Community members gathered at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus on Wednesday, July 19 for a panel discussion on human trafficking, titled, “You Don’t Own Me: Perspectives on Human Trafficking.” A diverse group of panelists discussed the issue and its impact on west Michigan communities, with an emphasis about victims of this crime.
Panelists included Carmen L. Kucinich, master’s level licensed professional counselor and victim specialist with the FBI; Andy Soper, owner of Five Arrows Consulting; and Jodi Dibble, a Muskegon police officer and E. Christopher Johnson, Jr., CEO and co-founder of the Center for Justice, Rights & Dignity.
Kucinich explained that age is important when identifying individuals who are involved with human trafficking and when trying to help those under 18 get help, even if they refuse.
“If anyone is getting money for the juvenile having sex, even if the juvenile thinks they are consenting, by law, they are a victim of trafficking and will be treated as such,” said Kucinich.
Kucinich has worked with crime victims for over 18 years. Prior to the FBI, she was a caseworker with the Michigan Indian Child Welfare Agency. She then worked for Safe Harbor Children’s Advocacy Center as a forensic interviewer and therapist for sexually abused children and children who witnessed domestic violence.
Having worked with severely traumatized youth for 10 years in residential and community forums, Soper founded the Manasseh Project in 2011 and opened the first human trafficking victims’ shelter in Michigan for minors. During the discussion, Soper urged people to be mindful and empathetic when approaching human trafficking.
“When it comes to actually working with a victim, when it comes to writing quality legislation, if our starting point is anything other than, I am not whole if you are not whole, then we will slip into categorizing, and judgments, and making up stories about why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Johnson, retired vice president and general counsel of GM North America and adjunct professor at WMU-Cooley, reflected on when he and his wife were first exposed to human trafficking during a 2011 mission trip to Mumbai, India. When the couple returned to the United States, they realized that human trafficking was not just a foreign issue, but that it was prevalent in Michigan, and in every community. In response they became and remain members of the Board of the Michigan Abolitionist Project.
“Human trafficking is not just affecting poor people. It’s not just impacting people of color. It’s not just impacting women. It’s impacting everyone,” Johnson said.
Johnson also described how supply and demand applies to sexual and labor exploitation. He encouraged community members to help end the demand for commercial sex leading to sex trafficking and cheap products leading to labor trafficking, particularly in global supply chains. His presentation stated, “Demand exists because we as a society tolerate it.”
Dibble, who spoke about how human trafficking affected her personally, explained she began her fight against the crime after learning that her niece (now her adopted daughter) was sex-trafficked at the age of 10. She became empowered to become an advocate for victims.
Dibble, who has worked for the city of Muskegon Police Department as a police officer for 22 years, is currently vice president of the board and training coordinator for the Hope Project, an outreach program to educate and inform the community about the issue of human trafficking. She is also the chair of the Lakeshore Human Trafficking Task Force.
Pictured are panelists Jodi Dibble, a Muskegon police officer; Andy Soper, owner of Five Arrows Consulting; Carmen L. Kucinich, victim specialist for the FBI; and E. Christopher Johnson, Jr., CEO and co-founder of the Center for Justice, Rights & Dignity; and Ayda Rezaian-Nojani, litigation attorney at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Access to Justice.