Last Friday, Somaly Mam, a major figure in the anti-sex trafficking movement came to speak at the Rosenthal Pavilion thanks to the initiative of Against Child Trafficking Club (ACTC) of NYU. We had the opportunity to speak with Lauren Kalogridis, the President of ACTC, and Becca Park, the club’s vice-president, about human rights activism on campus and their impressions of Somaly Mam.
How did you first get interested in the anti-sex trafficking movement?
Becca Park: I was first inspired, when I saw Emma Thompson’s ‘Journey’exhibit last November. I saw these huge traincars and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just remembered being so overwhelmed, and I just needed to latch onto something. I needed some sort of centering, to figure out more about it, and how I could get involved. Lauren was involved with ACT.
Lauren Kalogridis: Out of all the clubs [involved with human rights], I stuck with ACT, mainly because there were so few people, so it was really intimate. It was more discussion based, but the events they would have were big.
BP: That’s the reason why ACT appealed to me, because I was so overwhelmed by this gigantic human rights issue that I had no idea about, and to get involved with the club as intimate as ACT was really incredible and special. Other clubs were more in your face information, making you feel sort of out of place. Because we learn information as we go along week to week, we’re on the same level as all the members.
LK: There’s a regular show up, and every week, there will be one or two people who will float in out, but the regulars, we know their names, their majors, we text them about the events, we know political stances, and we know how they stand morally.
BP: Being in New York City, we have an amazing opportunity of being educative and of being involved. Coupling that together, New York City is an epicenter of trafficking, with people from eastern European being funneled into the US: we’re surrounded by it [trafficking].
What are your main goals as the spearhead of ACTC?
LK: To have a club that is on one side very intimate, discussion based, regular in its meetings, familiar enough for students to keep coming, to create a community, to learn together, rather than us teaching. We don’t know any more than these people. But we’re in New York City—forming a network with these people in our club, we can get involved in this city. Forming enough connections [in the city] so that it’s easy for our members to get involved, when they’re ready, or when they like to, find out more information when they desire to, but also to maintain that safe space.
BP: My relationship with the club is evolving, my stance on the issue is evolving and my passion is growing. The club gives you room to process human trafficking in different ways, there’s a cohesive flow to all of our discussions, fuelling my knowledge and making me realize how much more I want to get involved by giving me a back bone.
LK: We’re all from different back grounds. Sally is public health student in the grad school, she can offer advice from that perspective. Becca is from a health and wellness perspective. She thinks in that way. I’m a social work major. I think in terms of reconciliation and coping skills. Sachi is a communication major. When she talks, she’s coming from the stand point of how these issues are being communicated to people. Cordelia is also a social work major. Alice talks a lot about labor rights. Everyone’s so different and everyone’s talking about it from a different perspective. There’s a lot of it going on.
How did you manage to get in contact with Somaly Mam?
LK: We have another member, Ella Crivello—she’s the project chair ACT—was interning at the Somaly Mam Foundation [in New York]. I had an interest in Project Futures—a different program of the Foundation—as a volunteer. They do a lot of volunteering on [college] campuses, and I was interested in starting a branch of Project Futures at NYU.
Ella hooked me up with the director of Project Futures. I came in to talk about doing a book campaign and about an anti-trafficking brand we wanted to funnel the proceeds to. We were doing a lot of work for them, so one day they just asked, “we have an open evening. Somaly is here visiting for a few days from Cambodia, would you like to host her?” It just so happened that Rosenthal Pavilion was free. We wouldn’t have gotten it if Ella hadn’t been involved [in Somaly Mam foundation] and if we hadn’t been working for them.
Networking helps because ACT has been involved with Freedom Week for three years, it’s one of the most cohesive coalitions in the city since their formation three years ago, and as of especially this year and last year we really got involved with the directors in helping them rather than just wandering on our own, so we had a lot of people.
It’s really important because in the NGO world, they are so understaffed and underpaid. So most often it’s chaos. It’s really important though that you have to be really organized about what you can offer them, and they will always take the free help and the free enthusiasm. What they can’t give you a lot of the times is time to organize FOR you. Once they realize they can trust you to be proactive and push them, and ask the right questions, and if they had great opportunities they will come to you first.
What did you make of Somaly Mam? Was she anything like what you’d expected?
BP: The media tends to focus on her experiences as a sex-slave; it’s gruesome points that get a lot of attention. And we were just really pleasantly surprised and inspired that she took the complete opposite route. She just wanted to focus on empowerment [aspect of the anti-sex trafficking movement], and my favorite part was her interaction with the girls, she was teaching them how to laugh.
LK: A question that came up in one of our [ACTC] meetings was “how do you define empowerment?” She [Somaly] was saying that it was really just about having someone behind you, charging each other, and recharging each other. That for me was like “Bingo.” We got so many wonderful, optimistic points. It’s not just the aid-worker and the victim, but it’s more about mutual benefits, a mindset that I think is really good for anti-trafficking movement to take.
BP: When one of the audience questions was my friend just got out of the [sex] industry, Somaly Mam just leapt off stage, and gave out her personal number to call her, I mean, that was just, I mean, I was just, oh my god.
LK: She was just so friendly. She really is just another person. She was just giggling, goofy, and joking around, teasing the girls for getting old. At the end, we took her down and she was grateful that we were helping to get her a cab. It’s just these little things. She is this wonderful balance, of this strong, human, down-to-earth… she was incredible
BP: [To see her in person] It lessens the distance people feel when you are able to put a face, let alone a personality like that, to what we think of as victims. They are survivors. They are moving forward with their lives. When people think of sex-trafficked victims, they think of people who are just stuck and stagnant. Of course, they are going to be emotionally stagnant, but it doesn’t mean they can’t move on.
For me, it closes the gap in terms of how close and intimate that they feel to this cause by actually seeing Somaly. Her personality just filled up the room.