272 – The Cool Aunt, with Rachel Thomas


Dr. Sandie Morgan and Rachel Thomas discuss a new curriculum developed as a resource for parents, social work agencies, after school programs, and more. The Cool Aunt Series is an online prevention course developed for youth that will guide them through understanding human trafficking and provide resources and support throughout and after the curriculum.

Rachel Thomas

A graduate of UCLA with a Masters in Education and a personal survivor of human trafficking, Rachel has extensive experience teaching, training, curriculum writing, public speaking and mentoring. As the founder of Sowers Education Group and the lead author of Ending The Game and The Cool Aunt, she has educated and inspired a wide range of audiences including teens, social service providers, churches, teachers, college students, and law enforcement. Sowers’ intervention curriculum Ending The Game is being used by over 1,000 facilitators in 36 states and helps survivors break the bonds of attachment to traffickers and the lifestyle of commercial sexual exploitation. Since 2012, Rachel and the Sowers Team have reached over 150,000 live audience members and millions more through numerous media outlets including New Day Morning Show on CNN, Inside with Chris Cuomo: Anyone’s Daughter on HLN, The T.D. Jakes Show, The New York Times Upfront Magazine and ABC’s Newsmakers. Rachel was not only honored by Congressman Ed Royce of California’s 39th district and Los Angeles Supervisor Don Knabe for her leadership and trafficking prevention efforts, but was also nominated and appointed to the White House Advisory Council on Human Trafficking for 2020-2022 term.

Key Points

  • They are moving beyond awareness and focusing on education so youth fully understand what human trafficking is, who it happens, who perpetrates it, why it happens, and the resources available.
  • The Cool Aunt series is developed to be a resource for parents, after-school programs, social service agencies, etc. that can be done online.
  • S.T.R.E.A.M.S. of Influence
    • S – Survival
    • T – Trafficker
    • R – Recruiter
    • E – Environment
    • A – Abuse
    • M – Media
    • S – Solicitation


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 272, The Cool Aunt, with Rachel Thomas.

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:28] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:33] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:36] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie and I are so glad to have Rachel Thomas back on the show today. If you didn’t listen to our prior conversation with her, I’m so glad to introduce Rachel to you. She is a graduate of UCLA with a master’s in education and a personal survivor of human trafficking. Rachel has extensive experience teaching, training, curriculum writing, public speaking, and mentoring. As the founder of Sowers Education Group and the lead author of Ending The Game and The Cool Aunt. She has educated and inspired a wide range of audiences, including teens, social service providers, churches, teachers, college students, and law enforcement. Her intervention curriculum, Ending The Game, is being used by over a thousand facilitators in 36 states and helps survivors break the bonds of attachment to traffickers and the lifestyle of commercial sexual exploitation. Since 2012, Rachel and the Sowers team have reached over 150,000 live audience members and millions more through numerous media outlets. She was also nominated and appointed to the White House Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. Rachel, we’re so glad to have you back on the show.

Rachel [00:01:55] I am so blessed and honored to be here. Thank you for having me, Dave and Dr. Sandie.

Sandie [00:02:01] Well, Rachel, I have to tell you, episode 196 when you really opened up Ending The Game, the goals, and breaking that attachment to the traffickers, that has become a really popular tool among people trying to understand coercion. It is, it’s the most frequently cited for hearing about coercion. So thank you so much for contributing your insight there.

Rachel [00:02:33] That is, that is so great to hear. Thank you for that opportunity, and I’m glad that people are hungry for that type of information because it is. It’s such a missing link in a lot of survivors journey to recovery that mental psychological piece.

Sandie [00:02:50] People think rescue is moving someone from one physical place to another, and that is so much more complicated.

Rachel [00:02:58] Right, exactly.

Sandie [00:03:01] So I’m really excited about your work on the advisory council. And before we dive into your newest endeavor, will you tell us what that is and what you’re doing?

Rachel [00:03:14] Yes. So of course, 2020 was a crazy year for all of us. But in the midst of that, I was nominated and invited to join the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. And I did not know much about it. I still don’t know who nominated me, so that’s kind of a cool, little cool, little thought in my head that someone out there noticed and thought enough of me to do that. But I don’t know who. And the time that I’ve had on the council, man, it has been amazing. Kind of short changed because of COVID. We haven’t gotten to go to the White House or anything in person, yet. I’m hoping it’s a yet, but it has been very eye opening. I am someone who started as a high school teacher. I’m very hands-on, direct service, ground level type. And for this experience, I have really been exposed to more of the systems level and governmental level and global look at human trafficking. So I’ve learned a whole lot more about labor trafficking. And most importantly, I’ve learned about systemic level answers and resources and thinking on a broader scale than just, you know, my community and my network. And so I was on the Administration of Justice subcommittee, and so we had multiple meetings with the Department of Justice, Department of Education. The president’s interagency task force is made up of 26 different federal departments, and so we’ve gotten to meet with each of these departments and write an amazing report of recommendations based upon hearing what they’re currently doing and how we know that they can help combat human trafficking more within their capacities. But I mean, it’s just, it’s really been an honor and just learning new skills for how to how to end human trafficking.

Sandie [00:05:12] That’s so insightful. And I’m I wish I could have been there when you met with Department of Education because of your background in education, so that must have been fun.

Rachel [00:05:24] It was. It was.

Sandie [00:05:27] One of the things that I love about how you do anti-human trafficking is your platform of education and from the beginning, from the first time I met you, it was really clear. You are a teacher and you have a masters in education. So your voice as a survivor of lived experience and expertise, that expertise is so evident in everything you’ve done. People can go back and listen to episode 196 for the Ending The Game curriculum. But I want to start our conversation around why education is different than awareness. And I pulled up a basic definition of curriculum, and this is this is rote for you. But for our listeners, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Curriculum is a standards based sequence of planned experiences where students practice and achieve proficiency in content and applied learning skills. And I’ve personally been a little frustrated in the prevention efforts because we, you know, we have the five Ps: prevention, protection, prosecution, partnership, and policy and prevention so often is like throwing a glass of water on a burning house. It’s too little, and education takes a very different approach. Can you tell me why you chose education as your platform?

Rachel [00:07:13] Definitely. I mean, going back to to the first curriculum that my organization wrote for the anti-human trafficking field, Ending The Game, I needed to figure some stuff out. I, for my own healing, from my own journey, I needed to know how I got so far away from myself. How was I manipulated like this? And I needed to know how it happened so that I knew it wouldn’t happen to me again. And so really the point of education, and I love that you brought that up. The difference between education and awareness, being aware of something you know was kind of surface level and awareness is good. That means okay, I know it’s happening. I get the overall gist of this is what’s out there. But the education is diving deeper into it and really looking at the how, the who, the when, the where, the why, you know, figuring something out. And so for each of our trainings, for each of our curricula, everything that that we do, we want people to walk away with a deeper understanding of how it works and how to stay safe. Specifically, for the Cool Aunt series, for kids to understand how people are lured into human trafficking and how they can stay safe.

Sandie [00:08:25] I love the title of the Cool Aunt series and one of our adjunct professors here, Ruthi Hanchett, often teaches workshops for parents on how to keep their kids safe, and it starts really, really young. And so she uses the five fingers of one hand. You can teach a two or three year old to count the people that you can talk to on one hand. And when we think about so much of our literature has been focused on one trusted adult, but if that person isn’t available, our kids need to have more than one. And so this idea of the Cool Aunt, I know so many people who had an aunt that was a significant voice in their lives. And I was, my parents were overseas, I was still a teenager and going to college, and my aunt was the person who made sure where I was on the weekends, and bring your boyfriend over here, that I had a cool aunt and I didn’t think about that before. So tell us about your Cool Aunt series.

Rachel [00:09:39] That is such a blessing. I’m so glad you had that, Dr. Sandie. And when we decided on this title for the curriculum, I’ve heard so many amazing stories about the cool aunt and about the cool uncle, so they are definitely a part of this equation. And I am blessed to have, I can count for cool aunts that I’ve had. And that person fills the role that they’re not going to, they’re not going to put you on punishment, they’re not going to, you know, they don’t– They may have the authority, but they don’t utilize the authority to ground you or punish you. That’s more of a parent role. They sometimes are younger than your parents, so they may be a little bit more, a little bit more cool and and hip to some of the stuff that’s closer to your generation than your parents would be. But they’re still, they’re still old enough, they’re still mature enough and far enough along in life that you can get really good advice from them in a non-judgmental, noncompetitive and, you know, just a loving way. And so the Cool Aunt series has exactly that same feel. We want to be that resource for teenagers and to talk about human trafficking prevention in a way that is different from how a lot of school curricula may do. And really, it’s it’s meeting them where they are. So we have real teenagers acting out real life scenarios. And then I kind of press pause on it or just afterwards, we’ll say, you know, OK, here’s what happened right here. Here’s how this is dangerous. And here’s how to stay safe if you find yourself in a situation like this. Here are the risk factors that we just saw play out in real life. Have you seen any of these? Have you experienced any of these? And if so, here’s what you can do. And so we’re pointing them to national resources. We’re encouraging them to talk to their safe adults in their lives or to their social worker, whichever organization that that they’re reaching us through. We encourage them to really dive in deeper to the resources that are already around them.

Sandie [00:11:46] And how is that delivered?

Rachel [00:11:49] So it is a one hour online course. There are 12 short videos and twenty five questions, and so if a teenager sits down, they could go through it all in one hour. Usually it takes about an hour and a half because, you know, they pause, they reflect. There is opportunity to do some breathing exercises throughout. So about an hour and a half total.

Sandie [00:12:13] OK. And do they do this in the school, in the home? What’s the best venue?

Rachel [00:12:19] Yeah. You know, we wanted to be a resource that parents and after-school programs or social service agencies could utilize. A lot of the, and I’m trained in a lot of the leading prevention curricula and I think they are wonderful, but the model has always been the school has to adopt it. Then you teach the teachers and then the teachers teach the kids. We know that COVID turned everything upside down and a lot of times our teachers are already busy. They they are not always able to take on a whole another unit or curriculum. Sometimes our schools don’t have the funding to purchase a new curriculum or really adopt something new on their plate. And so we wanted this to be something that would reach teens through other avenues with no facilitators to train, no added pressure to the adults in their lives. And then so right now, our main avenue is through social service agencies and after-school programs. So a lot of YWCA’s, YMCA’s, PTA’s, and a lot of different counties or agencies that are working with foster youth. They found it very, very helpful.

Sandie [00:13:37] So I can do this with my niece or I can do this with my Sunday school class?

Rachel [00:13:44] Exactly. Yes.

Sandie [00:13:46] OK. So I don’t have to be an expert to use this?

Rachel [00:13:51] Not at all. And you know, we do. We also have a page that is like a curated guide to over 50 of the best of the best online prevention resources that we have found for parents. So if parents want to do a deep dive in, we have that for you guys also, for the service providers, social workers, parents to do a deep dive. And I mean, links to documentaries, you could get as deep into the prevention work, you know, and knowledge as you want. But for the teens, you either just send them the link and they get it to their email inbox and then they can do it from there, from their smartphone, from their computer, from their iPad, whatever. Or you can sit down with them and do it with them live.

Sandie [00:14:36] So one of the things that I love about this particular curriculum is that students get to actually practice and achieve proficiency, which is a key piece of a curriculum foundation. And my delight, if you will, I know can I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to prevention. I get really excited about this, and it lit up my joy center in my head when I read about how it deals with solicitation. I just had Ensure Justice. For those of you who missed it, you can still access the virtual conference by going to the GCWJ.org website. But this idea of solicitation has been a growing concern for parents and educators, community leaders, and they showed us stats that made us absolutely terrified at how many kids are being lured or approached by predators online and this idea of solicitation. So tell us how you address that potential and almost there was a sense that this is inevitable. Your child very likely will be approached by someone trying to lure them into sending them sexual pictures or things like that.

Rachel [00:16:06] Yes. First of all, I’m a nerd too, so that’s awesome. Nerds unite. Yeah. And it’s a matter of when, not if, honestly. If your children are online, if they have any social media account, or even if they’re just, you know, on YouTube or if they’re playing video games where there’s like a community portion where people can message them, it’s a matter of when, not if. And so they will be approached, they will be solicited. And so really, really having them ready for that and not being blindsided by it and hopefully not being tricked by it. That’s really the goal. So with solicitation, this has been, and in fact, the Department of Justice in their 2019 report stated that online solicitation and recruitment is the number one way that kids are lured into sex trafficking. It’s no longer the face-to-face stranger danger out on the streets, that is happening as well. But the online solicitation and recruitment is the number one way. So, in the Cool Aunt series, so the series walks you through the streams of influence and Dr. Sandie, did we talk about that in the Ending The Game one?

Sandie [00:17:23] I don’t remember talking about that. Go ahead and review it anyway.

Rachel [00:17:28] Yeah. So the streams of influence. This is an acronym. And this is what we developed with the Ending The Game curriculum to help survivors understand that, you know, they’re not stupid, that there are many small influences usually that lead to sex trafficking. Of course, we know nobody woke up at 12 and said, Hey, I want to do this with my life. But oftentimes, you know, it’s also not just, Oh, I met this person, and he talked me into it. The streams of influence describe those seven small influences that lead to sex trafficking, and it’s the acronym STREAMS. You know, we talk about how it is, how it is like a stream, like a stream of water. You’re not going to step in and drown and get swept away. It’s usually a smaller body of water, but it flows in a specific direction. And over time, that small, steady stream does make an impact on the ground around it, and it usually leads to a larger body of water. And so this is the same concept with getting into sex trafficking. And so STREAMS the acronym. The first S is for survival, T is for trafficker, R is for recruiter, E is for environment, A is for abuse–specifically childhood sexual abuse–M is for media, and then S at the end is for a solicitation. And so within the Cool Aunt series, we have a skit, and it just shows a teenage girl on her phone and it shows from her vantage point the conversation and what she’s writing. And then we switch to who’s on the other end of the phone, and it is not who the girl expects, and it’s not who the audience expects, either. And it really just shows how the conversation, you know, it’s not going to be obvious. It’s not going to say, Hey, I’m a predator trying to trick you, little girl. Let’s meet up. You know, it’s something that is using language that your friends use. It’s flattering. It’s fun. It’s a little risque, maybe, but not in a way that feels offensive. And so we give them a good look at how this conversation can progress. And then afterwards, I talk about the dangers of solicitation and what to do when you get solicited.

Sandie [00:19:51] Wow. So the dangers and what to do. So then if they practice that they build their resistance to those kinds of solicitations. I don’t think the word solicitation is in my niece’s vocabulary. Where are they going to learn that?

Rachel [00:20:14] In the Cool Aunt series. In fact, that’s one of the questions and we break down what that word means. And really, you know, for this curriculum, we don’t care that they know or can spell solicitation as a word. We care that they know what it means. That there are people who will try to ask things of you, who will try to approach you, and want something out of you and may be, you know, have like a secret motive. And so we look at it more as that. The word itself, of course, helps the adults to know what we’re talking about, but for the youth, we care that they understand what it looks like, what it feels like, how to spot it, and in what to do when it happens.

Sandie [00:20:54] OK. Wow. I’m thinking through how I might start using this just in my circle with family, in my neighborhood. So tell us some examples of how people have customized that? I would, I went to your website and my imagination was incited because I saw the different ways to do this. Can you talk about how when somebody brings their kids into this, what kind of resources and tracking and support comes along with it?

Rachel [00:21:32] Yeah. So OK, let’s start with parent. So if a parent goes to the coolauntseries.com and clicks purchase, then they will purchase the series and they’ll immediately get an email and the email will, you know, welcome them to the series. It’ll give them their link to to view the series themselves if they want to do it before they send it to their teenager. They will get the link to our parent resource guide, which is that page of over 50, 60 links about what we consider the best of the best curated guide to everything you need to know about human trafficking prevention. And then they will also have the opportunity to either have their kid call them in one night, maybe after dinner, and sit down with them for an hour and a half and go through it together if they want, or they can send it to their teen if their teen has an email address. Then they can email it. They put the teen’s name and address in there, and then they’ll get an email in their inbox saying, Hey, you know, you were invited to do this and they could watch the trailer. Some parents are giving incentives. You know, I told my daughter if– And whenever a teen finishes and gets all the 25 questions right, then they get a certificate of completion. And so some parents can give incentives for, I don’t know, target gift card or something or whatever the team has been asking for if they successfully complete the series. And also in that parent guide, we give resources for how to talk to your teen afterwards. You know, this is, some parents are still weirded out by the sex talk. And so this is the sex talk plus more because it’s sex talk plus trauma plus, you know, trafficking. I mean, it’s more daunting than for parents even than just talking about sex talk. And so we know that and we want to be the resource to the cool aunt, to kind of be the mediator, so the cool aunt can say the stuff that’s more awkward and the parent can just kind of watch the video with the kid and be there as a resource.

Sandie [00:23:38] I love that and I love that it is presented in your content as you are like, have a team. So if I’m part of the Cool Aunt series, I have access to the Cool Aunt team. So the things that I feel uncomfortable about in conversations with the youth in my life, there’s somebody I can go to to get help with that. And that kind of support gives me a lot more confidence in starting conversations that I may be fearful are too hard for me to handle.

Rachel [00:24:12] Exactly. Yes, that is exactly right. And all the email addresses that we have, they get ongoing resources and support. So we have our newsletter that goes out about new resources, new new healthy clubs to get involved with for teens. You know, new pages to follow on Instagram about mental health or about healthy relationships. So they get that ongoing support from us and also, you know, within the series at the end, there is a 10 question self-assessment. So after the teen learns about, you know, the streams of influence and they answer the questions and they get that education on how teens are lured into sex trafficking, then they have a ten question self-assessment and it says, you know, have you ever been solicited online? Yes, I’m not sure, or no. And if they answer yes, then we give them the link to where they can report it. Or if they, you know, do want to talk to somebody from our team? They can, they could send us an email. And so there’s a whole, a whole process to make sure that they get the support that they need and they can always, you know, email us, reach out to us. We do answer questions. And really, the bulk of the questions we have received from teens have been about solicitation. There they just learned something new, and they’re like, Wait. So there’s this guy I’ve been talking to on Instagram, and he’s really cool. But one time he said this; is this dangerous? And they are asking the questions that we we are so happy that now they have the awareness and somewhere to go to with these questions. And they are, they’re yeah, they’re processing it and is making them more aware, and we’re really grateful to have that impact.

Sandie [00:25:56] I am so impressed because this curriculum truly is standards based, planned experiences, practice and then you assess their achievement, their proficiency. And that makes me very hopeful for changing the tide so that our kids are not as vulnerable to those kinds of solicitations. Two minutes left. I have one question for you. I stole it from Dave on his podcast, Coaching for Leaders. You’ve been doing Sowers Education for 10 years. Have you changed your mind on anything?

Rachel [00:26:38] Hmm. I think one thing I have changed my mind on is the, and I named it Sowers because I felt really overwhelmed. I felt, Sowers was a way to remind myself that I’m just here to sow seeds. If I never see the impact, if I never have a success story, if I just keep getting up and doing what I do and I never see the fruits of it, I have sown a seed. And so that was, that was really my way of managing my expectations and remembering my why. And I can say that after 10 years, this is our ten year anniversary, where God has taken this is so far beyond what I expected, and so I have gotten to see some really amazing fruit of our labor and the seeds that we have sown. And so people ask, can we end human trafficking? I do not think we will end it because this is not. I think our world is going to have suffering and abuse and trauma here. But I do think that we can make a huge impact, and I do think that we can get two steps ahead of the bad guys. And I really do feel more hopeful that the seeds we sow really do produce good fruit.

Sandie [00:27:55] Rachel, I want to thank you so much for creating an on ramp for our ending human trafficking community to start using the Cool Aunt series with a discount code. So if you go to the Cool Aunt web page, you can purchase the content using a 25 percent discount code: EHT25. Thank you so much, Rachel, for coming back.

Rachel [00:28:29] Thank you for having me.

Dave [00:28:31] Thank you both for this conversation. We’re inviting you now to take the first step as well. Go online and download a copy of Sandie’s guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. The guide will walk you through the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to it by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. We’re also now partnered with Patreon, and the Ending Human Trafficking podcast is building and expanding our community of advocates. If you want to become a patron, you get access to exclusive content and join a community of advocates around the world who are fighting human trafficking in their community. Just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. You can click on the Patreon link and you’ll get access to additional content such as bonus episodes and exclusive resources and toolkits. We’ll also be having some additional interview content, including a bonus conversation here with Rachel that will be available there as well and many of our other interviews. You can access it for just $5 a month and get access to all of those benefits. Or you can get more if you’d like. Just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org for more information. And if you’re already a patron, thank you so much for your support. We’re excited to bring you a lot this year and thank you for supporting the Global Center for Women of Justice here at Vanguard University. All of the links, of course, will be available at endinghumantrafficking.org as always, and we’ll be back in two weeks for our next conversation. Thanks, Sandie.

Sandie [00:30:07] Thanks.

Dave [00:30:08] Take care, everyone.

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