Last Day of the Rest of My Life

Although I have phased out of acting like a director of this almost-non-profit, the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative (NoVA HTI), in the span of time between my third baby being born and now, today is technically the last day I hold this title.

This day isn’t really any different than tomorrow, at least not in my responsibilities. But for me it is a bittersweet day, knowing I am officially passing on the reigns. Relinquishing a job I thrive in, am challenged by, and for an organization I love is no easy thing for me. NoVA HTI is kinda like my baby. I have been so blessed and honored to help it grow into the influential organization it is, and I know that the next director is the right person to lead it in its next steps.

But, for this to be easy for me would be like how sending a kid off to college is easy. (I’ve heard that is like cutting-cake easy.)

I get-to figure out how to raise REAL-LIVE-WIGGLING-CRYING-POOPING babies once again, rather than creating and growing a fledgling non-profit (though I am not fully convinced it is too much different). If you want to read about my decision to move on, you can check out this post here: Identity Crisis #3467 – My Messy Beautiful

Elisa Johnston Director NoVA HTI human trafficking 101

Why Trafficking? A Not-So-Sexy Answer

Regardless, to commemorate my last day, I thought I’d write about how I went into the business of fighting human trafficking in the first place. You see, being director of the only organization like ours in one of the top hubs of human trafficking in the States, I’ve been asked a time or two how I got here.  How did I become an “expert” of sorts?  I must be SO passionate about this issue. Surely there is a spectacular reason, right?

I know people who started to care about trafficking because it was as though they heard a voice from heaven. Others, because it was happening literally right in touch-distance to them and it was so real. Or, more likely, the majority seem to have heard about it from an MSN report, a non-realistic movie, a favorite celebrity selling t-shirts, or maybe when a renown organization spoke at a concert they were at.

I say it time and time again- the anti-trafficking movement really is the sexy cause. And there isn’t anything wrong about that. I spend a lot of time trying to create awareness and getting people to think about it. We want the masses to care so something can be done! (Although we would prefer there to not be too much sensationalism attached.)

But for me, it wasn’t sexy or exciting thing.

I learned about trafficking in 2005, after watching a documentary by International Justice Mission about an undercover case in Cambodia, highlighting the plight of children being sold for sex. In the activist world of anti-trafficking, especially for those who know of or work with IJM, this is documentary is the classic; one of first of the firsts. Through this case, IJM began creating advocates on behalf of trafficking, which, I dare say, through trickle effect, is a root reason many of you are now interested. For example, as this was my exposure to human trafficking, if you started learning about human trafficking through our friendship, my blog, or because of NoVA HTI, it can be traced back to this programming almost ten years ago through me.

So, if anything (which is really nothing) I can usually say “I cared about it longer than you- nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.” But that is just stupid. There is already have enough competition in the do-good world. I guess the only thing this says to you about me, is that this cause isn’t just a fad or phase I’m going through.

Soon after seeing this documentary, I was able to study trafficking on my own. I chose it for research projects in various college classes I took (as it wasn’t a topic I could find a college class on at the time). I began blogging about it then, too, as one of many things we who care about justice should care about.


Just One Thing of Many- But So Needed

Then, in 2010, I was told that I was put on a team with a few others to research trafficking in our area and create a plan for what the local Church could do about it in the DC suburbs of Virginia. I actually was annoyed that I was on this team, as trafficking was one of many things I cared about. I didn’t want to dedicate my time and energy just to a single cause I understood was important.

I view my purpose to create awareness and empower others to help right the wrongs in the world, truly loving others like Jesus asked of those who follow Him. Americans are dumbstruck when someone they know dies of cancer, as if we were guaranteed eternal life on earth while purposefully insulating ourselves from the extreme suffering faced everyday around the globe- the 1/8th of the world who doesn’t have clean water, the starving people “of Africa,” where it seems there’s continual famine, then there are those who are routinely raped, have no chance to be educated, suffer from HIV, malaria, or die because they are unvaccinated kids, whose hard-earned wages are stolen, or are told they have no value because of their birthplace/religion/ethnicity.

No, it’s not that we don’t experience suffering, it’s just that I believe it’s wrong to ignore to the suffering of others.

I’m not just going off about something I obviously care about as a tangent here, I’m reiterating this only because getting over that hump was a major hindrance to my involvement in what is now NoVA HTI.

Because, of course, the best way to help Americans care about the global issues, is to first help learn how to love our immediate neighbors. So, while I was helping feed our American version of hungry kids though L2F’s weekend backpack program, I began researching through the Loudoun Human Trafficking Task Force (as we used to be called), learning from those on the frontlines how we could help prevent and stop trafficking in our community.

And through that, I really began to grasp what trafficking looks like within our own borders. For me, it started as a means to an end. Stop trafficking locally, and people will care about it globally. At least, until I found out I had no time left to even consider the global ramifications of human trafficking because there was so much not being done here.

Eventually, I was essentially asked by a mentor, “Do you think this organization is making a difference? If so, you are the only person who can lead it right now. If you see that it has value, it is up to you.” I knew NoVA HTI had a place in our community- and beyond just a place, there was a need for it. Because I believed God cares about those affected by human trafficking (even if one of many things), and I had the ability to step into the role, it was almost a logical choice to become director, as if I fell into it on accident (for those who care, don’t worry, I did pray about it too).

Widening Perspective

I’ve been able to experience firsthand how valuable it is to support organizations that work to end human trafficking. By being part of Loudoun HTTF, progressing to become director of NoVA HTI, my perspective has been forever altered.

Unlike many Americans, I knew it was happening here. But like most Americans, I just assumed it was being taken care of.

But it wasn’t/isn’t.

It might be the sexy cause. It is so popular to say that modern slavery isn’t cool, that everyone thinks people are doing more about it than, well, just ranting about it.  But to an extent, that is a myth.

Talking with law enforcement, educators, victim case managers and other non-profits required me to see how many gaps in prevention, understanding and care there are.

There are 20-30 million slaves in our world, more than ever in history and most who are extremely oppressed.  The United States might account for only 100,000-300,000 of the current cases, most of them being sex trafficking. But, supposedly less than one percent of trafficking victims are even identified. And these victims of modern slavery, both in the USA and around the world, have little choice, freedom, and say in whether they will be used, wronged, abused. 

Here, there are a major lack of laws and major lack of awareness within the local governments, law enforcement, and schools. The result is an environment where prosecutions are rare and trafficking in persons is still the fastest growing crime in the world. Then, once victims are removed from their situation, I have been appalled to learn of girls that are left in juvey for lack of a better place for them, or girls that are temporarily sent to a recovery house for a couple weeks, only to be picked up by their trafficker as they leave the facility. We lack safe places for long-term (let alone spiritual) recovery for victims, and we also are in desperate need of healthy families and individuals to mentor, care for, invite these broken-ones into their lives.

So few truly advocate on their behalf.

It seems that living in the richest county of the United States, these things wouldn’t be issues. But these ARE issues here.  And they are throughout the globe- even more so. Last year, I felt like I ran around in circles, trying to understand the needs and then advocating for anyone to pay attention, encouraging them to give a part of themselves to love others. 

And that is how I became an “expert” on trafficking in the States, it was because I had to if I wanted to make a difference. Not from books (though I’ve read those too). But by trying to get a law to pass that will do more than slap a john on the hand, rather than arrest a girl for something she has little choice in. By advocating prevention material be taught to kids and urging schools to talk about it. By trying to find someone to donate money to help pay for a survivor to have a place to live, or for heaven’s sakes, won’t someone commit to mentoring a survivor already?

Sometimes, we are a tough crowd.

We’ve seen many people respond to fill these needs. But I have also seen countless more not respond, many needs unfilled, and sometimes I feel like we haven’t gotten anywhere.

Work Ourselves Out Of This Job

Of course, who needs discouragement talking? In the last three and a half years since I’ve been involved, I’ve witnessed the face of Northern Virginia change because of those who have stepped up to make a difference. We have a long way to go, but justice and compassion are starting to grow!  I hope NoVA HTI works ourselves out of a job- to really be able to say modern slavery isn’t much of an issue anymore because we allowed ourselves to be transformed and worked to help our community be transformed. That is my hope.

So, maybe story isn’t much differnet than yours will be. I was told about it. I learned more about it. I might have used it as a way to inspire others to care about global issues, but then, like I hope you do, I really became passionate about putting an end to human trafficking when I saw how much we are needed to stop something right outside our doors.

I know modern slavery is just one of many important things to pay attention to as we live to love in our world. But, I want to challenge you to consider if you have a role in doing something about trafficking too. Even though I am not the director of NoVA HTI anymore, I am not planning on stopping!


Here are some ideas:

Ten Ways to End Human Trafficking in NoVA

Now what are you going to do?


Related Posts:

Intervention: Beyond a Christmas Story

Five Mistakes Activists Make

The Little Black Dress…that Changed the World