Senior social work students garner recognition at National Impact Conference

Nikki Hanto and Brie Sweeney received awards for their activism with the Human Trafficking Abolitionists

More stories from Alyssa Anderson

Getting Weird
December 13, 2018


Seniors Brie Sweeney and Nikki Hanto endorse Human Trafficking Abolitionists at BOB. Check out the HTA Facebook page if you are interested in joining, or just want more information.

Everyone has heard the expression: “Work hard and you will succeed.” Elementary school teachers and parents drilled this mantra into young minds until its meaning rang dry.

However, this saying rings true for senior social work students Nikki Hanto and Brie Sweeney.

After years of work, advocacy and human rights activism, Hanto and Sweeney were rewarded at the National Impact Conference, where they both received an award for Impact Student of the Year, an award originally meant for one recipient.

In addition to Hanto and Sweeney’s awards the university’s Human Trafficking Abolitionists organization won Impact Activist Program of the Year honors.

This year’s conference was the first time the NIC integrated awards into the event, making the two Blugolds and the Eau Claire organization the first ever award recipients.

“We’re still flabbergasted that we even got one award,” Sweeney said. “We hope these awards will shed light on activism on campus and in the community.”

Hanto and Sweeney are both former presidents of the Human Trafficking Abolitionists.

They hope this national recognition will give HTA more credibility as an activist organization and serve as a catalyst for the university to invest more resources and time for activism and social justice issues, Sweeney said.

Human trafficking, including everything from hard labor to prostitution, enslaves 32 million people worldwide, Hanto said.

“Human trafficking is a very complex issue,” Hanto said, “but every single person can make a difference just by becoming aware.”

By partnering with organizations around the country, Sweeney said the mission of HTA is to spread awareness about human trafficking around the Eau Claire campus and community.

Every year, HTA organizes a Human Rights Week which includes several social justice-themed events including speakers, documentaries and pamphlets from social justice organizations. A representative from Homeland Security even skyped in once to discuss human trafficking, Hanto said.

Last semester, HTA trained two chapters of Big Brother Big Sister to recognize the signs of human trafficking in at-risk children, Sweeney said.

Hanto said she hopes these awards will shed light on campus activism and inspire more people to join organizations that focus on activism or personal growth.

“Human trafficking is a big problem in rural Wisconsin,” Hanto said. “It’s easy to hide and easy to access. Nothing can be done without awareness.”

A native of Shoreview, Minn., Sweeney said she now serves full-time with Catholic Charities. As a social work intern for the adoption services, Sweeney interacts with families looking to adopt, birth parents and families that have already adopted, she said.

In addition to her work with adoption services, Sweeney said she aids the homeless and low-income members of the community through St. Lawrence Services. These services help homeless or low-income individuals budget, while providing financial counseling and efforts to re-house them, Sweeney said.

Following graduation, Sweeney said she hopes to open a shelter for survivors of human trafficking. She also has dreams of speaking around the world about human trafficking, she said.

“I would like to train the police how to look for human trafficking,” Sweeney said. “I hope to implement social policy to end trafficking altogether.”

Hanto, a native of Rosemount, Minn., currently interns at Jackson Correctional Institute where she works with sex offenders and holds group sessions. After graduating from Eau Claire, Hanto said her life goal is to open a shelter for survivors of human trafficking.

For more information on human trafficking, Hanto and Sweeney recommended checking out The Polaris Project, Not for Sale, and Free 2 Work, along with campus organizations like International Justice Mission.