UW-Eau Claire organization hopes to spread awareness of human trafficking and slavery

    International Justice Mission chapter tackles global, national and local issues

    More stories from Sami West

    Members of IJM pose at the Northstar Conference at Purdue University. Top: Vice president Steffi Durley, Luke Wallenfalt, former presidents Reece Pierson and Kayla Olson, and Emily Johnson. Bottom: Dani Koeing, Kelsey Holmquist and Abbie Brandhagen.

    Photo by Sami West

    Members of IJM pose at the Northstar Conference at Purdue University. Top: Vice president Steffi Durley, Luke Wallenfalt, former presidents Reece Pierson and Kayla Olson, and Emily Johnson. Bottom: Dani Koeing, Kelsey Holmquist and Abbie Brandhagen.

    Attending a university like UW-Eau Claire, students rarely hear about serious crimes or truly crushing, horrific occurrences very nearby.

    Although this might cultivate a safe and more comfortable atmosphere for students, senior social work student Kayla Olson said it creates bubble around students she finds difficult to break when she, as a part of International Justice Mission, tries to spread awareness of issues like slavery and human trafficking that, contrary to common conceptions, are happening locally.

    IJM, a Christian organization based in Washington D.C., aims to serve victims of violence, including forced labor slavery, sex trafficking, sexual violence, police brutality, property grabbing and any other citizens rights abuse, all over the globe.

    “Apathy is one of the greatest things that we fight against,” Olson, former Eau Claire chapter president and national student leader for IJM, said. “They’ll say ‘That’s horrible,’ and then do nothing about it. They’ll do nothing to get out of their bubble. That’s something I’ve fought against a lot.”

    The Eau Claire chapter, a group of about 10 students, is one of the organization’s many offshoots at colleges across the country.

    They also work closely with local organization Fierce Freedom, which also works to end human trafficking, but focuses on the Western Wisconsin area. During their meetings each week, they lead a bible study, prepare for upcoming events and discuss issues in relation to current events, both globally and nationally.

    Vice President Steffi Durley said many Eau Claire students don’t realize these issues occur in places other than just third world countries — they happen here in Eau Claire, despite low overall crime rates in comparison to larger cities.

    “It’s actually a big problem in Eau Claire, and the Chippewa Valley region,” Durley said. “Poverty leads to an increase in human trafficking, because they’re susceptible to that kind of exploitation … There’s a direct correlation.”

    Right off Interstate 94 and nestled between Minneapolis and Chicago, president of Eau Claire’s chapter of IJM Emily Lorentz said Eau Claire is a “major stop” in human trafficking.

    Still, Olson said these issues don’t seem to strike some Blugolds as ones that impact them, and therefore they are not seen as important.

    “There’s 36.8 million slaves in the world, and I walk around campus and tell people about that,” Olson said. “And I meet so many people who don’t know and don’t care.”

    For this reason, the organization’s main goal is to raise awareness and to spread the word about human trafficking, forced labor slavery, as well as their many other issues, Durley said.

    They do this through events like Stand for Freedom, which is held every April. During this event, members stand for 24 hours to represent the “everyday” victims of slavery.

    “Raising awareness on that and just getting it out there is important,” Durley said.

    Reece Pierson, senior criminal justice student and former president of IJM said one of the “biggest game changers” is simply being informed about these issues.

    “When you take a good hard look at it, it’s really hard to turn away from that,” Pierson said. “Be willing to care, and to just be wrecked by what’s going on in the world, and not sitting in that, but rather taking it to the next step in wanting to make a change. The ones who are so wrecked by it are the ones who stand up and say I’m not going to live with this and do whatever it takes to make a difference.”

    Though possessing this knowledge can seem “daunting,” especially for Eau Claire’s 10 members of IJM, Lorentz said they rely on God and their faith to inspire and guide them.

    “We can’t do it without the Lord, because this stuff is so hard to talk about and it’s so hard to think of solutions,” Lorentz said. “We know he brings real hope and freedom and rescue and restoration. It’s so cool that we get to be agents of that.”

    Spreading the word about these issues is particularly crucial on college campuses, Olson said.

    “I think it’s very important because college students have the foundation,” Olson said. “College is when people get really passionate about these things, which is why IJM is so important because we are training people to fight trafficking for the rest of their lives.”

    And college students can make a difference in small, seemingly easy and insignificant ways, despite busy schedules and a lack of money. By buying locally made or fair trade clothing, Lorentz said big waves can be made.

    When people choose to buy products produced by slaves, Lorentz said, in a way, they are “helping that exploitation and that violence.” Students can also make an impact by voting with these issues in mind, Lorentz said.

    “This sounds so cheesy, but because we are the future, the choices that we’re making now are going to affect how society turns out,” Lorentz said. “So whether that’s how we vote and voting for people that end exploitation or (in our) purchasing power (as consumers), we really do have an affect.”

    Pierson said one of the group’s biggest hopes is that people leave college with these same ideas.

    “I think one of our big focuses is actually showing how you can do this in everyday life after you leave campus, not necessarily involving yourself in activism work,” Pierson said. “Realistically, not everyone is going to go dedicate their life to activism … Not everyone’s going to join IJM … but it’s about teaching those values.”

    Pierson said the causes and the values IJM is built upon are what make it such an important organization both to this campus and to him personally.

    “I think as an organization it’s one of those things I feel like it actually means something … It’s something that involves you with the entire world,” Pierson said. “Having … the leadership role I’ve played, you’re actually helping teach and show people how we can deal with this issue and fight this issue on a daily basis and whatnot. I think that’s been pretty satisfying.”

    Managing Editor Colette St. John is part of IJM’s leadership team.