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Slaves Among Us

Choreographer Loralee Scott-Conforti creates dance to spread awareness of human trafficking—which is closer to home than you think

by Erin Pihlaja on June 13, 2013 · 2 comments

SoulCry! Rehearsal. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

The young dancer cradles the sheer, white fabric draped across her slender forearm. As she moves across the stage, she rocks and soothes it. Her movements, although subtle, easily convey that this is the timeless dance between mother and baby—a love that nurtures and protects.

The tender moment is shattered as a menacing figure strips the delicate package from the dancer’s arms, and the young mother crashes to the ground. Her eyes scream of heartbreak, terror, and defeat.

The production, choreographed by Loralee Scott-Conforti, tells the true story of Meena Hasina, an Indian woman who was sold to a brothel when she was only about 9 years old. Scott-Conforti read about Hasina in the book Half The Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. In a brothel for over a dozen years, Hasina was beaten and drugged into submission. She bore two children while there, and after she finally escaped, fought to free them as well. She was successful, but only after her daughter had been forced into prostitution.

“I read this in the comfort of my own living room,” Scott-Conforti says. Hasina’s tale “totally haunted and consumed” her. She was plagued by nightmares and launched herself into a personal journey, she says, to research sex trafficking. What she found horrified her.

“We think that it is a Third World issue,” she says, adding that stories like Hasina’s are what come to mind when most Americans think of human trafficking.

“I was naive,” she says, “and unaware. It’s in bedroom communities, Norman Rockwell-looking towns.” Deeply affected by Hasina’s plight, and armed with the newly discovered awareness of how widespread trafficking is, Scott-Conforti was shocked into action.

She says that she kept thinking about a quote from President Abraham Lincoln, upon his meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe. “He said, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,’” Scott-Conforti says. “She did the one thing she could do: write. It was a message for me. I thought, ‘Loralee, do the one thing you can do.’”

Thus, SoulCry! was born. In addition to the Massachusetts-based Accendo Dance Company, which Scott-Conforti heads, she wanted to include her student dance troupe, the Arts Movement Student Company, where the dancers’ ages range from 9 to 18 years old.

“This is the age that most victims are trafficked,” she says. “But I didn’t want to traumatize these girls. I also didn’t want to produce something fluffy and sentimental.”

She says she “explained it to them age appropriately,” and was surprised when the “teenage students were better educated than I was—they were already activists.”

She had no idea how the idea would be received, or what impact it might have. “What could it do?,” she wondered.

Human trafficking is a global pandemic and a multibillion dollar industry. According to the FBI’s website: “Human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern-day slavery. Estimates place the number of its domestic and international victims in the millions, mostly females and children enslaved in the commercial sex industry for little or no money. The terms human trafficking and sex slavery usually conjure up images of young girls beaten and abused in faraway places, like Eastern Europe, Asia, or Africa. Actually, human sex trafficking and sex slavery happen locally in cities and towns, both large and small, throughout the United States, right in citizens’ backyards.”

The website for American Association of University Women in New York state states: “Trafficking in persons is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by means of threats or use of force or other forms of coercions, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power. The essence is force, fraud, and/or coercion of vulnerable people. There is disproportionate representation of poor women, children, and members of disadvantaged minority groups.”

Just hit up Google to see how widespread, and close to home, the problem really is.

On June 19, a judge will decide whether or not Vincent George Sr. and Vincent George Jr. are guilty of sex trafficking, money laundering, and other charges in a case where the women involved were allegedly trafficked from Pennsylvania to Manhattan regularly as sex workers for the two men. One woman testified in the bench trial that she had first met one of the pimps as a 19-year-old prostitute in upstate New York.

In May 2013, Newsday reported the bust of a sex-trafficking ring that carted women and young girls from Mexico into New York City and up through the Hudson Valley to work in brothels. These “romeo pimps” fit the stereotype that is all too common: Find a troubled youth and promise him or her a better life. One that never materializes.

The Associated Press reported in November 2012 that state police had “arrested nine people in connection with sex trafficking in central New York that involved a minor. Troopers say 25-year-old Lynette Tilden of Utica and 30-year-old Edward Tilden of Orwell used the online classified advertising site Backpage.com to advertise throughout the Northeast for sex with the victim.” The internet has taken the place of darkened alleyways, or places of transit, where predators used to stalk troubled teens and runaways.

This March, Annie George of Rexford was found guilty of harboring an illegal alien; the Indian houseworker claimed she had been cheated out of pay and essentially held her hostage for almost six years. The victim’s son had called the National Human Trafficking Resources Center to report the situation.

Focused: Scott-Conforti directs her student dancers. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“I’ve had moms and parents of the dancers shaking their heads,” says Scott-Conforti. “They say, ‘It doesn’t happen in my town.’ One dancers’ mom sent me a text message one day. She couldn’t believe it, right there in Oxford [Mass.], the state police busted a sex trafficking ring at an elite spa, massage, and nail place about five minutes down the road from her house.”

Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, a human trafficking specialist with the Worker Justice Center of New York, says that he is currently involved with multiple trafficking cases—sex slavery and labor trafficking—that are located in “upstate New York,” meaning anywhere outside of New York City.

“In 60 percent of cases with trafficking,” he says, “they begin with the average person realizing it.” While sex trafficking often make for sensational headlines, labor trafficking plays a huge role in the amount of cases Martinez de Vedia sees.

At a recent conference on trafficking, he says, until he arrived, “every speaker told only tales about sex trafficking of minors in New York state. Agriculture is a multibillion dollar industry and prosecuting debt bondage is a concern for legislators who come from districts that are heavily agricultural.”

There are red flags, he says, that anyone can look for to uncover a trafficking situation. “In domestic servitude maybe a neighbor notices that someone lives there who doesn’t ever leave, or at a restaurant there are kids behind the counter who never seem to leave the restaurant. Sometimes a law-enforcement officer makes a traffic stop of farm workers and notices that only one person holds all of the others’ work papers. We have to be aware of those types of dynamics.”

His, and other organizations, work with one another when possible, and most do give the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 a lot of credit for creating federal legislation that directly addresses human trafficking issues. But there are still gaps to close. “Labor trafficking is classified as a Class D felony,” Martinez de Vedia says. “Potentially a trafficker could walk away with no jail time.” Better, he believes, would be to make it a Class B felony, putting it on par with sex trafficking.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is a national organization with six domestic field offices, one of which is in Albany. USCRI partners with other groups, such as the Workers Justice Center, to bring awareness to trafficking and to combat it.

“We try to educate the community and law enforcement agencies,” says Roberto Ponce, director of communications for USCRI’s national office. “The main challenge for victims of trafficking is that they may not identify as trafficking victims, so we must learn how to identify trafficking in all its forms.”

“In every nation, as human trafficking continues to evolve,” adds Melissa Segundo-Moreno, a lawyer with USCRI, “the main issues are victim identification and how do we measure the magnitude of a crime which is hidden by nature, while giving the community at large a broader understanding and viewpoint of what human trafficking is.”

The perfect mix, they both say, is prevention, protection, and prosecution, which can be achieved through public awareness campaigns, designated federal funding for a national victim-assistance program, and community involvement.

That involvement can take place on many levels. Segundo-Moreno says it ranges from lawyers and other professionals offering pro bono services, to organizing a clothing or food drive—important because rescued victims often have little access to any federal or state benefits. Since they rarely make any money that they are allowed to keep, if or when they escape their trafficker, they likely leave with no possessions.

“The obstacles to these victims’ needs are incredibly great and complex,” says Deb Carey, who works for the Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Assistance Program through the Troy Police Department. “They are complicated by a lot of different variables and take a lot of coordination between a lot of different agencies.”

Victims, she says, may have suffered physical and sexual abuse. They may have mental health issues such as “post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and possible substance-abuse issues.”

If the victims were trafficked from another country, she says, there may be “legal issues, immigration issues and perhaps language barriers.”

Says Carey, “If you suspect a trafficking situation, you should contact your local law enforcement or call 911. You could also contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.”

It doesn’t end there though. Once identified, Carey warns that “we have to look at traffic victims as victims of crimes and not as criminals. We assume just because these people are working they’re there willingly.”

As human trafficking continues to grow, more join the ranks of those trying to fight it. At Russell Sage College in Troy, Professor Sybillyn Jennings says that a regularly offered and required course for senior students, Women Changing the World, may focus efforts on human trafficking issues this coming fall and spring.

The goal, she says, is to “open students’ eyes globally to the status of women and girls, to really try to connect with women we might never meet in our daily lives, and to raise awareness.”

Russell Sage also was responsible for bring SoulCry! to the Capital Region this past Jan. 11, on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Troy City Council Member Rodney Wiltshire was in attendance.

“I was completely ignorant [to human trafficking],” he says. “The dance was motivating, chilling, saddening, and maddening.”

After the performance ended, Scott-Conforti says, “Rodney shot his hand up in air and said, ‘I’m completely overwhelmed and I want to know what can I do.’”

Wiltshire began his own research and concluded that while there were laws, resources, and agencies out there involved in some of the solutions, there were still a lot of “loopholes.”

Motivated: Wiltshire is making moves to fight human trafficking in the Capital Region. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“There is absolutely no silver bullet for this problem,” he says. “It thrives in the dark, in secrecy and on supply and demand.” But some of the areas that need to be addressed, he says, are strengthening punishment to perpetrators of the crime and focusing on rehabilitation for the victims.

He’d also like to see awareness heightened. “What about in hospital emergency rooms, where there are all of those informational pamphlets on domestic abuse and drug addiction? I’d like to see something on trafficking printed in other languages—in victims’ languages. There should also be help lines and tip lines.”

This Thursday (June 6), Wiltshire’s Clean Human Proposal, something he has been working on since seeing SoulCry!, passed through and was adopted by the city council.

“It is law,” he says, “that the city of Troy recognizes the need for more strengthening of the higher laws of the state and nation, and that the city will officially recommend to the state Legislature, that we want them to pass laws to strengthen human trafficking prevention, punishment for perps, and justice for victims.”

It is, however, just the first step, he says. “The next step is to pass a ‘cabbies ordinance’ similar to what was done in New York City, which I hope to do together with the cities of Albany and Schenectady simultaneously.” The ordinance attempts to address cab drivers’ roles in helping to transport prostitutes and trafficking victims between clients. The legislation raises penalties on drivers who are knowingly involved, and requires the Taxi and Limousine Commission to educate cabbies about trafficking.

“It’s got to be a regional effort,” Wiltshire adds.

After one of the first full performances of SoulCry!, Scott-Conforti says the audience gave them a full standing ovation. There were also plenty of tears.

“There was one girl in particular in theater,” she recalls. “It was a young girl in her 20s, and she was openly weeping. She introduced herself and told me that she had fled from Africa where she was married at 16 to a man double her age. She ran away to United States. She thanked me, and we hugged and cried.”

During a rehearsal where she busily prepares her dance troupe for an upcoming performance at The Clark Art Institute (Saturday, June 15), she acknowledges that the heaviness of the topic takes a toll on her physically and mentally. But since those days when she questioned what she, a dancer, choreographer, and concerned citizen “could do,” her resolve has strengthened to keep fighting for the victims of modern slavery. “This is the second largest criminal industry to drug trafficking,” she says, “and if it goes unchecked it will become number one. If we don’t speak out for a little child—who can we speak out for?”



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Trailer for SoulCry!:

SoulCry! [Trailer] from Kyro Media on Vimeo.