275 – Reflections on Human Trafficking from a Community Leader

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Dr. Morgan and Dr. Harris discuss overlapping social issues and the role of the community and the church in developing solutions with positive outcomes.

Rev. Dr. Antipas Harris

Rev. Dr. Harris is a scholar-practitioner with nearly 20 years of experience as a university professor at several schools, including Sacred Heart University, New York Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Portland Theological Seminary, Vanguard University, and Regent University. He has held a lecture chair at North Central University in Minneapolis, Minnesota and also served as founding president-dean of Jakes Divinity School in Dallas, Texas. Rev. Dr. Harris is the founder and president of the Urban Renewal Center in Norfolk, Virginia. It is a center for moral thought, voice, and action. The center engages research, conversations, consulting, and community engagement. It advances principles and practices of diversity, equity, and inclusion for common good through the fusion of cultural competence and the ongoing process of cultural humility.

Key Points

  • While there are many problems in the world, there are many people who want to be part of the solution to be mobilized.
  • Research is important to understand if our outreach is having positive outcomes in the community we are serving.
  • The church needs to be aware and equipped with how social issues often intersect, and be trained on how to discern when those differing issues arise in their community.
  • Our lives and decisions are shaped by our shared experience and the social fabric of our community, therefore, our successes and challenges are community successes and challenges.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 275 Reflections on Human Trafficking from a Community Leader.

Production Credits [00:00:10] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:29] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:34] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:37] 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, so much of what we’ve talked about on the show over the years is from the perspective of partnership, and there’s no greater partnership than the partnership within our communities. I’m so glad today to be able to welcome community leader and expert who will help us to really bring some new perspective into this conversation. I’m so pleased to welcome the Reverend Dr. Antipas Harris. He is a scholar practitioner with more than 20 years of experience as a university professor at several schools, namely Sacred Heart University, New York Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Portland Theological Seminary, Vanguard University, and Regent University, where he was a tenured associate professor and held administrative roles. He has held a lecture chair at North Central University in Minneapolis. He’s also served as the founding president and dean of Jakes Divinity School in Dallas, Texas. He’s the founder and president of the Urban Renewal Center in Norfolk, Virginia. It is a center for moral thought, voice and action. The center engages research, conversations, consulting and community engagement. It advances principles and practices of diversity, equity and inclusion for common good through the fusion of cultural competence and the ongoing process of cultural humility. Dr. Harris, what a pleasure to have you on the show.

Dr. Harris [00:02:04] I’m honored to be here. Thank you and Dr. Morgan for this opportunity. Thanks for having me here.

Sandie [00:02:09] So, Dr. Harris, from the very first time I met you when you were lecturing on the social justice book that had just released here at Vanguard, I have been so interested in how you bring together such diversity in your research, in your conversation, and at the same time you’re so sensitive to the inclusion of every person in that conversation. I invited you to speak in my intro to Women in Justice class, and I have never, ever had a guest who referred to God as God and never used the male pronoun, which for some of my female students has led to some misconceptions about God. So I am just absolutely so honored to have you here and respect you greatly. Thank you.

Dr. Harris [00:03:14] The respect is mutual. Thank you so much, Dr. Morgan. It’s an honor. Thank you.

Sandie [00:03:18] So tell us a little about the Urban Renewal Center that you’ve launched. The ideas of the principles behind it and what you expect to see grow out of that.

Dr. Harris [00:03:32] Thank you so much for the question. The Urban Renewal Center was founded in 2017. In 2016, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were the national optics, along with five police officers all killed in the same week. And of course, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed at the hands of police officers. And then there were five police officers that were killed in Dallas the same week. And I sat in my office at my house in Virginia Beach at the time and cried real tears. I was a professor at Regeant University and I thought to myself, what am I doing in my lifetime that’s going to really make a difference? What will the future say I did? Just taught classes, preach sermons, or would I have made some kind of contribution to this ongoing distress in the community? And that evening, it was a Saturday morning. That evening, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, Virginia called me and said, I’m scrapping the bulletin for tomorrow for all three services. We’re going to talk about race in America. And I said, okay, sounds good. I was doing some I was a theologian residence there doing some teaching and outreach there. And so we didn’t prep our questions or anything. We just got up there and start talking for three services. And then one of the long standing members of the church, Taz Taylor, met with the pastor the next day for breakfast and said, We got to do something. We really didn’t know how it was going to come off because we were pretty raw. We were pretty raw in our conversation that morning and people wanted to be part of the solution. So we launched the Urban Renewal Center because we recognized that on the one hand there were problems in the world, but on the other hand, there were many people who want to be part of the solution. So I resigned my tenured post at Regeant University and decided to start a community development corporation to respond to the ongoing needs in the world and the ongoing opportunity to mobilize people to be part of the solution. And so that’s when we started. And then, of course, I left the Urban Renewal Center when I started Jakes Divinity School, and I returned to the Urban Renewal Center January 2022. And so we hit the ground rolling. We consider ourselves a center for moral thought, voice, and action. And we’ve had conversations around the issue of human trafficking. And we have a plethora of issues that we try to respond to in different ways. So thank you for having me here today.

Sandie [00:06:06] So this idea of moral thought, voice, and action. So we aren’t going to just talk about it, we actually are going to design solutions and take action. What does that mean in the intersection with human trafficking?

Dr. Harris [00:06:26] A lot of churches, on the one hand, are really engaged in outreach, and sometimes the faith community does more output than seek for outcomes.

Sandie [00:06:40] Mmm. Can you clarify because I have students who are going to listen to this later and they don’t know the difference.

Dr. Harris [00:06:46] Yeah, we like to be involved in actions, want to do action projects, want to do good in the world. But I went to Haiti, for example. I was going to Haiti every year before the earthquake several years ago. I think it was 2010 when the big earthquake happened. I was going several years before and after. So I remember getting on the plane after having gotten bags of rice and lots of food, raised money, went there, shopped locally, took it to a local orphanage and got on the plane and felt good about myself. I had done good in the world and I heard a voice say, by the time you get back to Virginia, they’re going to be hungry again. So I discovered within my own reflection that while it is good to do community engagement through outreach, acts of kindness is part of the spiritual formation of a person. It is also important to recognize that we need research connected to the actions that we engage, and we need to be concerned about outcomes and not just output because output is good for the spirituality and personal development and people feel good about themselves. Outcomes is how do I make impact and inroads among the people that I’m serving so that we don’t create sort of this toxic by charity, right? Toxicity by charity in which we are constantly giving but not really helping the people.

Sandie [00:08:15] Wow. So I just I just want to stop in the Haiti example, because this was in the news recently that people have not recovered from that massive earthquake.

Dr. Harris [00:08:29] Absolutely.

Sandie [00:08:30] And so it feels like this focus on output over outcome may be a contributing factor.

Dr. Harris [00:08:39] Yeah, I observed it and I’m speaking out of two corners of my mouth as they say. On the one hand, I’m affirming acts of kindness because as part of our own personal development. So we get something out of it and we should affirm that. But at the same time, that can’t be the only thing we focus on how we feel about what we did, but rather how do we research responsibly and partner effectively and strategize intently and seek for long term solutions so that the people are not always in that condition or this that condition. And so, in other words, how do we work ourselves out of a job that’s a greater outcome, you know, so what we do with the homeless, we think about that, we say, hey, we don’t want to just be in the business of helping homeless people or we’ll always need homeless people. We ought to be in the business of helping people become mobile so we can, at least in our own strategy and consciousness, work ourself out of a job. Now, that doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to be out of a job, maybe, but it changed our thinking so that our approach is different and our strategies and what we’re trying to achieve is different. So we’re focused on how to help homeless people get jobs so that they can become upward mobile and won’t remain in the homeless situation. Now, there are other factors involved, factors of mental health, factors of disabilities and all types of challenges that may keep certain individuals in the situation longer until they get the right solutions. But if we don’t focus on how to help people come upward mobile, I think we cheat ourselves of what we’re called to do as people of faith. And scripture, for example, in Acts 3, after Pentecost, Peter and John saw a man in a physiological situation. He had an economic impediment as well. And they had seen him, along with his friends, at the gate called beautiful every day. But after Pentecost, they saw him differently than they did before Pentecost. So after Pentecost, they see a man who is in need of a hand up and not just a handout. And so they said, so we know we don’t have, but what we have, we give it to you. And they reached out the hand and lifted him up. So my approach is how do we lift people up, not just give them handouts.

Sandie [00:11:15] Wow. Okay. So one of your statements that I’ve read is about your vision as a leader in the community, in the church, and the relevance of faith in the public square. So, tell me how that engages in anti-human trafficking work with crossing and you list racial, ethnic, gender, class, denominational, and religious lines.

Dr. Harris [00:11:46] Yes, this is a very good question, partly because human trafficking is often thought of as an international problem, right? People are being sort of brought into the country from developing countries and being sold in the sex trade industry. That does happen and that is horrible. But I think that often the church does is not as keen to understand ways in which human trafficking happens in plain sight. And I have had stories that I engage people with, stories about how this makes itself into the church often, because we’re not often trained to identify those indicators. I took a group of students from Regeanr University when I was a professor there to New York, and we were doing actually homeless outreach. And we partnered with New York Theological. It was New York School of Urban Ministry, and that’s where we stayed and went on the street and we were offering sandwiches we made and gave them bags with information of safe places to live and so forth. Often, we gave blankets because it was was chilly and so forth. And we were at Penn Station one day while we were there and ran into a group of young girls. And when I walked around, I said, Why are you here? I mean, it just stunned me. These are kids. What are you doing out here? And one stood up and said, Oh, we actually live around the corner over there in a big house. There’s a bunch of us. And as she was talking, it occurred to me they’re being trafficked. And at the time, I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I am now with resources that were available, because we were there for one thing, and we encountered another. And most of the folks with me didn’t even catch that that was more of the conversation that they were making was basically indicators that this was a situation of human trafficking in plain sight. But it was framed within the context of homelessness. And so often the church is not equipped to discern or discover what is happening right before us, because we often think of these sorts of situations in categories. And that’s one that often is referred to as international human trafficking. I’ve seen human trafficking in restaurant situations. And so it’s all around. So the church being equipped to be able to know how to identify. It’s sort of like mental health situations, right? I came from a Pentecostal background and everything is a demon, right? So, you know, you’re casting out a mental health situation that never goes away and you think maybe you don’t have power, maybe you don’t have knowledge to know they need to go get a counselor. So it’s about the knowledge that I think that the church needs to know, best needs. That’s one situation. Then respond to another dynamic of your question, the ways in which the church or faith has a vital role in the public square. Even if you look in the urban context, skylines often look like businesses. But a real skyline in the urban context is a lot of steeples and a lot of storefronts and a lot of faith. A religious context, right? So more mosques and more synagogues, but a lot of churches. And so even the architecture of the city is riddled with faith imagery. So, we’re, we’re there. And then there is this sense of culture. When we talk about morality and we think about how do people know what’s right and wrong and the good and  good business practices and how to treat each other and how to stop the violence. These things are not transactional. These things are rest upon the moral consciousness of our community, and it’s none other than the faith community. Businesses don’t sort of nurture and develop moral practices. What’s right? What’s wrong? They want to hire people who already know that. And people know that from a framework within the faith community that nurtures and develops that. And the more of a distress in our community where people make poor choices, people don’t want to bring businesses in that community, people can’t find the right workforce, there’s corruption. The absence of faith in the community will cause community collapse, even so much so that as you know, the last several months there’s been a national uptick in violence across America. And one police department reached out to me and said, Dr. Harris we need a divine intervention because its got to the point where cities expect chief of police to stop the violence and they get fired if they can’t stop the violence. It’s like, they can’t stop the violence. That’s a moral decision that people are making. A chief of police can’t stop that. Only the faith community plays a part in helping people make better choices. And faith community, as I said, not just teach right and wrong, but it’s a moral consciousness. It is the faith community that needs to be at the table to help strategize on how to lower some of the problems in the community, including poverty. Because in poverty is where we get a lot of violence and poverty is where we get a lot of human trafficking. And that human trafficking issue in America, in our inner cities, dare I say in the black community, is lodging in low income areas and in housing projects that like, you know, public housing. These impoverished areas is where this immoral activity often lodges.

Sandie [00:17:52] That’s such a great illustration of how complicated it is and complex. And so you can’t, some people want to just say, well, here are the numbers. And this demographic is overrepresented in this activity, particularly of being victims of human trafficking. But they haven’t brought into the picture the poverty issue. And so then the trainings are in the community and I’ve been sitting in them, are about diversity and inclusion instead of how do we raise up, lift up it to use your language, people in that community. But how am I going to change the way people talk about it in the public square if it’s an us and them?

Dr. Harris [00:18:49] Right. I like to think of this as all of our problem, partly because poverty is a social construct and it’s a social construct that benefits some at the expense of others. So then the problem becomes all of our problem. Violence the same way, born out of a social construct. Now, people make decisions, but all of us make decisions out of lived experience. We all do. I decide where I want to go tonight based out of lived experience. All decisions, even though they are personal, they are also social. And that social dynamic of our reality is shared experience that birth decisions. It makes more sense through the lens of say an African philosophical approach social philosophy, which is ‘ubuntu,’ I am because we are. So, in other words, however my life turns out it is because of the we factor. And it plays out if I’m successful, I’m not successful on my own. The whole community is successful because I didn’t make myself a success on my own. You see a turtle up on top of a post, a fence post. You know that turtle didn’t get up there by themselves. You know, everybody is dependent on community for success. And we often say, you know, you didn’t get that by yourself. You you know, it was a community. People made sacrifices. The flip is, if I end up in jail, I didn’t get there by myself. If I had to murder him, I didn’t get there on myself. Something went wrong? Yes, with my own judgment, but also, yes, with my formation. And that formation was communal formation. And it’s not just sort of my family, although my family is part of it. Is societal formation. Systems, whether family systems, social systems, legal systems, whatever. So if we take that shared approach with victories and with challenges, I think we would land at a conclusion that the problems that we face in our society, I don’t I’m not saying we all are guilty in sort of a personal way, but we are all responsible for how do we make these things better.

Sandie [00:21:11] So when we’re working with the victims, now we’re talking about real survivors in my community. And now I’ve got to bring it from the 30,000 foot level to the shelter program where I volunteer in my neighborhood. How do I begin to cross those barriers for community partnership? Because ethnicity and gender and poverty, race, those are all pieces of this. And frankly, I just have to be really honest. I’m white. I have blue eyes. I have been told that I don’t belong there and yet I want to be part of the solution. So, how do I build those partnerships in the public square?

Dr. Harris [00:22:07] First of all, I’m very sad that because you’re white with blue eyes, somebody say you don’t belong there.

Sandie [00:22:13] Well, I’m not, I’m not upset about it. I just want to figure out how to overcome that.

Dr. Harris [00:22:19] Well, I don’t mean again, and I don’t mean that necessarily personally. I do mean it personally because you heard it personally. But that’s a social problem for somebody to be excluded in any verbal way or any kind of way, because of the way they look. We all are here and we’re going to be here till we die. And we got to figure out life together and this idea of you don’t belong, to me, that that’s part of the problem that get us where we are today on either side of the discussion. We all belong. This is all of our problem. This is we all are part of the solution. And as soon as we start saying what this person, its just like women problems are not just women problems, they are men problems too. So how can we be part of the solution and not just let the women figure out the women problems over the women’s group or men’s problem. As soon as we overcome all these bifurcations that somehow determine who belongs in the conversation. Until we’re able to do that, I don’t think we ever have a real solution. I really I really don’t, because I think that the systems that cause us to become the way we are are the systems that we’re trying to use to fix the problem and that doesn’t work. Its the system that said that black people didn’t belong, that land black people in this sort of the underbelly of an experience in America. So you can’t use the same who belongs, who not belong, who does not belong type of system to fix the problem. Because this is, that’s what we mean when say it is a systemic problem. That’s a system. That’s the problem. And oftentimes, I even see it with African-Americans or with women, for example, when we want to become where we’re mobile and more women get in position. Oftentimes, women use the same oppressive system that oppressed them as part of their leadership to oppress others. Blacks can do the same thing. It’s like that’s what we mean by there’s a systemic problem. There needs to be another vision of the way this should be run, not look at the people who are the perceived oppressors and say, No, you don’t belong. Well, you’re using the same system that they use to oppress you, to try to get back at them. And that doesn’t fix the problem.

Sandie [00:24:42] So we have to go back to the purpose statement that we started with for moral thought, voice, and action. And in the context of our conversation about human trafficking, you recently interviewed a survivor, Keeya Vawar. Did I say her name, right? I want you to introduce me. It was a fabulous interview and I’ll put a link in our show notes so other people can find it. But you start you asked her, are we doing enough? And I want to know your answer to the question you ask Kiya. Are we doing enough? You talked about marginalized youth in our inner cities and you mentioned 400 young people in Dallas. Are we doing enough?

Dr. Harris [00:25:38] I don’t think so. I think we’re not doing enough because we don’t realize that a large number of our youth are being taken advantage of sexually. And the whole discussion of our sexuality, we just kind of turn our eyes on anyway. So, I don’t think we are, we don’t have enough conversations around it. Not enough people are, I mean, there are projects like the one you  mentioned you volunteer at. Well, we have such a bifurcating society, we say, oh, those people over there handling that problem without realizing the magnitude of the problem in that it’s not as isolated. Norfolk, Virginia, for example, largest naval base in the world. Human trafficking  happens all the time, but I can’t take you to the corner of the community where it all happens because it’s pervasive throughout the community. So, part of this is its so pervasive that sometimes you don’t know how to contain it or to respond to it because you can’t always know exactly where it is. But the other thing is we need more resources available. And I believe that the faith based community can talk enough about it to mobilize our churches, our faith communities, to at least know the signs, be able to provide resources to people, and to champion legislature to do more.

Sandie [00:27:00] I’m in total agreement with you. A couple friends of mine and I just released a book of strategies for churches on human trafficking because I do think that the church has powerful resources. And your experience as a leader in the church, in education, in social justice, what is your hope for the church in their response to this neighborhood issue? Not something over there, but right in our own neighborhoods.

Dr. Harris [00:27:36] I hope that we can raise awareness about it and places where it lodges. I hope that we can also create more ministries that respond to the specific needs once we discover it, or at least build the partnerships with specialized situations that can support it even better than we can. I’d like to see more work done with helping youth make good decisions, because these everything is so connected. It’s messy. I understand why some people don’t know what to do because it’s so messy. As you mentioned, Keeya, her situation, her father was abusive to her and she was looking for a way out. She wasn’t looking to go be human trafficked. She fell into it, right? So, if the abuse at home didn’t happen, she wouldn’t want to go get away. So it’s like one thing is connected to another. But I think that there needs to be greater attention given from a law perspective on some of the things that happens in the entertainment industry. You know, as I mentioned to Keeya, R Kelly is the one who we all can identify based on what came out about him, but he wasn’t operating by himself. This is pervasive throughout. It is so commonplace that nobody pays attention or see it and don’t pay attention at the same time. So I think the greater awareness about it, more attention given to it, more ministry connections to support the types of ministries that you’re doing or involved in, whether you’re a center or where you volunteer. I think there need to be not just an expectation that that’s been taken care of.

Sandie [00:29:17] Oh, that’s so good. And I, I think I love landing back at education because I agree with you specifically on children and youth and helping them learn to make better choices, better decisions, and building that resiliency and working in our public square means we need to be working with our public educators as well, and we can probably have a conversation about that on another day. But, I’m going to be following the Urban Renewal Center much more closely. I’m subscribed to Narrativity now. Do you want to just tell us how to find your podcast?

Dr. Harris [00:30:02] Yeah, our podcast is wherever you get your podcasts, there’s Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or one of the others. It’s called Narrativity with Dr. Antipas Harris. Thats Narrativity where we’re telling stories that inspire challenge and encourage. These stories are sometimes riveting in and definitely can be heart wrenching at times. Other times they are stories of victory. And this story that you’re referring to is the one of a woman who left home and ended up in the in the music industry, in music videos, but was taken advantage of in a sex trafficking situation. And she went from that to another taboo too, not really a taboo of limited knowledge is that the human trafficking industry or so that these johns or these men who are trafficking women. But as Keeya talks about in the episode with me, there are women, madams, who are in the industry. And either they came up through the industry, but some didn’t come up through the industry. They’re doing it for financial gain and they have women that they’re trafficking in. The same thing is true with men who are being trafficked. A lot of the prostitution in Hampton Roads are men.

Sandie [00:31:28] Wow. And this brings us back to your point earlier about the connection between poverty and the exploitative crime of human trafficking. So you’re going to stick around and answer one more question for our Patreon listeners, and I’m sure that we’re going to keep this conversation going over the next couple of years. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Harris [00:31:54] Thank you for having me.

Dave [00:31:55] Antipas, Sandie, thank you so much for this conversation. What a pleasure to learn from you both, as always. And we are inviting you to take the next step as well. The Ending Human Trafficking podcast is online at endinghumantrafficking.org. If you’ll hop online, it’s a great starting point to download a copy of Sandie’s guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie’s identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access to it free just by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. We’re also now part of the Patreon platform by the Ending Human Trafficking podcast is building and expanding our community of advocates. By becoming a patron, you get access to exclusive content and you also join a community of advocates around the world who are fighting human trafficking in their community. Just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. You’ll see in the corner of the page there a link for Patreon and you can get access to content such as bonus questions and segments, as we’ll do today. Also, exclusive resources and toolkits. It’s very affordable, $5 a month. You can get access to all of the benefits. And of course, you can give more if you’d like to. Go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. And for those who are already patrons, thank you so much for your support. We’re excited to continue to bring you so much over this next year and going forward from the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University. And of course, we will be back in two weeks with our next regular conversation. Sandie, I will see you then in two weeks.

Sandie [00:33:34] All right. Thanks, Dave.

Dave [00:33:36] Take care, everybody.

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