the age of 18.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average age of entry to the commercial sex industry in the United States is 12 years old. And though more recent numbers aren’t available, based upon a 1994 National Institute of Justice report, sexually abused children are 28 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution than those who haven’t been abused.
But Schiro already sees a shift taking place in how these cases are treated, due in part to the efforts of advocacy groups such as those participating in the Justice Summit, and is currently working to create a task force and develop a protocol to “treat these children not as perpetrators, but as victims in order to become survivors.”