When I was awarded my Fellowship last year, one of my colleagues, who would become a close friend and mentor, told me, “Buckle up, this is going to be a game changer.”
A game changer it has been. A year ago I was an associate attorney at a law firm in Bismarck, ND, working on education, family and criminal law. I was thrilled to have received a Fellowship from the Bush Foundation, and planned to continue working as an attorney, but to reduce my caseload by a quarter, to make room for the study of the incidence of and trends in human trafficking in North Dakota.
As a bit of background - from my days researching human trafficking, working abroad with an outreach programs in red light districts in Thailand, and as a policy fellow with Polaris Project, I saw major warning signs regarding trafficking in my state. North Dakota, as is often noted in the national media, was in the midst of ‘boom,’ due to hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ leading to massive oil production ramping up in our state. With that production came a massive influx of workers in the rural northwestern part of our state. Oil workers weren’t the only element attracted to the state of North Dakota. Following the massive influx of predominantly male workers, we saw a huge influx of the commercial sex industry (not to say it hadn’t been present in North Dakota prior to the boom). When I was awarded my Fellowship, there was virtually no coordinated response or collaboration going on in North Dakota to respond to commercial sexual exploitation. There was also virtually no understanding of the depth and scope of the problem we faced. So I aimed to use my Bush resources to dive in, and do what I could to gain an understanding of the situation.
As my mentor had predicted, my plans were all set to change. Shortly after my Fellowship was announced publicly I was contacted by a coalition of non-profits that were seeking to start a statewide anti-trafficking coalition. Long story short, within three months of starting my fellowship, I had been hired as the Coordinator of FUSE (a Force to End hUman Sexual Exploitation) – the statewide anti-trafficking coalition in North Dakota.
So I was thrown full speed ahead into building a collaborative response to human trafficking in North Dakota. The stated purpose of my fellowship really became integrated into my full time job, which has truly been one of the most engaging and rewarding experiences of my life.
I have had the incredible opportunity to travel to all corners of North Dakota, talking to and training law enforcement. I spent a week in Los Angeles in August 2014 to connect with national leaders from CAST, Saving Innocence, the LAPD and the Alliance for Children’s Justice about their programs and collaborations. I spent two weeks in November traveling to Seattle and San Francisco to attend conferences with national non-profit leaders, founders and entrepreneurs. I was able to spend two days with the rest of my Fellowship Cohort last summer, which was an absolutely incredible and humbling experience, to see the reach and impact of the Bush Fellowship Program. I count myself very fortunate to be amongst this group of accomplished leaders.
In all of these experiences, I have learned an incredible amount. On the topic of my fellowship - human trafficking - I have learned that assessing trafficking in North Dakota was not as simple as uncovering or collecting information or interviewing law enforcement or service providers. I learned that many of the people on the front lines of the social services and law enforcement in North Dakota needed training and empowerment to learn to even identify whether or not trafficking victims are in their caseloads. So much of my desire to understand the nature of human trafficking in North Dakota was rolled into a desire to see people trained and educated on the issue of human trafficking. I have been encouraged by the desire to learn and respond to the issue that I consistently see in my state. I made the assumption that our state agencies would have identified this as a threat and taken steps to train their employees. I have found instead that FUSE and its member organizations have really been at the forefront of bringing the issue of commercial sexual exploitation to the consciousness of some of these agencies or to facilitate the education of the various involved systems. That process has been, for the most part, an encouraging and enriching one.
The nature of my new job has also required that I learn about the art of collaboration, which is a continual challenge. As the Coordinator of FUSE, I work with representatives from 25 different organizations, many of whom have different backgrounds, experiences and opinions on appropriate responses and philosophies. I have utilized some of my Bush funding to begin to dive into this topic. My initial study caused me to realize that much of our work and approach was done without any real effort to assess community needs, desire to engage in the work, etc. So I have made it a goal to incorporate community needs assessments into our work to make sure we appropriately form responses, and don’t assume we know what various communities need to do this work.
I’ve also tried to take time to with my Bush resources to critically evaluate areas for personal growth as a leader. I’ve been long frustrated by my tendency to procrastinate, and after conscious reflection, have begun to see that tendency as an anxious, rather than lazy, behavior. Coming to this realization has changed my approach to working at overcoming procrastination, in that I now try to examine why the particular activity causes me anxiety, and to own that, face it down, and get back to work.
Overall, the Bush Fellowship has enabled me to transition into a role as a leader in the social justice and non-profit sectors in North Dakota and to devote my time and energy to a human rights cause that I care deeply about. I’ve also been continually encouraged and challenged by the Bush staff not to lose focus on my personal growth through this process. I am excited to move into the second year of my Fellowship and to find additional learning opportunities, and new areas for growth.