Conference on campus Sunday addresses human trafficking in Bay Area

Karen Chow/Staff

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The Berkeley Anti-Trafficking Coalition hosted the second biennial Freedom in Action conference Sunday on campus, which focused on efforts to combat human trafficking in the Bay Area.

About 130 people attended the conference, which included workshops conducted by speakers from various anti-human trafficking and survivor support organizations, as well as the Alameda County District Attorney’s office.

Chair of the conference’s planning committee and campus senior Chloe Gregori said in an email that she hopes the conference encourages discussion between people with different perspectives and experiences of human trafficking, presenting strategies and techniques for anti-trafficking work in the Bay Area.

Human trafficking — which includes the exploitation of a person through coercion or fraud to perform labor services or a commercial sex act — is particularly prevalent in the Bay Area, according to Teresa Drenick, assistant district attorney in Alameda County. Though it occurs throughout Bay Area communities, it is most visible in Oakland, Drenick said.

“Oakland definitely is a place where a lot of those girls are brought through,” said Sabrina Farrell, a deputy district attorney in the Juvenile Division.

The conference featured workshops and presentations from groups such as the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition; Alameda County H.E.A.T. Watch, operating through the county district attorney’s office; S.H.A.D.E. Project, an organization for survivors; and the Unitarian Universalist Abolitionists, among others.

Minh Dang, a UC Berkeley alumna and survivor of human trafficking, delivered the keynote address, emphasizing that freedom should be equitable.

“Anti-trafficking work is really about anti-oppression work,” Dang said. “We’re fighting for our own sense of freedom and justice.”

For Dang, anti-racism functions on the continuum of anti-trafficking, because the quality of dehumanization is fundamental to both trafficking and racism.

Sarai Smith-Mazariegos, the co-founder of S.H.A.D.E. Project and MISSSEY Inc., led a workshop focused on a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach for advocates to become more effective and successful in their efforts. Smith-Mazariegos, who has been working in the field for 15 years, describes herself as an overcomer, having been a victim of exploitation.

“It’s not just trauma,” Smith-Mazariegos said. “It’s complex trauma.”

While trafficking is significant in the Bay Area, trafficking victims are often brought through various cities in the United States, according to assistant special agent in charge with the FBI Bertram Fairries. Fairries noted that opportunities for trafficking may be greater in California than in other places.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s office, however, mostly focuses on localized cases.

“What we are involved mostly with are local children — American children — who are being bought by men,” Drenick said.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s office has designated a portion of its resources toward combating human trafficking in the county, according to Dan Roisman, a deputy district attorney. These resources have resulted in a media campaign to raise awareness, and at least three attorneys in the district attorney’s office working exclusively on human trafficking cases.

According to Farrell, billboards created by the office have had an impact on how human trafficking is perceived and discussed, adding that victims are being described in more  politically correct terms. Farrell said she is working to change the language used to describe human trafficking, so that “John” becomes “purchaser” and “pimp” becomes “exploiter” or “human trafficker.”

“Everyday conversations have started to change … even with our judges,” Farrell said.

The office is a statewide and national leader in combating human trafficking, according to Drenick.

Monica Calzada, a Bay Area resident who attended the conference, said the experience was educational.

“A lot of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a trafficked human being were not accurate,” Calzada said.

This type of realization is what Gregori hoped the conference would provide.

“There is still much work that needs to be done to spread greater awareness and better understand (human trafficking’s) complexities and nuances,” Gregori said in an email. “The conference seeks to move beyond the common public narrative about human trafficking and instead explore the nuances of slavery and freedom.”

Contact Patricia Serpa at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @pserpa_dc.