Human Trafficking: It Doesn't Have to Be a Big Hairy Scary Issue

02/04/2014 11:04 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

When I was eight years old, my family took a summer vacation to Chicago where my parents' worst nightmare came true. Sipping a milkshake one moment -- and the next, gone. Not more than four feet tall, I had disappeared into a sea of people in one of the biggest cities in America.

After a few minutes of sheer terror, from across the busy downtown street, they saw me holding a picket sign as big as I was, marching around Union Park, yelling in unison with my fellow advocates, "Free Tibet! Free Tibet!"

My mother ran up and threw her arms around me. While holding me tightly, through gasps of relief, she asked, "What on earth are you doing?"

"Mom," I explained breathlessly, "Someone has kidnapped Mr. Tibet and we got to help him!!"

Had I known that the real story, racked as it is with hundreds of years of geo-political history, I can't imagine I would have picked up that sign; not then and not today, because most of the time there is too much to learn, too many sides and it all just overwhelms me.

But at eight years old, I didn't know all that. Instead, I conjured up an image of a Mr. Magoo type -- wrinkled and wearing spectacles, who had been captured and was being held against his will.

I actually believed that in the life of a single person, I could make a difference. I could tip the scale. I could be the fierce voice that finally caused that cage to break open and free Mr. Tibet.

National Freedom Day (February 1st) marked the anniversary of the signing of the resolution that eventually became the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery. But 149 years later, we haven't completely closed this dark chapter. In the recent words of President Obama, "modern-day slavery is a global tragedy, combating it requires international action."

I am guessing that you agree with that bit about a global tragedy. I am certain that the thought of people living in bondage breaks your heart.

But you, like me, will probably move on quickly from that. Not because you don't care, but because you don't know where to start. Because human trafficking (modern-day slavery) is A BIG HAIRY SCARY ISSUE.

It has tentacles that reach into the dark corners of poverty and war and greed and consumer addictions. But you're no authority on BIG HAIRY SCARY ISSUES, so what could you possibly do about that?

Listen to a thorough line up of podcasts about conflicts in Central Africa and the global economy and supply chains and pending legislation? Buy a plane ticket to Southeast Asia to understand the complexities of sex tourism? Write a compelling white paper so that you can drop your name in the hat for Human Trafficking Task Force Leader of the Universe and finally make a difference?

We both know that unless you're one of the few people actually doing one of those things (and mad props to those folks, by the way) this thought process will most likely just land you in a heaping pile of nothing, with a side of guilt and a tall, frothy glass of unavoidable apathy.

So here is my proposition: Let yourself be a little naive. Let yourself for a minute believe that human trafficking isn't A BIG HAIRY SCARY ISSUE.

Close your eyes and let your inner third grader come back to life. Let her give you a vision for the face of the BIG HAIRY SCARY ISSUE. Let him show you that in fact, it isn't an "issue" so much as a single person.

Maybe she is a 14-year-old girl named Amber who lives in your city with her single mom, who when suspicious that her boyfriend is sexually abusing her own daughter, doesn't act. She is silent, because if he kicks them out, they have nowhere to go and it is all just too much. So Amber runs away, to escape the horror that being alone with him brings. Within a few days of living on the streets, she meets someone that makes a lot of promises about love and protection and offers her place to stay for the night. And that is how her abusive relationship with her pimp starts, because she is 14 and desperate and she's looking for something, anything, to grab onto.

Or maybe he is a young man living in poverty in rural Bangladesh. And he gets an opportunity to work in the city, which holds the promise of finally ending the unrelenting cycle of poverty for his family. So, desperate and willing to believe, he says yes. He says yes and steps onto the bus, fully believing that he is on the road to a better life. But instead, he enters into indentured slavery at a factory where he is denied basic human rights, working 20-hour shifts and enduring verbal and physical abuse, all because the demand for cheap tank tops is just that high.

Or maybe he is a teenage boy in the suburbs of St. Louis that laughs while he watches a YouTube video of his friends ranking the girls on the volleyball team based on their body parts. He laughs, not because he is evil or chauvinistic, but because he is a 16-year-old boy who has never had an older man sit beside him and tell him that there is a better, stronger, higher way for him to think about those young women. And maybe, years later when has the opportunity to pay for sex, he does. No one ever told him that one study found there is a 66 percent chance that she encountered years of childhood sexual abuse or a 90 percent chance that she lost her virginity through childhood sexual assault before she 'chose this life.' And now he owns those body parts, at least for a night.

For a second, let yourself believe that human trafficking isn't an impossibly big issue that can only be fixed by 'experts' and 'task-forces.' Let yourself believe that you -- yes, you, who can barely keep your toilet clean and remember your mom's birthday -- can be a part of changing that narrative for one person.

Because it doesn't take a Ph.D. to sit with an overwhelmed single mom and ask if you can help her make a monthly budget and pay down her credit card debt so she is one step closer to financial independence.

It doesn't take leaving your full time job to find out who is leading the movement in your city and support them by signing petitions and donating toiletries.

It doesn't take a sixth sense to see that the kid under the bridge is waiting for the first person who will sit beside her and look her in the eyes and tell her it is going to be all right.

It doesn't take a life of advocacy work to have a hard and awkward conversation with a teenager.

It doesn't take an iron will to decide that just maybe you don't need another cheap tank top or to decide to buy that chocolate from a company that abides by fair trade principles.

It only takes believing. Believing that you, in the simple acts of listening and speaking and giving and abstaining, can change the course of history.

One by one. Little by little. Step by step we can walk together and as President Obama said "declare as one that slavery has no place in our world, and.... finally restore to all people the most basic rights of freedom, dignity, and justice."