For Maureen Moslow-Benway, fighting human trafficking is not just an academic pursuit. It’s a cause she became intimately involved in while assigned as an Air Force Special Agent in the Philippines. While there, she legally adopted her son Matthew, who was a victim of child sex trafficking. The trauma left its scars on her son. It also shaped Moslow-Benway’s resolve to confront a growing criminal enterprise that often hides in plain sight.
Moslow-Benway, an assistant professor and program chair of homeland security and emergency preparedness in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, eventually adopted two other children from Cambodia, which at the time was the epicenter of child sex trafficking.
Human trafficking is the fastest-growing crime globally, and it is the third-largest crime next to drugs and weapons smuggling, according to according to the International Labor Organization.
“Nobody really knows the extent of the problem, but most experts estimate there are 40 million human trafficking victims around the world,” she said. “It’s a form of modern-day slavery.”
In 2018, the Human Trafficking Institute ranked Virginia sixth nationally in active federal human trafficking cases. Statistics like this were more than unsettling to Moslow-Benway, who had also heard anecdotal stories, including that of a friend’s 13-year-old daughter, who was coerced into sex trafficking through the internet.
“Today, there are countless men, women and children who are trapped through the use of violence, deception or coercion, and exploited by traffickers for their own financial or personal gain,” Moslow-Benway said.
About three years ago, Moslow-Benway got an idea to raise awareness through the introduction of a new course for undergraduates at VCU. She sought an immersive experience to not only educate her students about human trafficking, but to make use of the unique geography of Richmond to explore human trafficking across time to the present day.
“Virginia’s legacy with human trafficking began in 1619 when 20-30 enslaved Africans disembarked from the British ship the White Lion in Hampton, Virginia,” said Moslow-Benway. “Unfortunately, over 400 years later, slavery still exists in the commonwealth and in our nation.”
Understanding the past
Each semester, about 25 students begin the Human Trafficking 375 course by reviewing the legacy of the Richmond slave trade. In addition to readings like the book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” they watch documentaries and films, including “12 Years a Slave,” which features a prison scene at Lumpkin’s Slave Jail site in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom.
Students take field trips to the Lumpkin’s site and Ancarrow’s Landing, where Elegba Folklore Society members host a reenactment with the students, marching in the footsteps of history up the slave trail. Students stand on the grounds of Lumpkin’s Jail, while hearing horror stories of what the enslaved Africans endured. It’s a powerful experience that brings the weight of the past to life for her students, Moslow-Benway said.
Before the statues along Monument Avenue were taken down, students would tour the sites and write essays, contrasting their experiences and feelings between the vast perceptions of slavery legacy and Confederate historic pride.
They’d conclude the monument tour with a visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see the “Rumors of War” statue by Kehinde Wiley — a modern reinterpretation of the former J.E.B. Stuart monument — depicting an African American man dressed in modern street clothes atop a horse.
Transforming the present
While the James River no longer unloads slave ships at Ancarrow’s Landing, Richmond remains a major transportation confluence, and that makes it a popular thoroughfare for traffickers. Modern-day human trafficking takes many forms. Students in Moslow-Benway’s class learn about organ trafficking, bride trafficking and child soldiers. They read the memoir “A Long Way Gone” by former Sierra Leone child soldier Ismael Beah. Chernoh Wurie, Ph.D., an assistant professor of criminal justice in the Wilder School, has joined the class to speak about his experiences growing up in Sierra Leone during its civil war.
While labor trafficking makes up about two-thirds of human trafficking, the course features a strong emphasis on sex trafficking. Moslow-Benway has invited guest speakers to share their stories, including a former pimp, prostitutes and sex trafficking victims. She has also hosted detectives from the Henrico County Police Division’s VICE unit; Michael Feinmel, a Henrico deputy commonwealth’s attorney who has helped author many of Virginia’s recent sex-trafficking laws; FBI and Homeland Security Investigations special agents; and social workers from a Richmond-based sex trafficking safe house.
Students learn about the realities law enforcement and prosecutors face battling prostitution as well as the psychological impacts on victims and what it takes to recover and rehabilitate back into daily life. In addition to writing portfolios on the experiences, students also complete a service component for the course, with each committing to 20 hours of volunteer work.
They’ve put together “hope bags” that contain toiletry items, footwear and contraceptives and handed them out on streets popular with sex workers. Students have also volunteered at local recovery and halfway houses and spent time socializing and mentoring children who have been victims of sexual abuse. There are numerous support organizations in Richmond and students are able to volunteer with any group that benefits underserved or at-risk groups.
“Participating in the volunteer opportunities have enriched my life more than words can explain, not to mention providing eye-opening experiences and newfound friendships for myself and my classmates,” said Benjamin Madnick, an undergraduate student who completed the course. “I have since continued to volunteer at the REAL Life Community Center as an administrator at their front desk. I found socializing with the staff and clients of REAL Life very personally rewarding, and engaging with vulnerable populations very heartwarming.”
Moslow-Benway said that for some students, this course marked the first time they have done volunteer work. The impact of the community service component is eye-opening and has prompted some students to shift their career ambitions to supporting victim services and other areas that combat sex and labor trafficking. Some continue volunteering and develop valuable connections with potential employers. Most importantly, they learn that each individual has a unique ability to make an impact.
“I share with them the Margaret Mead quote, [to] never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world, [because] in fact, it is the only thing that ever has,” Moslow-Benway said.
Through this immersive course, Richmond serves as a tangible, geographic example of the global threat posed by human trafficking.
“The Wilder School stands for social justice and this class helps us fulfill that mission,” Moslow-Benway said. “After all, we are educating students and inspiring them to combat the exploitation of some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people.” -VCU News