COLUMBIA — The Friends Room at Daniel Boone Regional Library is a melange of geometric print and pastels. Brightly colored crafts arranged there Sunday afternoon by three local fair trade vendors replicated the visual impression of entering a literary candy land.
But a stark black-and-white poster at the forefront of the room boasted in unforgiving boldface a question far-removed from any sugar-coated fantasy: "Are you purchasing slave labor?"
The Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition underscored President Barack Obama's declaration of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month with an event intended to raise human trafficking and exploitation consciousness among the public.
Nanette Ward, the coalition co-chairwoman, said human trafficking is illegal trade in human beings. It encompasses sex — and labor — related work like prostitution and sweat shop labor.
Kelsey Saragnese, an MU representative for the coalition, said human trafficking occurs in our own neighborhoods more often than we realize. According to the United States Department of Justice, the Western District of Missouri, which includes Boone County, has seen more human trafficking-related prosecution than any other district in the country.
"The easiest thing you can do [to help] is change the way you look at something or the way you feel about something," Saragnese said, citing changes in youth perspective and vocabulary as the primary focus of the session.
Speaker Lainie Battaglia identified a second method for human trafficking abatement based on the basic economic principles of supply and demand: By reducing personal demand for trafficking-related goods like items made in sweat shops, people can curtail industry supply of trafficking itself.
Buying fair trade merchandise is one way to reduce demand. Stephanie Gilliam, a volunteer at Mustard Seed, suggested consistently buying one item, such as coffee or tea, with the fair trade logo on its packaging.
Individual initiative was reemphasized by FBI agent Cody Abram, who said law enforcement is not always trained to recognize the symptoms of an exploitation victim. "We rely on the public – teachers, counselors, parents – because they might feel more comfortable approaching a victim."
Often, Ward said, personal interaction with a victim can lead to full investigations and rehabilitation, a process in which the coalition plays an integral role. Through fundraising and PayPal donations, it is able to supply financial assistance with anything from clothing to rent – things more traditional agencies are not equipped to provide.
Armed with these ideas, attendees as diverse as the room was colorful gathered in small groups and discussed topics including the questions of small children and the social implications of politically-charged hip hop.
Beat poet Nick "Nick Danger" Rodriguez concluded the afternoon with a composition he was moved to pen "in the live": "To this illness, we possess the cure. Stop human trafficking."