MEET Jessica: lover of arts, cheerleader for justice
Did you know that strip clubs in Atlanta make more revenue than those in Vegas? Did you also know that Atlanta is a sex trafficking hub? Jessica Reis knows. She also knows that effective collaboration and communication can make a difference in the fight to end human trafficking in and around Atlanta. We sat down with Jessica to learn more about Meet Justice, a growing organization using cutting edge communications techniques (think graphic novels) to end this often overlooked issue. Meet Jessica of Meet Justice.
Tell us about your project:
Meet Justice was founded in 2005 after founder Daniel Homrich toured the world taking photos of social injustice issues. He was surprised to find – not only in Thailand, and Cambodia where you might expect it, but in Atlanta as well- human trafficking. He returned to create an organization to help individuals commit to global issues like trafficking in a meaningful way. He wanted to educate and empower them to take action.
We function as awareness organization, publishing in-depth articles about the issue. We also have a few campaigns; Meet Justice Medical which targets doctors and nurses. In our research we found that 20% of victims end up in the hospital each year. If doctors and nurses knew how to spot them, that could make a difference, Almost a third of victims could be saved. We started an accredited program they can take through continuing education programs.
Another program is Innocence Atlanta. It focuses on eradicating child sex slavery locally. We are reaching out to the community and empowering them to know what is going on, to talk about issue, and to intervene when needed. What does a child at risk look like? We publish articles on how to recognize and help children at risk. We try to fill any gap in information about trafficking, and to do so in an interesting and engaging way. We want to give people a place where their voice can be amplified.
What were some of the first steps in creating the organization?
It basically started as a small group of Dan’s friends and family that were mobilized around this issue he was so passionate about. This is an issue in our city and we need to deal with it was the thought process. Meet Justice was and still is very tied to the artist community- we have a lot of graphic designers, photographers and artists helping to get our message out. He connected with churches, showing them that their congregations needed to know about this issue and might already be dealing with it. There was a lot of reaching out to community leaders and rallying them around the issue. It also had a strong entrepreneurial start. It was incubated in this idea of engaging young professionals, having them take responsibility for what they see wrong in the world. Until this year the organization was operated mainly on volunteers, but we have begun to fill out with an office and a staff.
What kinds of challenges do you face as an organization?
One of the challenges is that people don’t understand or expect that nonprofits need money for operation. People are really willing to dedicate their time and money to specific projects, but there isn’t the understanding that a commitment is needed overall. If you want an Executive Director who is looking at the big picture, trying to be strategic in the long term for the organization, you have to provide support.
You can keep the overhead as low as possible but there is still a cost. There is a disconnect between needs and giving. People want to know why their money doesn’t all go to programs. For us, running awareness campaigns also means operational support to ensure those campaigns meet long-term goals.
We believe that if dedicated Atlantans gave us only $2 a month for operational support, we could make it work. A community investment even that small would take us a long way.
Who are you collaborating with?
Recently, we have been laying down more infrastructure and not collaborating as much, but we are very connected with Wellspring Living which is a restorative home for victims of abuse and trafficking. They are the end goal of the preventative awareness we work on. Street Grace is dedicated to motivating the faith-based community to action. We are doing an event with them in July. Those are probably our two strongest collaborations. We are looking- especially with our new graphic novel- to open the door to more concrete connections to other organizations. We want to provide more materials, more books, to organizations and open the door to conversation.
We are also part of the Georgia Anti-Trafficking Task Force. There are two in Georgia. One based in the Governors Office and one in the Juvenile Court system. Meet Justice attends the Task Force meetings and talks with other trafficking groups about what is going on. We hope that people will start reaching out to us more. We are dedicated to collaboration.
Tell us about some of the community impacts Meet Justice is having.
For immediate impacts, I can tell a story from my life. I worked part time as a middle school teacher last year. I knew trafficking in Atlanta was a problem, but I didn’t know how prevalent it was or how easy ‘normal’ kids fall victim. After I went to a training session that detailed the signs of at-risk kids, there was one boy who met all the factors. Wow, I thought, this kid could have slipped by me. One of the risk factors I wouldn’t have thought of was a focus on materials goods. This kid was all about new jeans, and skateboards. I made his parents aware of the risks, like if they punish him by taking away something he likes, he could be easily lured by strangers. But, new jeans or other things he likes could be a good reward for a job well done. If i wasn’t aware of the signs, this kid could have been picked up at the skate park or waiting for the bus. It helped me to be a better teacher, knowing these signs and educating families.
In the longterm, Georgia is the only state to see a drop in victims AND we have the most organizations working in advocacy for this issue. There is a direct correlation between awareness and diminishment of the ‘business’. Sadly it is looked at as a business, and that is something we need to change.
You know, littering used to be perfectly acceptable. People would just throw things wherever. Then, a few generations ago there was a huge shift. There were advocacy campaigns and a big push to make it unacceptable, and now people will think you are a terrible person if you litter. This is the kind giant shift we need for trafficking. There needs to be a shift from tolerance to unacceptance, where joking about a girl, saying things like “she is hot, I wonder if she is of age” isn’t acceptable. Those statements fuel trafficking. Atlanta is a sex tourism destination. Our strip clubs make more money than Vegas. That is not something to be proud of. There was a local study on the sex trade demand and 40% of it comes from outside of 285. Communities like Buckhead, Cobb, Gwinnett. These are my community and I am not ok with it! These people go to church on Sunday, put their kids in private school and drive in for work and sex. its not good for anyone, especially not for the community of Atlanta.
What inspires you to do this work?
I personally got involved from my study of film and the objectification of women. i just started realizing how widespread in our culture the demeaning of women is, and how this feeds into human trafficking. I used to think trafficking was like CSI where there was an abused woman in a basement, tied up. That does happen, but they can also be trapped in plain site. They can be stuck in a situation they can’t escape from. There are cultural mechanisms and problems that allow this to exist. I also have a 15 year old sister who is tall, blond and beautiful and I realize that she is worth so much money on the market for sex. I just think ‘no one will ever have her, I will make sure’. I make sure she can protect herself, but there are others who cannot or don’t know how to protect themselves. I want to help those people. It is a big motivation, living with someone who is a target age.
Are you looking to expand or replicate Meet Justice?
One of our goals is to create a model that can be replicated in any city. We want a model of awareness that works. The first model we are developing is publishing- creating materials that provide needed information. Showing people what is happening in their neighborhood. Recently there was a women in Sugar Hill who was busted for trafficking domestic servants and abusing them. That is an Atlanta neighborhood. Along side that kind of information we provide directions on how you can help. We think that is both effective and replicable.
We would love to have our writing syndicated in local and global magazines, and in unusual places like high-end women’s and men’s magazines.
We want to be replicated.
What help does your organization need to grow?
Operational funding. It is easy to apply for grants or attract funders for programs, but we would like to community to step up and provide operational funding for an issue like this that is important. Beyond that we need cheerleaders! People from every sector to take this on and let it be their issue and openly talk about it. For those that want to do more and volunteer, we want to give them a platform for that. But for more volunteers we need more operational funding so we can give them appropriate support. In general we need more people getting behind the issue and wanting to support it.
What are some other issues affecting Atlanta?
One that is very connected to trafficking is domestic violence and unstable home-life, especially for young children as it often leads to running away. 90% of kids that run away in Atlanta will be coerced into prostitution. Understanding what makes kids run away- child poverty, domestic violence- is important. Also, education and arts programs are very important for us. I am an arts person, and I see how the arts can change a person, give the hope. The arts are hugely important to provide kids with a creative outlet, but also to keep them engaged and off the street. Its a huge problem to loose arts funding.
What are some of your favorite organizations around the city?
The Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern does an incredible education program. It empowers kids to find their voice and get it heard– the drama of a kids life can be put out there in a meaningful way. Most people don’t know they do that. they think it is just a place to see a play, but during the week all of the actors are helping kids find their voice.
Wellspring Living is working hard to help trafficking and abuse victims. They have a neat model where they have thrift stores around the city where women in the rehab program and volunteers work side by side to run the store. it gives the women life skills, provides the volunteers some interaction and all the proceeds benefit their programs.
The Atlanta Youth Program has a great arts academy. They also have this thing they do in the summer called Gods Farm. It is a huge recreation center outside the city for inner-city kids. A great retreat for urban youth.
Atlanta 365, the film festival, does a lot of classes and events to network and educate the film community. They are committed to strengthening the film industry in Atlanta. We are definitely a growing film destination and Atlanta 365 is doing a lot to move us forward.
Lady of Prestige is based out of a downtown church and does direct outreach to women who work in strip-clubs. They give them the opportunity to tell their story, take vocational classes and try to escape that lifestyle.
Georgia Women for a Change is a legislative group working for women’s issues. They have been really instrumental to pass bills like a recent one taking away the power of defense for men engaged in underaged sex, like ‘ I didn’t know how old she was or she was asking for it’. It helped victims get better access to courts and legal help. As of 2001 trafficking was a $50 fine based off of an 1800’s laws. Groups like Georgia Women for Change are helping to move laws forward.
What FEED’s your soul?