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Interview with Rachel Harmon

Where are you from? 

I'm from Atlanta, Georgia (which I happen to think is the best city in the US)

 

What field of work are you in?

 I'm a PhD candidate at Emory University (defending this summer!) where my research focuses on human trafficking, conflict, and the politicization of anti-trafficking work. I am a pre-doctoral teaching fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year and teach classes at a state prison for women about topics including research design, human rights and gender. In addition to that, I volunteer with Free for Life International and help run the scholarship and mentorship program offered there. 

 

Tell us a little more about the Scholarship and Mentorship Program you co-founded! 

I can sum up the scholarship and mentorship program with two terms: community and career readiness. A few years ago I realized, after working in the anti-trafficking space for several years, that many survivors of human trafficking are not eligible for most traditional academic scholarships. Most survivors I work with are first-generation college students, and entering higher education can be daunting. Add in the fact that many scholarships have GPA or extracurricular requirements, and these conditions create scholarships that are largely inaccessible for survivors who had very limited previous educational opportunities. Educational assistance for survivors was often being provided on an ad hoc basis to individual survivors by nonprofits, but I couldn't find any program dedicated to walking through the higher education journey with survivors. I knew I had located a major gap in services for survivors, and I could also be part of the solution. I've been involved with Free for Life International, a nonprofit dedicated to identifying and assisting survivors, for many years, and the Executive Director had noticed the same problematic dynamic in higher education access. So, we brainstormed and came up with the idea of starting the scholarship program as one of FFLI's programs. We raised a few thousand dollars to start with just one initial scholarship awarded in the summer of 2018. That single scholarship has grown enormously over the past few years, with fourteen scholarships awarded this past semester, and we expect to receive several dozen applications this coming fall. In the beginning the Executive Director at FFLI and I were personally providing mentorship for each of the recipients, but we quickly realized that that model wasn't sustainable. We were stretched thin as the program grew, and didn't have the expertise needed as scholarships were awarded to survivors entering specialized fields (for example, one recipient studied welding, something we knew nothing about!). To remedy that gap we added a mentorship component to the program that matches survivors with a career mentor. Some students need mentors in their specific field, while other students need support with more general skills like time management and interview practice. All students benefit from having a mentor in their life who encourages them by cheering them on in their victories and making space for them in hard moments. We have a detailed application, background check, and training process to ensure that survivors are matched with mentors they can trust. Building healthy, trusting relationships is really the heart of the program - this is how we build community. I'm so proud of what the scholarship recipients have accomplished; many are overcoming fears they've had about going back to school, some are now honors students, and several are raising kids while juggling other responsibilities. I think three things in particular make the scholarship and mentorship program really special. First, recipients can continue to receive funding and mentorship throughout their degree or certificate program, making it a long-term investment in their success. Survivors can select any accredited degree or certificate program at any institution, which reinforces their agency in determining the next steps for their lives when their choices have been taken from them in the past. Second, setbacks are part of life, and we work with recipients to get back on track if they don't pass one term rather than pulling support from them. And third, the program is designed to include the two types of support that are most helpful in reducing the risk of retraumatization for survivors. We build community through mentorship, and survivors are prepared for meaningful career opportunities as they complete a degree or certificate program with the skills they need to be successful on the job market. Several students have already graduated from the program and three more are set to graduate at the end of this semester. I'm very excited to be attending a graduation party for one of the recipients this summer (depending on COVID vaccination availability of course!). 

 

What do you love about the work you do?

 I love that I have found ways to connect my professional work in research and teaching to the work I do with Free for Life International for the scholarship and mentorship program. Academia can be a bubble of privilege, and that privilege goes to waste if you don't actively find ways to orient your work to be community-facing. I try my best to ground my work in this question, "To whom do the benefits of my work accrue?" If the answer to that question is just myself and my institution, then I'm missing the mark. I'm so grateful I work in a field that I love; I think there are few things in life more joyous than seeing a student gain confidence and passion for a topic and knowing you are helping them translate that passion into skills that can change the world. 

 

What’s the most challenging part of your work?

 The most challenging part of my work tends to be the mental stress I place on myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to do the most I can for the survivors who trust us to walk with them. The need applicants have is greater than funding availability every semester, and I hate when we can't offer the financial support a survivor needs to attend school. I struggle to remind myself that knowing the program can't do enough for every need yet isn't the same thing as I am not enough as a person. 

 

Are there any misconceptions about your line of work that you'd like to debunk? 

There are so many myths about human trafficking out there! One of the most common, and most harmful, is the idea that traffickers usually kidnap unknown people. It is rare for traffickers to kidnap a stranger; if you see a thread being shared on Facebook about an attempted kidnapping in a store parking lot, it is almost never a trafficking situation, despite what people assume. This is a dangerous misconception, because it leaves people unprepared to address actual risks. Traffickers typically groom potential victims by building a relationship with them first because they are looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. This is why having community is so important in preventing trafficking: if a person has a strong community of support who will speak up when they see an unhealthy relationship being formed then a trafficker is unlikely to continue to pursue that person. Additionally, it is important to note that anyone can be trafficked, but research shows that women and girls of color, LGBTQ+ youth, youth in the foster care system, undocumented Americans, and people experiencing homelessness are at higher risk of being trafficked. This is because of institutional, systemic, and community failures to provide the support these individuals need that leave them vulnerable to exploitation. Solutions to prevent and end trafficking need to take this into account. For example, we can't eliminate human trafficking without also addressing homelessness, because housing insecurity is a vulnerability that traffickers exploit. 
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Biggest accomplishment in 2020?  

My biggest accomplishment in 2020 was being selected for and starting a pre-doc fellowship teaching at a state prison for women. This had been a goal of mine for a couple years and getting to teach students who are excited to learn is such a joy for me. A runner-up accomplishment was speaking at a conference about my experiences as an autistic individual in higher education. I used to be uncomfortable with that aspect of my identity (thanks, internalized ableism), but over the past few years I've learned to be proud to be part of the autistic community and I'm excited to continue to speak at future events as a member of that community. 
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How can our community get involved (resources, donating, reading, etc..) 

The Brass community can be part of supporting survivors of human trafficking in four ways. First, you can make a donation to the scholarship program directly by visiting www.freeforlifeintl.org. When you give you have the option to send your gift directly to a survivor scholarship. Second, we are currently looking for additional career mentors to start later this year. Email me at rachel.harmon@freeforlifeintl.org for more information. Third, learn more about human trafficking; www.polarisproject.org is a great source to start learning about trafficking in the US, and www.globalslaveryindex.org provides a global perspective. Fourth, follow organizations like @freeforlifeintl on social media and engage with their content. Comment on posts, attend webinars, and invite friends to engage as well. 

 

Favorite way to unwind after a long day? 

I've picked up a new way to relax over the past few months: rock climbing. I love how it requires complete focus. Whatever stress was on my mind that day falls away awhile I focus on the route I'm attempting. I had never thought of myself as physically strong or athletic before, and I love that I have challenged that assumption about myself. Plus, my work is mainly at a computer or phone right now and climbing helps my mind and body both feel tired and ready for bed.