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Michelle Besana: Director of Operations at Salt and Light Coalition

Salt and Light Coalition works to empower and protect women in Chicago who are survivors of trafficking. 60% of trafficking survivors are under 18 and struggle to finish their education and find employment after suffering such trauma. As the Director of Operations, Michelle works with volunteers and keeps the business on track to ensure that these women do not just survive their past, but thrive in their futures.

How prominent is trafficking in our world today, and what does that word encompass?

Many people don’t understand the concept of modern day slavery; I didn’t either before joining the organization. A lot of people think of the Hollywood version of trafficking, like in the Taken movie, but that is pretty far from reality. Trafficking consists of unwillingly selling sexual acts for any sort of goods, whether thats money, housing, items, et cetera. Today, trafficking takes shape in many ways, but it happens everyday. A lot of women who find themselves in trafficking situations are in a vulnerable place in their lives. Being vulnerable can happen to women of any age, race, or socioeconomic status— the perpetrators latch onto that vulnerability and give them the attention they need until the women are trapped.

Can you tell us about the struggles sex trafficking survivors face in finding employment?

The founder of our organization started teaching yoga at a prison and realized that a lot of women who are in and out of the prison system had been trafficked. When you’re trafficked at a young age and experience that intense trauma, you often have little education and no work experience. Perpetrators often get their victims addicted to drugs as a way to make the victim rely on them, which is another barrier in reaching employment. Trafficking is incredibly isolating— these women are taken away from their families and friends and when they do return, they are mentally and emotionally different people because of the trauma. It can be really difficult to reintegrate into society and the workforce at that point. Our organization deals with workforce development because these women aren’t given a chance since they don’t have any experience, and we want that to change.

What is included in your curriculum?

We have a year long workforce development program. The first 6 months are a healing phase run by psychotherapists, where we focus on mind-body restoration and dealing with the trauma. This includes reflections, meditations, yoga, and fitness. We recently added a nutrition component because many of our women live in food deserts and don’t have access to foods we take for granted like avocado and asparagus, so we teach them how to read food labels and find healthy foods. Our yoga teacher training program helps the women to gain confidence, understand their bodies, be assertive, and gives them a potential career path. Then, they are paired with a career coach to understand their long-term goals and they start working on building soft skills to help them get there. We offer various certifications, resume workshops, practice interviews, and have corporate partnerships to help them land internships. Since these women have never had anyone rooting for them, we want to give them the opportunity to think beyond what they thought they could do, and actually achieve it.

What steps can we take to help stop trafficking in our own communities?

Sharing information about trafficking is the most important step, because many people are unaware of how pressing of an issue this is. Educating the public on modern day slavery needs to be normalized so people know how to protect themselves and their loved ones from perpetrators. Be aware and look out for red flags with the people who are around you. Keep a close eye on your friends who are in vulnerable situations, and don’t be afraid to reach out to them to check in. There are human trafficking hotlines to call if you spot a situation in public and need help.


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