Anti-slavery event Polaris covers human trafficking in Austin


Chelsea Purgahn

Michelle Nehme introduces her film “Complicit” at Polaris, an event focusing on current efforts to combat modern slavery. 

Barak Bullock

Anti-slavery groups gathered at a symposium Thursday to bring the hidden and ugly reality of current sex trafficking and slavery in Austin to light. 

The event, Polaris, is a symposium named after the North Star, which escaped slaves followed to freedom before and during The Civil War. Nearly a dozen organizations committed to eradicating human trafficking in Austin convened at the event, co-sponsored by World Act Vision, an organization focusing on youth activism.

Ashley Lo, an event director of Polaris, said Polaris displays an effort to bring concrete data and opportunities for involvement to students.

“We wanted to create Polaris because we felt like there was awareness going on, but in terms of how to connect students to what they can actually do, there wasn’t a lot of information,” Lo said.

Organizations represented at Polaris included Austin based groups including Allies Against Slavery and Restore A Voice and chapters of international bodies including Not For Sale and End It Movement.

In addition to allowing the groups to connect with students and each other, the meeting featured a screening of an upcoming documentary by film team Trade In Hope. After the screening an informational panel, made up of Kirsten McDermott, director of program development for Restore A Voice, and John Nehme, a producer of the film, began a discussion on trafficking in Austin.

Speaking on his approach to film, Nehme said he tried to emphasize what viewers could do to help.

“If we’re going to do this, if we’re going to tell the story of this issue, of this problem, then we have to help people understand what they can do about it,” Nehme said.

During the discussion, McDermott explained how human trafficking differs from prostitution.

“The law requires that to be considered trafficked you have to prove force, fraud or coercion,” McDermott said. “When you’re a minor you don’t have to prove those things … so technically by law, [those under 17] are being trafficked.”

Emma DeCaro, Education Coordinator of the International Justice Mission chapter at UT, said human trafficking in Austin is mostly sex-oriented, rather than labor-oriented.

“Austin specifically is mostly sex trafficking,” DeCaro said. “a lot of prostitution based slavery.”

In the fight against Austin slavery, McDermott said cooperation between Austin authorities and non-profits during the recent Formula 1 race was a victory.

“I think Formula 1 really pulled the city together,” McDermott said. “You had APD working together, CPS working together, non-profits working together, social service providers, and so in that aspect there has been cause for celebration.”