FARGO — In the past, Emily Brooks noticed issues affecting the community and wanted change. But like many, she didn’t think she was the one to make it happen.
“I always thought, ‘Someone else will do it,’” says Brooks, who notes that hearing statistics — and the testimony of a sex-trafficked individual at an event last year — finally made her raise her hand. “It was definitely eye-opening.”
That inaugural Purses for a Purpose dessert and fundraising banquet included not only the victim testimony, but helpful tips from local law enforcement and other education and resources. At this year’s event, Brooks will not be just a quiet observer, but an organizer who helped arrange the setting, raffle items and treats from various local vendors.
Next Step ND, an organization that provides help to victims of sex and other human trafficking in the area, will host the event at Atonement Lutheran Church in Fargo. Founder Lisa Hanson also works in family and small-group ministries at Atonement.
“The survivors have so many obstacles to overcome to be successful, and while shelters do the best they can with counselors and treatment and helping to secure a place for them to live, they don’t have the extra funding to help get (victims) back up on their feet,” she says.
Seeing the gap, Hanson decided to act in conjunction with her Voice for the Captives ministry to help trafficked victims in a way that would bring the community together by offering purses that first responders can give to affected women.
The idea was that the women especially — though trafficking affects both genders — would have something tangible filled with necessities beyond what shelters often provide, including things like lip balm, makeup wipes, lotion and feminine products. But it’s not just about the purses, which provide a visual and starting place for helping — it’s a fundraiser to reach beyond that initial assistance.
“We also include a wooden cross with a note of encouragement from Next Step ND,” Hanson says, noting that these are made by a men’s prayer ministry at Hope Lutheran Church. “We want them to know we’re here for them, we care for and love them, and that they can contact us when the time is right.”
Melissa Williams, human trafficking navigator for eastern North Dakota, says Hanson’s work has been helpful as she and others work to connect victims with resources like employment, medical assistance, transportation, housing and day care.
“It completely fits that Lisa and I work together,” she says. “I can educate her on what we’re seeing, what the market looks like for sex and labor trafficking here, and she can connect the dots for the faith ministry.”
Williams will speak at the fundraiser next month on what people need to watch for, and what children and adults are being exposed to that can draw them into the enslavement of trafficking — including what trafficking is and isn’t.
“We’re finding that people aren’t choosing it,” she says, adding that anyone can be targeted. “Much of it comes from a history of abuse and lack of control over their own lives. It’s survival.”
Kids are often easier targets, according to Williams, and social media plays a role, too, with much of the exploitation happening online now. Fargo is North Dakota's highest area for trafficking because of its two intersecting interstates and higher population.
“We’re pretty prevalent for drug and gang activities, and trafficking goes hand in hand with that,” she says.
From Jan. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2018, the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force served 242 victims, including 59 minors, and performed 61 investigations leading to 52 arrests.
While “stranger-danger” can be real, it isn’t the typical scenario for trafficking entry, according to Williams. Usually, victims know their traffickers and are groomed, she says, whether it's family members, romantic partners or peers.
Williams says the purse event can help people become educated and learn how to make a difference. Peering into the issue of trafficking can be scary, Brooks says, but it's important.
“It’s such a dark topic, and I think some of those more challenging topics people shy away from, but sometimes your faith takes you to dark corners in order to shed light there,” she says.
Hanson’s efforts don’t include overt evangelization, and she says the trafficked “need to be met where they’re at” first. But beyond that lies hope and healing that only faith can provide.
“If I couldn’t get that cross into their hands to help them know only God can renew and restore and give hope, and show value of who they really are, this would just be philanthropy,” she says, noting that while that can be a good aim, too, it’s not enough.
Not only the victims, she says, but the traffickers and buyers — 80 percent of whom are married — ultimately “need to be seen not as objects but people, to be loved and helped with their addictions,” which will only come through the Gospel message.
“We’re never going to change this until we are able to reach the hearts of people,” Hanson says.
If you go
What: Purses for a Purpose dessert banquet and fundraiser
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7
Where: Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 University Drive S., Fargo
Info: $15 before Jan. 31 or $20 at the door, and $200 for table sponsorship; www.thenextstepnd.com
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.