On the morning of Friday, April 5, the Vassar community woke to an unusual sight: Overnight, numerous sidewalk cracks around campus had been filled with red sand. Following a tradition established last spring, participants spread sand across campus to conclude the Red Sand Gala, an event raising awareness of the 40.3 million people enslaved globally (The Global Slavery Index, “Unraveling the Numbers”).
Broadly, the Red Sand Project is a participatory art piece highlighting the omnipotence of human trafficking. On her project, Founder of The Red Sand Project Molly Gochman summarized, “Human trafficking is hidden in plain sight. Well, sidewalk cracks are, too…The red sand project brings human trafficking into public dialogue.” She also emphasized that because of the interactive nature of the project, it has transformed as more individuals have adopted it for themselves. Gochman’s presentation depicted examples of various iterations of the project enacted all over the world.
Vassar’s version of the project involves not only spreading sand, but also the Red Sand Gala. The event is organized by Vassar Underground, an org dedicated to raising awareness about human trafficking. The gala was designed as a space for education and advocacy. The project first came to Vassar in the spring of 2017, when Grace Roebuck ’20 and other students created an initial installation of the sand, brought a speaker from Free the Slaves and organized a student-curated exhibition on trafficking. According to Roebuck, the project expanded into The Underground, which is now its parent org. “We decided that we didn’t want the Red Sand Project to be a one time event, and so we started the Underground to maintain anti-trafficking advocacy on Vassar’s campus,” she explained in an email interview.
This year’s gala took place on Thursday, April 4 in the Aula. It featured tabling by Vassar Underground, SAVP, Give Way to Freedom, Love146, Amnesty International and the Sungate Foundation, as well as four speakers. The first was Gochman, who explained the role of art in activism and her inspiration for beginning the Red Sand Project. The second was Founder and President of Give Way to Freedom Courtney Albert, who was followed by Head of Dutchess County Anti-Trafficking Task Force David Garcia.
Albert and Garcia focused on the sheer variety of types of exploitation that exist under the umbrella term of trafficking including but not limited to minors in sex trafficking; adults coerced, forced or fraudulently manipulated into sex trafficking; and forced labor. After distinguishing between trafficking and smuggling—the first of which violates human rights, and the second of which violates borders and necessarily involves transportation, often with the consent of the smuggled person—Albert connected what is often perceived as an international issue to the local Poughkeepsie community. Albert showed a photograph of a yellow house in Poughkeepsie, in which an international sex trafficking ring was found in 2013. According to Garcia, Dutchess County alone had 42 youth who are considered potential trafficking victims.
They further spoke about the many structural factors that lead to human trafficking, as well as signs of a potential victim. These include brandings, stories that don’t add up and the presence of an older significant other. Moreover, Albert emphasized the vulnerabilities that traffickers exploit, such as poverty, racial inequality and a background with the foster care system. Just as the risk factors are manifold, so are possible methods of alleviating the issue. As Roebuck and Shah later explained, “Anything that combats societal inequality or any of the many ‘isms’ will also help to combat human trafficking.”
The presentations paused for a brief intermission, after which Roebuck introduced the next speaker, Chief Executive Author of the Sungate Foundation Shamere McKenzie. Roebuck described McKenzie’s work, which included training government groups such as the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security on methods of identifying and responding to victims of trafficking.
Following Roebuck’s introduction, McKenzie invited the audience, “Forget about everything you’ve read about me. Forget about what is written in the program. And just know that I’m Shamere McKenzie, and I am a human being.” This preamble, she later explained, is necessary because survivors of trafficking are often dehumanized, not only by traffickers, but also by those who seek to help or choose to remain ignorant.
Although the Gala was the main campus event, Vassar Underground leaders Roebuck and Sonali Shah ’20 hoped to engage in community outreach. According to Shah, McKenzie spoke with Vassar Underground org members, a Vassar class and 200+ students at Poughkeepsie high school. Shah related, “She resonated with each and every kid in there,” explaining how McKenzie connected with a large population of kids who were also Jamaican: “We had a line of 20+ kids come just to shake her hand or give her a hug. Some students even opened up for the first time about their own personal hardships.”
McKenzie also called attention to a less-noted problem for survivors of sex trafficking in particular: criminal charges. McKenzie herself was tried as a co-defendant with her trafficker because she was forced to drive the car used to transport minors across state lines for illegal purposes. Such cases are not unique. “Trafficking victims are, oftentimes, criminalized as a direct result of their victimization,” McKenzie stated. She then described that although 40 states now have laws that allow trafficking survivors to get their charges vacated, no such legislation exists federally.
McKenzie explained, “For victims who have been charged at a federal level, the only remedy is a presidential pardon. Now let me tell you about the presidential pardon. If you apply for a presidential pardon, you are saying ‘I am sorry, please forgive me for the crimes I have committed.’” In order to have her charges vacated, McKenzie would need to legally identify herself as a the perpetrator of a crime, rather than a victim of one. Furthermore, McKenzie noted, “Because of my criminal conviction, in some states I must register as a sex offender.” These legal problems block trafficking survivors from restorative services and prevent them from gaining security in employment and housing. In addition to adding to the stigma survivors experience, criminal charges prevent survivors from passing background checks.
Following closing remarks from Roebuck, attendees and speakers alike received burlap-wrapped packets of red sand, with which they filled cracks in sidewalks, hoping that the following morning, the campus community would look down and notice what usually remains overlooked.
McKenzie highlighted the need for people to take notice of the prevalence of human trafficking: “This is not a Donald Trump issue; this is not a law enforcement issue; this is our problem. We collectively have to do something about it.”