September 16, 2019
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Lessons from the founder of a nonprofit that works to end human trafficking

Human trafficking occurs in all parts of the U.S.—and it doesn't resemble the movie Taken. But nonprofit workers like Brenda Wells employ a very particular set of skills that they put to work in their communities.

The i-5 Freedom Network, based in San Clemente, California, trains businesses in the hospitality industry to spot and report human trafficking. Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

When I began to learn about the issue of domestic human trafficking, I had visions of going to the streets, locking eyes with some desperate individual who was just waiting for the right person to care; we would connect and instantly she would know she could trust me. I would put her in my car and drive her to safety to get her the resources and justice she deserved. I was Liam Neeson from Taken.

But as I learned the reality of human trafficking in the United States—as facilitated and perpetrated by U.S. nationals and with U.S. nationals as the victims—I realized how ridiculously impractical and inappropriate that was. First off, no one would confuse me with Neeson’s character, a retired CIA operative who single-handedly saves his daughter from the clutches of an international sex trafficking ring. And second, you don’t need to look like a federal agent, because human trafficking looks nothing like it does in the movies.

In my work with the i-5 Freedom Network, I’ve learned to put on my own appropriately sized-cape. I’ve had a few failed takeoffs and painful landings. Along the way, I learned a lot. Here are a few lessons I learned about myself and about the ups and downs of launching a nonprofit.

1. Use the skills you already have.

When I learned about the prevalence of human trafficking in hotels in towns across the U.S., I was aghast. But I also learned that we already have the skills to make a difference. Sustainable engagement requires action where you already are. I am a corporate trainer, I have worked in hotels, and I live in a town. I decided I will train the hotels in my town on how to identify and report illegal activity. I decided to focus on just my town of San Clemente, California.

2. Be ready to encounter roadblocks.

Hotels don’t love it. The idea of training, that is. Many of the hotels I encountered told me “No time, no resources, and it’s not a problem at my hotel” as reasons for not participating. Remember the last time you had to go to compliance training? Did you jump for joy or did your head sink in despair? Getting hotels to commit to optional training is a little like getting your toddler to eat a Brussel sprout.

3. Be ready to pivot when you need to.

Even if the hotels at first pushed back, everyone else loved it—our approach to training hotels, that is. We were at a point where more people were excited about our hotel training program than the beneficiaries we were serving. We were getting recognition for all the hotel training we were hardly doing. It’s easy to feel awkward in a moment like that. We do plenty of community awareness events where we present and discuss the i-5 Freedom Network. This is where the public see our training competency and know we are on to something. After these events I realized thinking small is no longer an option. We have since offered trainings as far as Sacramento, Mexico, Florida, and New Orleans.

4. Put your impatience to work.

Why haven’t we trained all the hotels yet? Why haven’t we prevented this at schools yesterday? Why aren’t we funded? These are the questions that run through my head. Many NGO founders probably suffer from the same time perception dysfunction that nothing happens fast enough. That others are wowed, impressed, amazed at what you have accomplished is not proof enough. You truly feel like you are sitting still and so much more should happen NOW, and it is all up to you.

5. Know your triggers and develop a way to disarm them.

When people repeat misconceptions about human trafficking, I get frustrated and I’m inclined to argue with them. But I realize that misinformation and noble motives often collide to form a bad idea. Instead, I take a deep breath and launch into my position statement that begins: “We can all agree that personal freedom is important…”

6. Get comfortable asking for money.

A good friend of mine, with lots of money, said this to me: “People like me look for organizations like yours to put their dollars to good use. This way I know I can make an impact with my resources but somebody else is doing the work.” That made me realize my organization is an opportunity for good deeds for those with more money than time. One day I am going to ask him for money.

7. Be creative.

Often, during a community awareness event, people will ask “What do you do with the girls once you get them off the street?” As trainers, victim extraction is not one of our programs. But the question brought up a fact that bothered me: that we were not directly involved with the population we were truly serving. That generated the next idea. I am a corporate trainer with Dale Carnegie, what if the i-5 Freedom Network could partner with Dale Carnegie to bring personal development workshops to survivors? Our WAY2WORK program offers survivors courses on those How to Make Friends and Influence People skills made famous by Dale Carnegie. With topics including Managing Stress, Conflict Management, Leadership, and Business Etiquette, these workshops are designed to help them build confidence for the workplace or simply build healthy relationships. The best outcome however is the sense of possibility that they report feeling. This is hopefully enough to keep them on the path forward toward a brighter future.

8. Be aware of stereotypes.

We work very closely with Lived-Experience Consultants (aka Survivors). We bring their insights to our board and we hire as independent contractors to offer community and hotel training. We never ask them to do anything for free. But I have come across so many organizations who want them to speak at events but offer no honorarium and claim their own survivor almost like a mascot. You will see images of girls in chains, in tears on websites because those images get attention and donors. But these images are not helpful. Not only do you risk re-traumatizing these individuals, it also shows an inaccurate picture and continues the myth that without “Liam Neeson” they are trapped. Instead, lets paint the picture of what could be: freedom, dignity, and strength.

9. Don’t give up.

As the fastest growing illicit crime on the globe, we cannot keep up. Small organizations like the i-5 Freedom Network will continue to fight to make a difference and fight for our voice to be heard. Human trafficking remains a low-risk, high-reward crime and our resources cannot compete with this billion-dollar industry. So we will keep doing what we do, because giving up is not an option.

10. Remember: The good guys outnumber the bad guys.

With every training event, awareness program, passed legislation, and corporate sponsor, we add people to the army. The more voices we add, the sooner we emerge victorious.

Brenda Wells

i-5 Freedom Network

Brenda is the founder and executive director of the i-5 Freedom Network. Their mission is to engage business and community leaders to fight human trafficking through differentiated training, education, and legislative advocacy. Since beginning their organization two years ago, they have educated over 2,000 people, 15 hotels, and presented at numerous business and community groups such as the the California Hotel and Lodging Association, Loyola Marymount School of Business and Ethics, San Clemente Rotary, Dana Point Rotary, Shared Hope International, Academy of of Hospitality Industry Attorneys, Kiwanis, and Laura's House to name a few.

Brenda is also a Corporate Trainer and certified through Dale Carnegie in Sales, Leadership, Presentations, and Communication Skills.

For her work fighting human trafficking in the community, Brenda was awarded Chamber of Commerce 2016 Citizen of the Year and Farmers and Merchants Bank 2017 Compassion Award.