By Guest Columnist JIMMY ETHEREDGE, senior managing director, Accenture – U.S. Southeast
Last summer, I joined more than 250 representatives from the private, public, faith, educational, advocacy, and civic sectors, who convened at Mercedes Benz Stadium and committed to support a three-year strategic plan to address the risk factors that accelerate human trafficking in Atlanta.
Our team at Accenture had the privilege to work with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ International Human Trafficking Institute to provide pro bono support and conduct conversations and research to identify the themes and tactics of the plan. Since then, I’ve learned a great deal about just how relevant this issue is to all of us here in Atlanta, and the role we each can – and must – play in working to solve this complex problem facing our community.
The evidence clearly indicated that human trafficking occurs because of two key factors: One is the socio-economic conditions – impoverished communities and frail family relations – that increase the vulnerability of persons, especially children, who are recruited by traffickers; the second factor is the customer demand caused by predators who drive the “supply” market of buying children for sexual exploitation.
Adding to the challenge unique to Atlanta is our world’s busiest airport, with hundreds of international connections every day making it an easier destination for traffickers. By addressing these systemic issues, along with interrupting the demand, as in any business model, trafficking will decrease.
A year later, we have made tremendous progress.
Almost 20,000 people, of a 50,000-person goal, are now trained to recognize labor and sexual exploitation and the role that demand plays in each of these. More than 1,000 multi-faith communities and civic organizations are engaged in training their members and supporting advocacy efforts. There are many great agencies in metro Atlanta addressing the systemic conditions to “traffic-proof” persons, particularly children, from being exploited, along with organizations, which are doing exceptional work in the rescue and restoration of trafficking survivors. I am proud we are one of Atlanta’s civic-minded corporations that provide both financial and volunteer support for these efforts.
However, we now know that these efforts alone will not interrupt child sex trafficking. As long as there is demand, this vulnerable population will continue to be exploited.
It is time that our community stares this societal problem in the eye and steps up to tackle the ending of demand. This is where every one of us can play a part, and the private sector can lead the way.
Contrary to what one might think, these predators are not anonymous persons living in the shadows. They are our employees, co-workers, and neighbors. They are from all income levels, but the majority are men who live in our suburbs and affluent urban communities. Many of these predators are married, with children of their own.
Over the next few weeks, take notice of The Truth in Trafficking billboards in 23 locations throughout metro Atlanta placed along I-85, I-75, I-20 and I-285. They strip away the veil of denial of the horror that children endure when they are bought for forced sex. This campaign is intended to be a wake-up call for those who believe that this is not an issue that impacts them or their family. Child sex trafficking strips away our moral core and devalues our commitment to the common good.
We need a reality check that this illegal, underground commercial sex activity drives a $5.7 billion economy annually in the U.S., second only to drug trafficking. But this issue goes far beyond quoted statistics or a generic, depersonalized discussion on how many victims are trafficked in Atlanta each year. Even one exploited child is one child too many.
At each of our organizations doing business in Atlanta, let’s review our human resource policies and add stipulations that call for immediate action against any employee who uses company resources for trafficking transactions, along with vendor contracts with a clause that prohibits any goods or services provided by exploited persons.
The first, and by far the most courageous step, however, is to have the conversation – with family, co-workers, and others in our own networks about human sexual exploitation – to talk specifically about what we and our community must do to take action.
According to Deborah Richardson, executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute, “this is not an easy conversation, but it’s a mandatory one.” And, as researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown says, to opt out of conversations because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege.
As a community, I believe we can make right a horrific wrong, and as members of this community, we each must do our part.
Note to readers: Jimmy Etheredge is the senior managing director of Accenture’s U.S. Southeast region. In this role, he focuses on bringing innovation to clients, attracting top talent and strengthening the company’s impact in its local communities.