Ashleigh Chapman: Ending Human Exploitation & Protecting The Vulnerable

"It's highly lucrative I can sell a drug or a weapon only once and then I've got to go find another guy, get another weapon to sell, but I can sell a child 20 times a night and the average lifespan being 7 years, traffickers are going to make hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars on one individual." - Ashleigh Chapman

Ashleigh S. Chapman, JD dedicated her life to ending exploitation and protecting vulnerable populations as a child, when her family first began caring for children in need.  She has worked solely on these issues for the past 18+ years professionally and travels extensively to strengthen the movement.  Her passion and focus areas are in helping to reform systems of care, strengthening community collaborations, increasing multi-sector engagement, and building the solutions needed to increase the impact of all justice advocates in the field.

Prior to founding the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice® (https://engagetogether.com/), Ashleigh served as the co-founder and Director of the Center for Global Justice at Regent University School of Law in Virginia https://www.regent.edu/acad/schlaw/globaljustice/; the Director of a non-profit serving thousands of at-risk youth in Tennessee; a Children's Pastor; and a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in foster care.

Ashleigh is a licensed attorney in the state of Virginia. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with her Juris Doctorate from Regent University School of Law, receiving the school’s Most Outstanding Graduate award, and Summa Cum Laude with her B.S. from Tennessee Technological University.

In addition to her work in the nonprofit sector, Ashleigh is a client of the Wyoming Business Technology Center http://www.uwyo.edu/wtbc/ in Laramie.  She is working with the WBTC team to incubate a benefit corporation in Wyoming that will accelerate the entire anti-trafficking movement through innovative solutions in technology, business, and finance.

Ashleigh: It's highly lucrative. I can sell a drug or a weapon only once and then I've got to go find another drug and another weapon to sell. But I can sell a child 20 times a night and the average lifespan being seven years, trafficker's going to make hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars off of one individual.

Emy diGrappa: Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guest the question why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. This is What's Your Why. In this episode of What's Your Why meet Ashleigh Chapman, she is president and CEO for the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration and Justice. An organization whose mission is fighting to end human trafficking and protect the vulnerable. Ashleigh has dedicated her life to ending exploitation and protecting vulnerable populations. Today, we will discover her journey and passion. Welcome Ashleigh.

Ashleigh: Thank you Emy, glad to be with you.

Emy diGrappa: Absolutely. I love having you and just in reading your work for the Alliance for Freedom Restoration and Justice, I really can see your heart in there right away, so that's wonderful.

Ashleigh: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Where did you grow up?

Ashleigh: I grew up in Nashville, Music City, USA.

Emy diGrappa: And you're not a singer?

Ashleigh: Well I am. Everyone in Nashville is. So yes, I have sung on the Grand Ole Opry, even Stage as a child, but took a different direction with my life and started pursuing music.

Emy diGrappa: I love hearing that. And so what was your, basically your journey to Wyoming?

Ashleigh: Oh wow. The short version is, I've always dreamed about it. We came to visit about 18 months ago. I had been dreaming about living in Wyoming, making Wyoming home for years and my husband and I came to visit. I surprised him on a bit of a trip in between all of my travels for work and we came a homecoming weekend, 2017 and just fell in love. And went back home, put our home on the market, it sold in eight days and we made the move. So we just moved last August.

Emy diGrappa: That is amazing. And not just that it happened that quickly, but just that you already had this dream of the West?

Ashleigh: I did, yes.

Emy diGrappa: What was that about?

Ashleigh: Well, I spend all my days working on just about the darkest issues on our planet. So the last six years of my life, I've been traveling about 48 weeks every year, sometimes multiple countries per week even. Always there to work on behalf of terrible things that are happening to people. So I was just yearning for a place to call home that was restorative, that I could look outside and just be inspired again to just keep going. And the Wyoming whole experience and the people and the mountains and just all of it was something that really fed my soul.

Emy diGrappa: Right. Those wide open spaces that we talk about, it really, truly does just clear your mind.

Ashleigh: It does yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Well, and your passion is to protect people from being exploited, and that's human trafficking. Tell me about your organization and what led you down that road?

Ashleigh: So our organization is the largest Alliance of anti-trafficking efforts on the planet. So we presently support about 7,000 justice advocates serving out in the field. It grows every single day just about. What led to that is kind of a long story. The high points are, growing up in Nashville, my dad was the pastor of The Homeless Mission. So we were very entrenched in helping people who were hurting in the community. And we ended up taking in three children when I was a child who had been horrifically abused in every conceivable way. And as I was watching their journey, as we tried to help them understand they would be fed, they would not be harmed, just helping them stabilize. And then also for me, it was about just seeing the brokenness that was our city and our systems of care around this family, around these kiddos and the struggle it was to get them to a safe place and stable place.

Ashleigh: So I dedicated my life to this cause as a child. So it's been really the only thing I've woken up and focused on every day since. And I've done it lots of different ways, but today as the Alliance.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. So how old were you when you became a foster sister to these kids?

Ashleigh: 11.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, you were 11. So that really was an imprint in your mind, in your heart.

Ashleigh: Significant. Yes, and I really believe that at the time that my calling would be to get a law degree and to try to fix the systems of care. Which is what I do today.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. So I was reading in your bio that you do have a law degree.

Ashleigh: Yes.

Emy diGrappa: And it is from where?

Ashleigh: Regent University School of Law. So that's in Virginia. And I launched a, while I was going to law school there, I launched the Center for Global Justice at the law school, which still runs today. So I directed that for almost four years, and then this work grew out of that.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. So why is this separate? I mean I know that's at the university. So you wanted it to be bigger and more global?

Ashleigh: It was becoming bigger and more global by the second. And so the university, like all universities, I imagine do, they wanted to focus on the academic piece of it. And we had added tons of courses on human trafficking, child advocacy, experiential opportunities for our interns. And over the course of three years sent 70 legal interns around the world from Russia to Mexico and everywhere in between to work on these issues. But my heart was really in more about solving for the problem itself. So what's keeping us from winning the war against something that shouldn't even exist? Right? So human trafficking, if you're unfamiliar with the topic, we have more slaves in our world today than ever before in our world's history. So that's over 40 million souls. Traffickers are making $150 billion a year off the sale of human beings for labor, sex, and organs.

Ashleigh: So for me it was, what do we build to turn the tide against that? Why does this thing exist? What solutions do you build to combat that kind of scale? And that was just a little bit bigger than the university was willing to go. So we set them up for great success on the academic side and then we took the global outreach effort as a separate humanitarian aid organization.

Emy diGrappa: That is heartbreaking to hear what you just said, but explain to me human trafficking and like you explained, it's not just sex, it's organs and people forced right-

Ashleigh: Yes. Forced labor and services. Yes. So human trafficking, really the world did not wake up to the existence of this again in our planet until about 2001. In the United States, even when we recognized it, we recognized it internationally. It wasn't until 2008 when we began to realize human trafficking was very present even within our own communities here in the United States. So when people first hear about human trafficking, they have this idea that it's people over there. And that's true. That is true. And millions of souls enslaved all around the world. But it's very present here. And then if people can grasp that they think, oh, well it must be people being trafficked from over there to here. And nationally, depending on what federal agency you ask, that's about 35,000 souls. But the overwhelming population that's being trafficked here in this country are our kids. So we have over 300,000 children that are missing that we believe are in the hands of traffickers who are being trafficked in our borders. These are our kids being exploited by our citizens.

Ashleigh: And the reason it's growing at such a rapid rate is because it's highly lucrative. I can sell a drug or a weapon only once and then I've got to go find another drug and another weapon to sell. But I can sell a child 20 times a night and the average lifespan being seven years, trafficker's going to make hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars off of one individual. So it's just the worst evil on the planet. It's the worst kind of exploitation of the vulnerable populations and it's everywhere. I've worked in communities of 50 people to obviously major cities and whole countries. So we're trying to build solutions that can push back against the entire movement. And we have both a nonprofit that we do that through and I'm launching a benefit corporation here in Wyoming that will leverage as well.

Emy diGrappa: Just such a massive problem. And where do you start? But you have to start someplace, right? And so how do you attack it? How do you go in there and at a grassroots level find out who these people are? How do you discover it?

Ashleigh: When we train cities or States or even whole countries on this, we use what we call the SPACE between framework. so a SPACE standing for, it's an acronym. So SPACE standing for the steps and the process to unearth what's going on and to solve for it. So the S is strategy, you've got to understand what is it going to take to end human trafficking. Lot of people when they first hear about this and they want to do something, they think, let's go kick down those doors. I need to become an FBI agent today or let's set up a restoration home for survivors. And both of those obviously are critical pieces, but most people think there are about 10 things to do to combat human trafficking. The truth is there are about a thousand on any given community level. So what we have to do is help them understand the strategy.

Ashleigh: Then the P in that is possibilities. You've got to understand what's already working in the world. So we're the expert on what's working well, what's not, who's doing what and where and how well and with whom. So you have strategy, possibilities. Context is your C in that space between, so what's actually driving this locally? So in Wyoming, for the last five years running, you've had about a hundred victims identified of human trafficking here in this state, about half on national, half domestic, half adult, half children. And so what's driving that? What is causing that in Wyoming? We have to understand that before can solve for it. And then you engage. So we say, figure out the strategy, understand the strategy, we train on that. What are all the possibilities? What's your local context? And then engage, and that's how you light up every dark coast.

Emy diGrappa: Well, what are the strategies? What has worked and what doesn't work?

Ashleigh: That would take a long time to answer.

Emy diGrappa: Okay, I know but give me just, okay-

Ashleigh: The five top five categories of the strategic response include prevention, identification, rescue, restoration and reforms. So we need to understand how to identify what we're not seeing. We've worked in States, even sister States to Wyoming, I won't name them, but very close to here, who are identifying maybe two victims a year. So they didn't think they had a problem. But once we started training law enforcement and nurses and doctors and first responders and social workers, the next year they're identifying over 400 souls who are trafficked. Now that's not because it just started to happen, it's because we just started to see it. So identification is crucial. We need to train the people who are in a position to see it, to see it. And that includes the everyday citizen. Many of us are, we're not seeing the victims that are right in front of our eyes.

Ashleigh: Rescue, what needs to happen at a local community to successfully rescue an individual? What are all the things that need to be in play? It's not just a matter of removal. There are lots of things that have to happen. Otherwise, what happens is that victim goes back to the very vulnerabilities that led to their exploitation. Restoration, which includes not just care after care, but includes re-integration supports. How is this person going to take the next steps in their journey? Is our community set up for that? So in for instance, in Atlanta, we helped a staffing firm, Ron Stodd set up the Higher Hope program that works to help women who've been rescued from sex trafficking in Atlanta, find career living wage jobs. That was a huge gap in Atlanta that's now being filled. Reforms, right? What's broken that needs to be fixed in our laws and systems. And then how do we prevent it in the first place? So we have a framework, it's on our website that you can dive deeper into, but-

Emy diGrappa: Give me your website name again.

Ashleigh: It's engagetogether.com.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. Just I want people to hear that so they can go on and read more about it. But as you were talking, I'm thinking to myself, I'm a mom, I have two daughters and a son. But how can you get into the schools? How do you educate parents? What are you doing about that?

Ashleigh: Sure. We've got lots of resources for that. So we have a toolkit series where we've gathered, I like to say we've taken the Google out of it. So we've done all the research on everything that's going on in this country that works great for educators and parents and families and students. And so we have a toolkit for that, where we highlight all the action items that that education community could take and parents could take. We back it up with research about what's already working. We also have an online course on this that would be fantastic for educators to take. And we have a student council as well. So this is made up of high school students who are helping their peers understand the dangers of interacting with strangers on the internet, on social media, even just in their local community.

Emy diGrappa: Do you think that people find it unbelievable? Like this can't be real?

Ashleigh: They do. And especially when they hear that 300,000 number for the number of children that we believe are in the hands of traffickers right now in this country, people say that there's no way that could be true. But that's because you're not hearing what's driving some of that. So I was just in a state, and I won't name it, but working with their state leaders because they lost 3000 kids in foster care to the hands of traffickers last year. So this is something that's happening on a grand scale. It's not hitting the news, obviously for many different reasons. And that 300,000 figure has been running strong for several years, but Texas last year did a pretty in depth study of how many victims, just their state alone had and their number is 313,000. So that blew the federal numbers out of the water and everyone's scrambling right now to try to figure it out.

Ashleigh: We have built new technologies, technical solutions, technical training and assistant solutions that help unearth that for cities. And we're rolling that out across the United States later this fall. But it's a very serious problem. Most people don't know it's right in front of their face, but when a child is rescued in this country, just to give you their average placement history in the Midwest, we're looking at a child who has gone through 10 foster care homes, two juvenile detention facilities, one regular hospitalization and one psychiatric hospitalization. And no one ever caught it. So that's how many different systems they presented themselves in before they ended up in the hands of the trafficker. And so it's happening, we're not seeing it and we're not prepared mostly to deal with it well. So we work to help strengthen communities across that whole spectrum.

Emy diGrappa: Do you think the huge immigration that's going on just worldwide, actually, not just between us and Mexico is contributing to it?

Ashleigh: Oh, certainly, yes. Well, it's a vulnerability that traffickers can exploit. So if I've got an individual who's fleeing violence already or terror or whatever it is that's driving them out of their country, then I'm in a pretty desperate situation. Traffickers know that. So they can woo me with promises usually, or else force me through violence. Right? So forced fraud or coercion to get me to think that I'm headed towards something that I was dreaming about, towards safety. And because I don't really have a status, a legal status yet. And when I get to my location and because I don't maybe know the language or because I don't have any kind of support system around me, traffickers exploit that all the day long in the worst possible ways.

Emy diGrappa: Horrifying. I was also just thinking about the fact that a lot of countries have closed their doors to adoption because of human trafficking. Have you heard that?

Ashleigh: Yes. And we've worked with our partners in DC and lobbyists in other countries around those issues before. And it's an unfortunate truth. I helped, I was interning in DC with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption when Haiti had their crisis and traffickers were exploiting that situation. Because so many orphans or children who lost a parent, maybe they had still a parent in the country, but they had become separated because of the chaos, traffickers were selling those children on the black market to families who wanted to adopt them. And they had no idea that this child was not an orphan. And that's happened many places around the world, which is why sometimes we have to shut it down to try to figure out where the corrupting components are before you can open it back up.

Emy diGrappa: So they were actually stealing people's children and then selling them to a couple who actually wanted a baby.

Ashleigh: Yes.

Emy diGrappa: Wow. That is mind boggling. But I was also, just because this is such a huge topic and there's just so many things that you deal with when you say human trafficking, if someone, a young girl, let's say was walking home and from school or work or whatever, is that a situation she puts herself in to be picked up by a trafficker, to be forced into sex slavery or something? Or is that less-

Ashleigh: It's a common question. So the answer is, there are certainly many cases of trafficking that are just true abductions and kidnappings, but most of the trafficking that happens in this country is traffickers who are preying on vulnerable individuals. And that takes time for them to understand. And it's chilling to hear traffickers testimonies on this. Because they'll go to a mall and they can tell immediately which child is maybe lonely, maybe doesn't have a strong family connection, they'll start to build a relationship with that youth or child. And they'll even take their time to do that because they know on the other side of this, if they can get that child to run away from home, get the child to meet them for that party on Friday night when they're going to turn their life into an absolute hell on earth, they're going to make a lot of money.

Ashleigh: So they'll take their time doing that on social media, in public places. And that particularly a vulnerable population are runaway and homeless youth because they're, they may be land in a city that they don't have any kind of connection to. And traffickers, they're usually within 72 hours to offer them food or shelter and then turn the tables.

Emy diGrappa: That is chilling. So you have talked and worked on both sides of it. You've worked with the vulnerable, but you've also talked to actual traffickers who have been in prison or arrested or how do you get in these conversations with them?

Ashleigh: Usually through our network, so we have a, we support a global network of, as I shared earlier, a little over 7,000 organizations. And so many, some of them are working directly on trying to capture the testimonies of traffickers, why they're doing this, what are their tactics? Some traffickers are reformed and they are sharing their stories to try to prevent this from happening again and give insight. So that's a lot of where those testimonies come from.

Emy diGrappa: This doesn't give me much hope in human nature because I hear the horror of human trafficking, but just the fact that there's a market for it, that there's someone on the other side willing to pay for it.

Ashleigh: It's an important point and often missed. So if we have 300,000 kids who are being sold on average of 15 to 20 times a night in this country, I mean do the math, how many individuals are exploiting youth? Not to mention adults or a foreign nationals, which is a very difficult population to count because no one knows quite how to do that or is even focused there because we're focused on youth. So that's a big piece of the prevention. How do you address what we call demand? Is what you're talking about. So how do you go after, not just traffickers but buyers and what laws need to be in place, what reforms need to be in place. Because when I first started out in launching the Alliance, I was having a meeting with some local law enforcement and federal agents. And what was happening in that city at the time, and this was just a few years ago, was a 14 year old who was being trafficked, was being arrested and charged with prostitution.

Ashleigh: The trafficker was never gone after and the man who bought her was fined what he paid to buy her. And that was just how the city was handling it because they did not understand what was truly going on. So it's taking a very long time to try to even set up the reforms that are needed to protect victims, not prosecute them, and to go after the buyers, which is a group that no one is quite focused on ending.

Emy diGrappa: Right. So tell me something hopeful as we end our talk. Tell me something hopeful, please Ashleigh.

Ashleigh: I know. Hey listen, it can be ended, we believe that with all our heart, human trafficking doesn't have to exist in our world today, but we believe it's going to take a world of people to end it. And we also believe that every single soul is uniquely positioned to engage. So a big part of our work is speaking hope. And so when you even go to our website, I think you'll find that that's true. We're not trying to preach a terrible message, we're trying to say this horrific thing exists and it doesn't have to, but you've got to get educated and equipped to engage. And whether you're just a parent who's trying to protect their own kiddos and their friends or whether you're going to go full time into this effort. Our big focus is on helping you understand all that's possible, all that's working because there are beautiful things that are working to stem this. And of course our work is very much focused on what solutions do you build that can help increase the impact of the entire movement to end this.

Ashleigh: So we're going after it aggressively. We're going after it in huge numbers with a massive Alliance of businesses and nonprofits and foundations and faith-based and educational institutions, and the whole. We're just bringing it all to play because I believe it can be ended.

Emy diGrappa: Right. Absolutely. I think that's a great message. And tell me your website again.

Ashleigh: It's engagetogether.com.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. Thank you so much for being here.

Ashleigh: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, a production of ThinkWY Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information go to thinkwy.org.