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Q & A with the Executive Director of the Michigan Abolitionist Project

Kathy Maitland is the Exec. Director of the Michigan Abolitionist Project, an organization devoted to combating human trafficking in Michigan. The Sex Slaves

Kathy Maitland is the Executive Director of the Michigan Abolitionist Project (MAP), an organization devoted to combating the threat of human trafficking in local communities around Michigan.  Although newly formed in 2011, MAP has emerged as an expansive force throughout the state.  It offers anti-slavery community groups instruction on how to train, engage, and educate individuals about the domestic sex trade. This year, MAP also launched the “Unbound Project,” a collective of music, art and photography aimed at addressing human trafficking through a creative lens. To see the challenges groups like MAP face, watch the Sex Slaves: Motor City marathon on Sunday, November 2nd, 6-10 p.m. ET.

Q: How would you describe MAP?

A: MAP is an organization that is really about trying to educate the community on what they can do to help the anti-trafficking issue. One of the main things that must happen if we’re going to stop the problem is providing education, because that is what will help change our culture and aid prevention efforts. At MAP, we have a bias toward prevention because we want to fight for better resources for those who have been trafficked. Our hearts go out to the survivors, but our main efforts go toward preventing sex slavery from happening in the first place.


Q: What sticks out about MAP is the emphasis put you on the creative arts.  

A: There are about 100,000 children in sex slavery throughout the U.S. right now, but that’s a hard statistic to wrap your brain around. We want to put a face to these people. The creative arts is a good way to reach out and engage individuals in the cause, but also teach them that it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming.

At The Unbound Project, we had a photo exhibit, but we didn’t choose to focus on scare tactics with really awful pictures of human trafficking. Instead, we showed photographs from a place called the House of Providence, an organization that brings in girls who are aging out of foster care with no place to go. They were just still shots of the girls in order to put “This is a person” beside these statistics. 

The Unbound Project was powerful in getting people to think about the issue. It also validated our idea that the creative arts can have a place in this. There aren’t easy solutions to this problem or happy endings, but I think the arts can communicate and put some resolve to that.


Q: You mentioned girls coming out of foster care before. Is it common for foster children to fall victim to traffickers?

A: One statistic I’ve heard is that up to 70 percent of girls coming out of foster care will end up in sex slavery. That is a significant number of youth who are highly vulnerable, and traffickers prey on that vulnerability.

Sex trafficking is a $32 billion industry. Some experts are saying it’s even higher now. That’s like a Fortune 500 company with profits being made underground. Given that, I tell groups we need more than a bunch of church ladies selling cupcakes to help fight this issue. I’m not saying anything against the church ladies — bless their hearts, they’re doing their part. But we have under-resourced organizations fighting for $5,000 grants just to print brochures. We need a more strategic approach.


Q: What does a more ‘strategic’ approach look like for MAP?

A: Right now, we’re putting together a coalition to engage everyone in the community. Coalitions would consist of representatives from places like law enforcement, the judicial system, educators, and the medical community. This would mean a more organized effort, with measurements and action plans and accountability within the group. I feel that we could be so much more effective if we could all work together, because human trafficking has the power and strategy of organized crime, so you need everyone on board. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel either, so as our state comes on board, we’d hope to plug into what they’re doing.


Q: It’s sometimes common amongst anti-slavery groups to see the term “slavery” used more readily than “trafficked.” Could you explain why that is?  

A: Human trafficking is more of a term that the government came up with that sounds a bit nicer than slavery. Then, last year in one address, President Obama called this issue what it is — slavery.

‘Trafficking’ may be confusing to someone who doesn’t know what it is. They may think of it as smuggling. We use that word because people understand what slavery is. Many individuals here think it’s been abolished, but it exists all over the world. As you start to learn more, you realize it’s not only going on in other countries, but here as well.


Q: Speaking of “here,” why do you believe the sex trade is such a prominent issue in Michigan? Do you think it differs at all from other states?

A: I see it as an issue in Michigan because I’ve met a handful of survivors from here. From their personal testimonies, I know that in my good suburban community, there are women who have been trafficked. In terms of Michigan itself, the FBI did a sting across the U.S. in 2013, and we came up second in the number of juveniles that were recovered from the sex trade.


Q: What do you think is the biggest issue the anti sex-slavery community faces?

A: Funding is obviously a challenge for all of these organizations, especially because MAP works in prevention. It’s harder to show progress. We go out and talk to schools and church groups and build awareness to make people educated about the issue. Yet, it’s hard to know that, say, a mom went home and talked to her daughter and she became aware of the tactics of a trafficker, and wasn’t trafficked due to our efforts. It’s challenging for an organization like ours — that’s focused on prevention — to demonstrate to our donors our value. It’s harder to measure what didn’t happen.


Q: What is most common misconception you encounter surrounding this issue?

A: I know, for myself, I had to overcome my prejudice and misperceptions about prostitution. I’m 58 years old and I was brought up in a time when Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore slept in twin beds on TV. It was a huge awakening for me to realize that what’s going on is not by free will, and that people are being coerced.


Q: So what do you think it will take to effect change?

A: We need a movement. I’ve heard it said once that solving human trafficking is such a big problem that it’s going to be similar to the civil rights movement. We need that kind of force to change a culture that’s driving and feeding the beast. It’s gonna come from the people.


The Sex Slaves marathon featuring the city of Detroit airs Sunday, November 2nd, 6-10 p.m. ET.