Advocates and community members gathered Monday to call attention to sex trafficking and how to be better prepared to identify it in the Northland.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has proclaimed January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in Duluth, alongside National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month. This year, organizers at the No Wrong Door Northland event Monday focused on training for community groups, leaders and residents in the fight against human trafficking.
"The more individuals we train to spot the signs of sex trafficking, the more people will be on alert to help stop predators who prey on vulnerable teens and adults," Mel Alvar, Safe Harbor Northeast Minnesota regional navigator, said in a news release.
Native American women and girls, in particular, are disproportionately affected by human trafficking in Minnesota, according to a 2011 report, "Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women."
Monday's event at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center in Duluth began with a "red shawl ceremony" and dance to honor all victims and survivors of sexual assault and violence. The ceremony was led by Marcia Kitto, sexual assault advocate for Fond du Lac Human Services.
"Shawls are very powerful for us," Kitto said before about a dozen women performed a round dance along the room's perimeter. "The fringe is said to represent the tears of Indian women crying at the pain and suffering the people have endured for generations. Yet it also represents strength, beauty and solidarity."
One in three Native American women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, Kitto said.
"The phenomenon of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls has been described as a national crisis and has undeniable ties to sexual exploitation and sex trafficking," said Kathy Hermes, youth program coordinator at Lutheran Social Service in Duluth and emcee at Monday's gathering.
Kelly Haffield of the Fond du Lac Tribal Police Department spoke Monday about the task force she commands, Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking, or TRUST.
The task force partners with nine of the state's 11 tribes so far, along with law enforcement in Carlton County.
Haffield said that communication among agencies is crucial.
"The reservations' tribal casinos and hotels are a target for traffickers," Haffield said. "They will use the casinos and hotels to move sex trafficking victims from place to place. If we're not communicating with one another, we are not going to be able to pinpoint and find these traffickers."
TRUST also meets monthly with the three other sex-trafficking task forces in Minnesota, based in the Twin Cities metro area and in St. Cloud, and it has erected a billboard along Interstate 35 in Carlton County to draw motorists' attention to trafficking in Minnesota.
A proclamation from Duluth Mayor Emily Larson stated that sex trafficking affects indigenous people at 10 times the rate of other populations in Northeastern Minnesota. Larson had planned to speak at Monday's event but was asked to attend incoming Gov. Tim Walz's inauguration. Instead, Phil Jents, Duluth community relations officer, read Larson's proclamation and gave remarks.
"Duluth has never been and is not a city that shies away from naming what is difficult and naming what is necessary," Jents said, "and it's always good to see folks filling the room who are willing to take action."
Hermes underlined organizers' goal of helping all community members learn to identify signs of trafficking and work with victims and survivors.
"We must earn this trust," she said. "Actions backed solely by good intentions will fall short. We must inform ourselves, suspend judgment, shed privileged perspective and genuinely look to victims to guide our responses."
While past community efforts have helped build a general awareness of trafficking in the Northland, proactivity is an essential part of the community's response, and that represents a major shift in No Wrong Door Northland's efforts.
"We need to be strategic in reaching out to folks we wouldn't normally be reaching out to," said Adele Yorde, public relations director for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and emcee at last year's event.
Yorde listed, among groups who could benefit from more training, the local medical community, landlords and housing organizations, transportation workers, bar and restaurant staff, shopping center staff, laundromat staff, Canal Park and downtown business workers and gas station attendants. She also asked the crowd to come forward with groups of their own.
"Any one of us might come in contact with someone who has fallen victim to human trafficking," Yorde said. "It's up to us to know the signs and design an appropriate and swift response."
No Wrong Door Northland's is hosting multiple events aimed at community training in the face of sex trafficking, including:
• "Know the Signs: Trafficking Education for Health Care," 12-1 p.m. Tuesday at Essentia Health-Duluth's Miller-Dwan Building, 502 E. Second St. Registration at surveymonkey.com/r/EndItDuluth.
• "Know the Signs: Trafficking Education for Housing Staff," 1-3 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center, 202 W. Second St.
• "Brave Art" exhibition, 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center.