BRISTOL, Tenn. — About 20 women crouched on the sidewalk outside the Sullivan County Regional Health Department on Friday, filling sidewalk cracks with red sand.
The visual symbolized people whose oppression is often hidden in plain sight: victims of human trafficking.
Rachel Dean, the department’s community service director, explained that July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.
“We know this is an issue across our country, across our state and here in East Tennessee as well,” Rachel Dean, the Health Department’s community service director, said before the sand pouring commenced.
The group included Health Department staff and employees from YW CARES, Branch House Family Center, the Children’s Advocacy Center of Sullivan County and the Knoxville-based Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT). Many wore red to match the bright lines that soon veined the sidewalk.
The Red Sand Project is an international movement that raises awareness about human trafficking through its signature sidewalk installations. Friday’s event was one of several taking place in the region and marked Sullivan County’s third year of participating.
“It’s ... not just an international problem but also a local problem,” Gabi Smith, a community care liaison for CCAHT, said of human trafficking. “The Red Sand Project is just meant to symbolize all the individuals who have fallen through the cracks.”
Smith said that CCAHT serves both adult and youth survivors of human trafficking in East Tennessee, along with offering a variety of trainings about how to spot it.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t be able to catch what’s going on,” she said. “It’s not really a snatch-and-grab type of thing that the media makes it out to be. It’s more of a grooming process.”
By grooming, Smith meant the process by which a trafficker ensnares a victim. According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that combats sex and labor trafficking in North America, it typically starts with a trafficker spotting and honing in on a person who seems vulnerable for some reason: experiencing poverty, for example, or having a parent who struggles with drug or alcohol abuse, or belonging to a historically marginalized group of people.
The trafficker cultivates that person’s trust and makes them feel safe, then starts isolating, exploiting and exercising intense control over them.
“Things to look out for, especially in youth trafficking, [are] a very controlling adult, risky behaviors [in young people] like running away, being unsafe online.”
She said that tattoos can also be a clue: Traffickers sometimes brand victims with them to broadcast who they “belong” to.
One of the most common factors to look for is social, Smith said. If a person is struggling to meet basic needs and lacks a good support network, they’re more at risk of being trafficked.
“A lot of the kids that we see are kids who are in the [child welfare] system who don’t really have another option but to take off,” Smith said. “And once they do, they find themselves in a predicament. … ‘How am I going to pay for food? How am I going to pay for shelter?’ And they make themselves very easy targets for traffickers. And it’s the same thing with adults [who wind up trafficked].”
According to Polaris, there were 11,500 cases of human trafficking identified in the U.S. in 2019. Dean said that 180 of those cases happened in Tennessee.
“We know that victims of trafficking face all sorts of issues — physical issues as well as health problems,” she said. “We just want to be able to help those in our community who might be dealing with those types of issues, as well as just provide awareness to the community as far as ... what you can do to help combat [human trafficking].”