Stopping Traffic

USD Professor Ami Carpenter


As an associate professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, Ami Carpenter specializes in conflict prevention and resolution. Like most San Diegans, her knowledge of human trafficking and its grip on San Diego was relatively superficial back in 2010, when she was invited to use her negotiating skills to help a disparate group of community stakeholders figure out how to face the growing challenge.

“I got brought into this small group of people who represented different sectors, who understood they needed to work together but didn’t really know how,” Carpenter (pictured above) says. “I came in as a conflict resolution analyst to help the conversation move forward. That’s what I did for two years.”

By the end of those two years, the group — which included law enforcement, social service providers, victim rights advocates and others — managed to form a countywide umbrella advisory council. And Carpenter, along with Professor Jamie Gates of Point Loma Nazarene University, became co-chairs of its subcommittee on research and data.

“I asked District Attorney Summer Stephan, ‘What can Jamie and I do? We’re academics. We study numbers,’” Carpenter remembers. “And she said, ‘We need numbers. We know there’s a problem, but we don’t know the scope of the problem.’”

What she and Gates uncovered during their seminal three-year study revealed much bigger numbers and a much more daunting problem than almost anyone expected. Their findings also shattered some widespread misconceptions: that perpetrators are more often black, that the issue is mainly tied to organized gang activity and that it most often involves smuggling people across the border.

The study found that human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children existed in every part of the San Diego region and estimated the scale of the region’s underground sex economy at $810 million a year. Its perpetrators and victims included people from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, with a relatively even split between white, black and Hispanic facilitators. One hundred percent of the 20 schools they surveyed had evidence of sex trafficking connected to students, in both wealthy and impoverished neighborhoods.

“The first thing that happened was, we got a lot of press coverage,” Carpenter says. “And we did that intentionally because we wanted to raise awareness.”

Awareness led to action. Some 30 state and local bills written in its wake mentioned data revealed in the study. Among the most impactful: a new state law that decriminalized child prostitution and one that mandated the inclusion of sex trafficking awareness education in middle and high schools across California.

In San Diego, an anti-trafficking curriculum is now offered in elementary schools as well. It’s funded entirely by venture philanthropy and the private sector through a new partnership called the San Diego Trafficking Prevention Collective. USD’s Division of Professional and Continuing Education is providing continuing education units at a reduced cost to teachers who train in the curriculum. The model is the first of its kind in the nation.

It’s all very encouraging, Carpenter says. But still, she adds, “To this day, the average San Diegan does not know we have a human trafficking problem. And if they do, they still think it’s people being trafficked across the border.” In fact, 80 percent of victims are born in the United States.

Now, a bold new initiative, spearheaded by USD’s School of Law and the Kroc School, aims to not only continue increasing awareness, but to bring the university’s considerable resources together in a formal way to combat human trafficking on multiple fronts.

“As an institution, USD has had pockets of work being done to help address the issue,” says Jessica Heldman ’04 (JD), Fellmeth-Peterson Professor in Residence in Child Rights. “So about a year ago, we began to bring together folks from different schools on campus to talk about how USD could have even more of an impact on this issue.”

 At the School of Law, attorneys at the Children’s Advocacy Institute had already sponsored key legislation and were involved in the creation of San Diego County’s Resiliency Is Strength and Empowerment Court, conceived specifically to work with child victims of sex trafficking. In the fall of 2019, Heldman teamed up with her colleague, Professor Bridget Gramme ’98 (BA), ’03 (JD), and Jamie Beck ’11 (JD) to offer a semester-long clinic, using a human-centered design model to target solutions. 

“We’re doing a lot of exercises in class around empathy,” Heldman says. “Interviewing survivors and stakeholders so we can be better informed about how to help and be more connected as a source of support.”

Beck left a lucrative corporate position to found Free To Thrive, a nonprofit that provides legal and social support to human trafficking survivors. She also runs workshops in the community and, with the help of some key partners, puts a human face on the crisis. 

“With an issue like homelessness, you can walk down the street and see homeless people and know that’s a problem our community needs to address. You don’t walk down the street and see human trafficking,” Beck says. “It’s something that happens so under the radar; those that are in it don’t even know they’re in it.”

Beck works hand in hand with lived-experience experts: people who have been in the “game,” as they call it, and now work to make a difference in the lives of those who are still there or at risk of being drawn in.

Armand King, a former exploiter, grew up in southeast San Diego, in a neighborhood where he says gang membership was not optional. What started out as his crew of partiers and dancers in early high school led to human trafficking as a logical way to pay the bills — encouraged, he says, by hip-hop lyrics and the 1999 HBO documentary, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down.

“I was a member of the crack baby generation. We saw what happened, the devastation to our family and community,” he says. “We were all lost, with no opportunities and no resources. The documentary showed me another option. We idolized the people in it. Then we started hearing the same pimps in the music.

Former exploiter Armand King

Paving Great Futures Co-Founder Armand King.

Being a pimp or a prostitute became cool, King says. The girls thought so, too.

“If you weren’t involved in the life, you were scum. And that was across the board, male and female.”

His involvement lasted years, including a three-year stint in federal prison for marijuana conspiracy. When he finally quit the game for good, King decided to take his acquired entrepreneurial skills back to his old neighborhood, where he put them to better use.

“It was like a responsibility was now on my shoulders to do something with the younger kids who were following in our footsteps,” he says. “We knew what needed to be done because we were those people. We started having meetings in garages, rec centers, on the street. I just knew they needed somebody to look up to. That person that I didn’t have.”

King estimates his nonprofit, Paving Great Futures, has helped thousands of children and adults by either putting them on the right path, or preventing them from taking the wrong one.

“Now we use hip-hop as a Trojan horse, to teach them how to be good young men,” he says. “We show adults that their lives are not a waste. We teach them how to apply their entrepreneurial skills to other stuff.”

They host an annual hip-hop event, bringing rappers and children together for a seminar and contest. They hold turkey drives and toy drives that amplify their message on the ground, while impacting countless others through social media. King also hosts a
podcast called Raised in Pimp City and has written a book by the same name.

“Our reach is gigantic,” he says.

Jaimee Johnson lived the experience from the other side. Her upbringing in northern San Diego was very different from King’s, geographically and socially.

“I wasn’t really aware that this whole lifestyle was going on. I would say lack of awareness made me kind of naive to the situation,” she says. “I was a young mom, I’d recently lost my job and I was separated from my kids’ father at the time.”

Vulnerable and verging on broke, Johnson met a man who offered an alternative.

“I had bills piling up, and he told me I could make this amount of money every day. So that became a good idea in my head.”

Johnson’s life in and out of prostitution and in and out of jail lasted about seven years. The lower she sank, the harder it was to hoist herself out of the pit. “Society was giving me fewer and fewer options. I didn’t want to be there anymore but I didn’t know what else to do. I had a big gap in my job history, I lacked education, social status and social skills. I wasn’t comfortable around people who weren’t in the hustling lifestyle.” And although she now knows help was available, she had no idea how to access it at the time.

Sisters of the Street Founder Jaimee Johnson

Sisters of the Street Founder Jaimee Johnson.

“Looking back now, that’s really how I got into the game. There were resources for single moms, there were resources for military wives. I was a military wife. I just didn’t know.”

Her life began to change when she decided to share bits of her story online.

“I started telling myself things I wished people were telling me. Affirmations that I needed to hear. And little by little, people started messaging me.”

Johnson launched an informal ministry, which eventually blossomed into her own nonprofit, Sisters of the Streets. Like King, Johnson works by reaching out to the community she left. She goes back to the streets without judgment, initiating conversations and letting people know she’s there if they need her. She and her volunteers hand out purses filled with useful provisions that can improve their daily lives.

“I think back to when I was trying to transition. There was nobody coming to tell me where the resources were. There was nobody doing outreach when I was on the street,” Johnson says. “I tell them, ‘You don’t need to change what you’re doing. But if you need some food for today or a hotel or whatever, here’s my number. And if you need a friend, you can call me.’”

Johnson also runs seminars and additional outreach programs aimed at empowering women and young girls, educating the public and helping those who decide to leave to create stable life situations that prevent them from going back. She too hosts a podcast, called Rebel Roze.

What Johnson and King strongly believe is that the route to positive change runs through people like them, rather than through theoretical experts who mean well but lack emotional connection. They say academics or social service providers who really want to make a difference need to partner with those who have lived the life.

“We have to stop putting a blanket scope on human trafficking. There are so many different types, and we need to approach each one on an individual basis,” Johnson says. “We need to bring ourselves into the space of the person that we view as a demon and start recognizing that in each person, there is a piece of us.” She adds, “I don’t really feel like our job is to change the system, because the system is not going to change. But we do need to create new systems.”

Approaching the issue with empathy is a cornerstone of the clinic that USD’s Heldman and Gramme teach. Another class, taught by two assistant U.S. attorneys for the past six years, uses a more traditional lens.

Andrew Haden ’08 (JD) and Alessandra Serano are both experts: Haden is chief of the Violent Crimes and Human Trafficking Section in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego and Serano currently works as senior counsel to the assistant attorney general, Office of Legal Policy, creating a strategic plan with the White House and other federal agencies to address human trafficking across the U.S. and abroad.

“It really focuses primarily on three pillars: prosecution, prevention and protection,” Serano says. “The prosecution piece is what we do. But the prevention and protection portions are just as important.” “Several of our students told us that our class is a prerequisite to do an internship for Jamie Beck’s Free To Thrive,” Haden says. “And so you see people inspired in the space to help build out one of the legs of the stool. And the investment starts to feed on itself. In the course we teach, we’re training prosecutors to prosecute, defense attorneys to protect the rights of the accused, and we’re training people who will become future victim and survivor advocates.”

The aim now is to take the work beyond these classrooms, by devising a university-wide strategy that will draw on the expertise available in each of USD’s schools and apply it in the communities where it is most needed: in partnership with people like Johnson, King and Beck, who are already out there building a formidable foundation. It’s a bold undertaking, but it exemplifies USD’s role as a Changemaker institution.

“Just pulling together what tends to sometimes feel like silos, pulling them into a conversation, that to me is a first step,” says Gramme. “It’s not just a legal issue or a health care issue. It’s business and engineering and social work and education. We have such a wealth of expertise on campus. Let’s create some unity around an issue that’s clearly important to all of us.” — Karen Gross

Illustrations by Neil Shigley

One Response
  1. This is such an insightful article – I look forward to bringing this awareness to compel the action needed to end human trafficking at our upcoming See It End It Film & Arts Festival in LA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *