In San Diego County alone, there are 3,000 to 8,000 victims of sex trafficking a year, according to a 2016 study conducted by University of San Diego professor Dr. Ami Carpenter and Director of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, Dr. Jamie Gates. These trafficked victims, from multiple racial and economic backgrounds, are pulled into the industry as early as age eight.
After these findings were collected, the initiative “kNOw More!” started up. This organization combines sociology and drama to educate and empower middle and high school students in San Diego County.
“I wanted to help spread awareness of this issue, but I had no idea how,” said Taylor Spencer, a therapeutic and community psychology major at PLNU and an actor for kNOw More!. “I found out about this opportunity, and I knew I had to take it because this is exactly what I have been waiting to be involved in. I like to act and I love social justice, so it was perfect.”
The kNOw More! program was created by a large group of stakeholders that included Child Welfare Services, representatives from San Diego Unified School District, the School of Education at PLNU, the San Diego County Office of Education, survivor leaders (survivors of human trafficking that now provide subject matter expert advice), law enforcement and more.
At the heart of the kNOw More! curriculum is a Theater of the Oppressed method, also called forum theater.
“This method has the actors run through the play but the students are able to stop it when they feel something is wrong and correct it,” Elaine Giles, intern for the CJR, explained.
Catherine Hanna Schrock, the artistic director of kNOw More!, added, “For the students to have a say in what is what has been really moving.”
This form of theater is used to motivate students in becoming activists and offering the option to help them become experts.
“It’s moving to see how a method is used to inspire action,” said Schrock. “A goal of the performance is to humanize all of the characters, even the trafficker, to show that everyone has a story and no one deserves to be demonized.”
Schrock went on to tell a story about a younger girl in the organization who once gave very specific characteristics about what a trafficker’s story could have been. After giving these examples, the girl confessed that she was a trafficker and that kNOw More! had given her a safe space to talk about it.
“There is something powerful in this approach,” said Schrock.
The organization targets younger boys and girls because the average age of sex trafficking victims is 13 years old. Giles attended a performance at a middle school and was worried that the students wouldn’t take the performance seriously.
“At first, I was a little skeptical,” said Giles. “It’s a drama program at a middle school. Is it really going to stop sex trafficking? But the amount of vulnerability that it cultivated was really, really important.”
The play wasn’t filtered, so bad language and conversations about sex initially created giggles amongst the students. But once the co-facilitator got up and started speaking, the attitude in the room shifted.
“The kids were even crying,” said Giles.
Spencer added, “After my first performance with kNOw More!, these girls shared with everyone that they had been trafficked and they were so thankful that we came and shared with their school. That’s when I realized how meaningful our message is to people and how seriously we need to take it.”
The kNOw More! initiative aims to reach a wide range of audiences. This led the group to perform at an alternative school that had lost students to human trafficking. The performance started and the crowd was struggling to pay attention.
“I was worried none of them would participate,” said Kayla Morales, a PLNU alumnus and an actor for the kNOw More! initiative. “But by the time we reached the improv parts, we had multiple volunteers. I felt like not only did they love the show, but they learned a lot from it. This was the first moment my faith in the show was really tested and it proved itself to be as captivating as I thought it was. After that show, I know we can reach anyone.”
The CJR is always looking for volunteers at their events. For those who want to help, email CJR at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in becoming an actor for kNOw More!, email Catherine Hanna Schrock at email@example.com.