Halting Human Trafficking from Schoolhouse to State House: An Interview with Danny Papa

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on January 10, 2020

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Since 2010, January 11th has marked National Human Trafficking Awareness Day—and is part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month which runs throughout January in the United States. In a recent interview, I spoke with Danny Papa—a New Jersey-based educator who inspired his middle school students to take leading roles in the movement to end human trafficking from the schoolhouse to the state house. In addition to serving as a K-12 Supervisor for Jefferson Township Public Schools, Papa serves as President of the Board of Trustees and Education Committee Chair for the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

KS: Can you share a working definition of human trafficking and explain how you first became interested in the issue?

DP: A working definition of human trafficking is that there is force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of exploitation, whether it is for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation. I began learning about human trafficking when I was in my mid 20s from a friend of a friend who is the cofounder of an organization called Love 146. He told me about the work he was doing in Southeast Asia where they were rescuing little boys and little girls from brothels where they were being held and exploited for sex. That’s when I first learned about the issue of sex tourism and it completely gripped my heart. I could not believe that existed on planet Earth and I also couldn’t believe that I didn’t know anything about it. That was a few years before I started teaching and I wanted to do something about the issue so I started donating $25 a month to the organization, and I still donate to this day because I really believe in the work they’re doing.

KS: How did you introduce the issue of human trafficking in your classroom?

DP: In fall 2010 during my third year of teaching, I was teaching 8th grade social studies and delivering a lesson on slavery in the Jamestown colony in 1619. I asked my students an opening question: “Does slavery still exist today?” Halfway through the lesson, I said: “I want to show you what modern slavery looks like.” I used the Love 146 website which has an interactive notebook that I would scroll through on my board to introduce the students to the issue. At the end of the lesson on that Friday, a student named Kate approached me and asked me to share the website. I gave the website to her and maybe a couple others. She came back on Monday morning and said “I spent the whole weekend learning about this issue and we have to do something about this...maybe we can start an afterschool club, and in the club determine how we raise awareness here in our school.” And that’s exactly what we did. 

KS: How did you and your students go on to raise awareness within your school?

DP: What we decided was that in the month of March when we were studying the abolitionist movement, we would have a schoolwide campaign which included the students putting the posters up in the school and giving morning announcements on the subject. The students also delivered a lesson to the sixth and seventh grade social studies classes, making connections to our slavery curriculum. I still remember some of my students running up to me afterward and saying “how can we get other students in other schools to learn about this?” So then they decided to start a website. 

We ended up calling the organization Project Staygold and I hired a friend of mine to help us produce videos for the website. We had an event on a Friday night where we invited the public and had over 200 people come. There, the students launched their website, premiered their videos, gave speeches, and presented art to raise awareness. And that night, we invited Kathy Friess who works out of the NJ Attorney General’s Office, and had spent about 15 years prior traveling the state just raising awareness about human trafficking. She came up to me afterward and said “I have never seen anything like this. Your students are unbelievable. Would you be interested in bringing them to the state capitol in Trenton to speak at the first annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day?” 

KS: I understand that your students’ activism quickly expanded beyond your own school community, and that your combined efforts ultimately helped to change the law in New Jersey. What were some key moments along that journey?

DP: The students went and delivered their 45-minute presentation to the packed room at Human Trafficking Awareness Day, and sitting in the front row that day was Attorney General Jeff Chiesa. From that day, so many incredible doors opened up where the students were invited to give presentations and speak at different schools, colleges, faith-based organizations, and community events. We really went all over the state, and we actually went to NYC a few times to do presentations.

Fast forward another year to 2014, the Super Bowl was coming to NJ for the first time and—when you study trafficking in correlation to the Super Bowl—law enforcement sees a spike in trafficking cases. That’s because when you have thousands of people descending on a large metropolitan area, unfortunately there’s a demand for sex services. So our students were very focused on raising awareness. That same year, our senator passed away unexpectedly and Jeff Chiesa was selected to fill the seat on an interim basis. We started meeting with him to discuss these issues and what he decided to do was travel around the state to public schools and address students about internet safety in the context of human trafficking. And he asked two of my students to travel and speak with him. At the same time, he sat on the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. Senate and, as a chairman, initiated a hearing about human trafficking, why it is happening, why it is growing, and what the U.S. Senate can do to help stop it. And he actually asked me to testify before the Senate Committee on behalf of the students which I did. 

Not long after, we launched “Not on Our Turf” which was our Super Bowl campaign. And around the same time, a group of concerned citizens came together to form the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking—also focused on addressing trafficking in NJ around the Super Bowl. I stayed involved with the Coalition afterward and, in 2016, we decided to incorporate as a 501(c)3 and build a board of trustees. Now—in addition to the work I do with the students—I am also the co-chair of the Education Committee and the Board President for the Coalition. 

In March of 2017, a child trafficking awareness bill was introduced in the state assembly. One of my students and I testified in favor of it, and it passed unanimously. In July 2019, Governor Murphy signed the bill into law which will require the Department of Education to provide resources and materials to schools about human trafficking.

KS: Beyond general practices for cultivating safety in the classroom, what targeted strategies would you recommend for introducing human trafficking to students?

DP: I find that young people really connect with stories. Young people can connect to a story of a young person their age, and that’s where the empathy really beings to happen. The experience I’ve had as an educator is that young people have a unique sensitivity to injustice and that is what is missing in so much of social studies education. That’s essentially how we make the world a better place—by empowering our students to see injustice, identify it, and do something about it.

Another strategy has to do with the complexity of teaching human trafficking—or whatever title you want to give it including sexual exploitation of children and sex trafficking. Just hearing those terms—for a teacher, parent, or administrator—can open the door to controversy. But what I’ve learned from my students is that they have been able to articulate this issue in a way that is not controversial and is very easy to understand. Advice I would give another educator is as you are engaging an issue, listen to how your students are talking about it, because they have a way of communicating that educators can learn a lot from.

KS: Can you pinpoint a few top risk factors and signs that someone in your school community may be a victim of human trafficking, and steps individuals can take to address it?

DP: I would say number one is internet safety but there are so many more… The Coalition offers this red flags fact sheet which outlines the signs that schools can look for. For a deeper drive, the U.S. Department of Education developed a longer report for educators and school administrators, “Human Trafficking in American Schools.”

The common age of entry into trafficking in the U.S. is 12 to 14—that’s our middle school students. How do we prevent human trafficking? We educate our young people to look at a lot of these risk factors and warning signs. There is also a lot of misinformation about where and how people are targeted by traffickers. Our wealthiest universities, high schools, and neighborhoods are just as much targets as any other neighborhood. We just watched this film called Doing Money and it was the story of a girl who was trafficked, initially by a woman who would work on behalf of the traffickers to create connections. A woman approaching another woman may not feel intrusive in the way it would if it was an older man. 

There is now a National Human Trafficking Hotline and the hotline number is manned 24/7 by the FBI. That was put into place by an incredible organization out of D.C. called The Polaris Project which tracks the constant calls made into it through their heat map. Though I have the utmost respect for law enforcement, what I’ve found in this work is that many have no idea what human trafficking is. One of the reasons why this crime is able to thrive is because there is such a lack of understanding. 

Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to use our “10 Questions for Young Changemakers” unit designed to help students reflect upon significant instances of student activism, and the ways in which they would like to participate in civic life as individuals.

Access Tools for Educators
IMAGE: Susan Neigher, Susan Panzica, Gina Cavallo, Dr. Lamont Repollet, Danny Papa, Miriam Haimes, Ingrid Johnson (left to right)

Topics: Choosing to Participate, Human Rights, Upstanders, Teachers

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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