Human Trafficking in North America: A Conversation with Sr. Sheila Smith, RSCJ

Click here to read and pray with "Works of Love" Chapter 8: Human Trafficking.

November 6, 2019 – by Henry Frank

Sr. Sheila Smith is a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She is presently serving as the Representative for her congregation at the United Nations in New York. Sheila completed her doctorate in theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, where she also helped found PACT-Ottawa (Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in Humans). Although Sheila is presently serving her congregation in an international capacity, she remains part of a group of Ojibway grandmothers who work to prevent human trafficking in their local communities. 

I interviewed Sr. Sheila on October 25, 2019, as part of the Office of Ignatian Spirituality’s “Works of Love” campaign, which aims to highlight the many ways Ignatian spirituality and the pursuit of justice are intertwined. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Henry: Sr. Sheila, thank you for taking the time to talk today. Let’s jump right in. Could you describe the work you do for the Society of the Sacred Heart on human trafficking, and also how you got involved in this ministry?

Sr. Sheila: Presently, my role is to represent the international Society of the Sacred Heart at the United Nations. Human trafficking is one of several global concerns that we have and seek to address at the U.N. We work with other members of civil society to help influence the policies that are being made by the U.N. member states.

For me this involves several different components. It's mainly targeted at educating states, so that diplomats have some input from civil society when they're making international policy. I am the bridge between international policy and the local works that the Society of the Sacred Heart is doing in the 41 countries in which we serve. I try to learn what's happening among our people and our partners at the grassroots level. Then, I try to bring those stories and statistics to the diplomats in New York, so that they can integrate them into their conversations and make better rules, better laws that will actually impact people on the ground.

For example, the Indigenous Peoples Forum is a permanent forum on indigenous issues that is held every year at the U.N. I consistently bring indigenous women who are working in prevention of human trafficking in North America, some of whom are survivors themselves. This past year I was involved in hosting a panel and providing speakers for that panel who could share the perspective of survivors of human trafficking and also people who work alongside survivors in prevention.

All of my work at the UN in this area is influenced by my previous ministry, which was with human trafficking survivors in Canada. I helped found an anti-human trafficking group in the city where I'm from, which focused on policy, on support services, and on education. I also did my doctoral dissertation on the problem of human trafficking in Canada, specifically as it affects indigenous women and girls, and what non-indigenous peoples can do to help prevent this.

Henry: As an RSCJ sister, your spirituality is clearly a part of the work that you do. I think it is important for people to see somebody who is doing this kind of work and understand more about how their spirituality fits in, because I think so much of our own spiritual life is about emulating the examples we see. Can you talk about how your spirituality informs your work on behalf of victims of human trafficking?

Sr. Sheila: Well, I want to start by saying that — and this is also connected to our spirituality — it is women like Ruth and Jessica and Melly and others like them that truly inspire and motivate me. These women are survivors of human trafficking. I believe that God’s love has brought us together in this work and afforded me the privilege of working in solidarity beside them. Sacred Heart spirituality is really about trying to open ourselves more and more to God's love in our own personal lives, and then to learn how to risk loving others in the way God has loved us.

To work in the area of human trafficking prevention was not something I chose. It just kind of happened, and it's connected to my whole life's journey. These women that I know, and others like them, our lives have come together. The Spirit has brought us together.

Our constitutions say that for the religious of the Sacred Heart, our spirituality is about helping people to grow in dignity as human beings and as children of God. We are motivated by the gospel with all that it demands from us: love, forgiveness, justice, and solidarity with those who are poor and rejected by the world. Certainly today, it is recognized — by many activists, professionals, people on the ground doing social work, and also Pope Francis — that persons who are trafficked are among the most rejected.

So, the short answer is that it is about our relationship with God and how that manifests itself in our relationships with others. I work at the U.N., which can sometimes be a little dry and not so interesting. I think of these women, and that really motivates me, because I know I'm doing it for them and I'm doing it for future generations.

Henry: Before we get to what concrete actions we can take in response to human trafficking, I’m curious to know how you would encourage others to begin to form their response on a spiritual level. Where should we begin in prayer? What should we be reading? 

Sr. Sheila: Well, there is this really big part of our faith called Catholic social teaching, which is often referred to as the hidden gem of the Catholic Church. I would love for all of us as Catholics to be more familiar with that part of our faith. I'd direct people to that because it fleshes out the gospel in very practical terms for us today.

We sometimes think of spirituality as prayer, and it is prayer. It's our personal prayer. It's our communal prayer. We listen to God in the depths of our being, and we gather with others to worship God. And that is prayer.

But prayer is also action. Our spirituality can be lived in prayerful action. This is often the wing that can be left out, or people don't even realize that the good things they're doing is their prayer. I like pointing people to the fact that often they are already doing something, which they do not even recognize is contributing to the prevention of human trafficking. That is prayer in action.

Before going on with that point, though, I also want to point to a couple of secular documents that are helpful for people. Every two years, the U.N. publishes a global report on human trafficking, the most recent one being 2018. The U.S. Department of State publishes an annual trafficking in persons report as well.

There is also a very good video on Netflix called “I Am Jane Doe,” which is specific to a U.S. context. It is really important for us in North America to realize the extent of human trafficking that goes on in our countries. These are not women and girls from other countries. They are citizens of the U.S. They are citizens of Canada. The video really addresses this, and it's very well done.

And then, go to YouTube and listen to the testimonies of survivors. There are a number of Hollywood movies on human trafficking, but I caution away from those. Many survivors of human trafficking say these depict an almost romanticized idea of human trafficking that they cannot relate to. So, I prefer to direct people to testimonies.

Henry: I think it is important, and sometimes difficult, for those of us in North America to accept that human trafficking is an issue in our own communities. We are more comfortable thinking about it as a global issue, removed from our daily lives. For those of us who don’t spend our days working on this issue at the U.N., what concrete steps can we take to end human trafficking?

Sr. Sheila: I think it can be surprising. People sometimes want something dramatic, but it can be very simple. First of all, concretely, we need to educate ourselves, and then take action. And the action can be connected to your own context and your own gifts — if you're an artist, if you're a journalist, if you're a lawyer, whatever your gifts are.

And if you're a parent as well — sometimes parents feel super stretched, of course, so what could they possibly do? Education of children is highly important, not only in protecting them by making them wise in the world, but also by teaching the attitudes and behaviors that respect the human dignity of all.

This shows up often. Walking down the street I'll hear two guys talking: “We're just going to go and get a couple of beers and then get a couple of girls for the night.” It's about checking our attitudes and behaviors. Are they really the way of Jesus? What do we spend our time being amused by? What do we laugh at? What language do we use? Is it respectful of the human dignity of each person, of women, men, and children of all races? That can seem small, but it's huge.

Anti-poverty work and welcoming migrants is also something concrete that people can do; join a group and volunteer. Prevention of racism. All vulnerable groups are vulnerable to human trafficking. So, to stand in solidarity with any group that is vulnerable is human trafficking prevention work because they are all connected. We need to see the big picture and understand that everything connects. But no matter what we do, our attitudes and behaviors are most important.

Henry: It's interesting to hear you emphasize the need to critique our attitudes and behaviors. It speaks to the need for conversion of heart. 

The last thing I wanted to ask, after reading the U.N. report from 2018, concerns the fact that an overwhelming majority of people who are victims of human trafficking are women and girls. Can you explain the impact that this has on women around the world, and also how all of us, women and men, can be more attentive to this? 

Sr. Sheila: First of all, thank you for the way that you worded the question, because very often issues that affect women more than men get slotted into “women's issues.” The implication can be that women, therefore, need to figure out how to resolve these problems. But, this is a global issue. It affects more than women. And even if it affects women disproportionately, all of us need to work to resolve this problem, because we are all part of the problem in some way.

One of the ways that we in North America are part of this problem — this is a very sobering thought, or fact, actually — is that when we get up in the morning we have a routine. We wash and dress and have our breakfast and go to work. Most people’s morning routine in North America involves some integration into human trafficking. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the products we buy, almost all of these come into contact with human trafficking somewhere in the supply chain.

Many of the things that we buy, especially if we buy them very cheaply, involve some kind of human trafficking, and that is human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation. We have to be aware of what we buy, what we eat, and the kinds of things that we do. We cannot cut out all those things in our lives. So, pick one thing.

If I learn that a restaurant I go to is trafficking people to work for them — not paying them well or not paying them at all, taking away their passports, and making them live in very close quarters that they can't escape — then it's up to me to do something about it. If anyone comes across a situation that they think might be human trafficking, the best thing to do is to report it.

In our daily lives, we need to be aware of our activities, especially in economics, because we have power with our money. What do we buy with our money? Where did it come from? All of us have cell phones. Child slavery is a big problem in Congo, especially in the mining of the chemical used in our cell phones. Be aware of those things and then advocate — send letters or do not support companies that are implicated in slavery or human trafficking.

Be aware that the privileges we have impact the lives of others.

There are websites that indicate where you can buy responsibly sourced items, whether it's food or sports items or clothing. That is certainly a contribution. Ultimately, our culture is so consumerist that we want to buy things cheaply. We are pushed to buy things. But those of us who are socially aware and who are really practicing our spirituality should say, “No, I’m going to use my money to buy less, but to buy what I know is ethical.”

Chocolate is a huge area of human trafficking. We love chocolate. It is very sad to think that children and families are often trafficked in cocoa fields, so that other children can enjoy chocolate.

And so, I think we have a huge responsibility to start promoting attitudes and behaviors that are more in line with being followers of Jesus.

I also don't want to end this on a downer. I want to say that there is a lot of hope in the world around these issues. There is a lot of good being done. I think that hope is found in coming together and supporting these groups of people who are marginalized.

Henry Frank is Director of Communications and Advancement for the Office of Ignatian Spirituality.

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