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Critical perspective: Human trafficking discussed at Nov. 4 event

October 26, 2010

Michael Stancliff rattles off the myths of human trafficking: slavery is a thing of the past, slavery and human trafficking are not problems in this country, human trafficking and human smuggling are the same thing, all human trafficking is sex trafficking.

How to begin to dispel the myths and address the issue is a much larger exercise.

A step in that direction takes place at Arizona State University’s West campus on Nov. 4 when Grace Chang, associate professor in the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, presents “This is What Human Trafficking Looks Like: Sex Work, Immigration and Transnational Feminist Perspectives,” at 7 p.m. in the La Sala Ballroom in the University Center Building.

The event is free to the community; parking at the West campus is $2 per hour.

“This lecture is important because it brings a critical perspective to an issue that has quickly become a pressing matter of human rights and social justice in this country and globally,” said Stancliff, an assistant professor in the Division of Humanity Arts and Cultural Studies in ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. “Professor Chang will challenge the dominant paradigm that structures both national and international approaches to human trafficking; that these approaches risk mis-identifying and criminalizing trafficked people and misconstruing their actual needs.”

Chang, who received her master's and doctorate degrees in ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy” (South End Press, 2000). The book is a study of how the feminization of poverty is being globalized; poor women of the Third World don’t immigrate voluntarily, but do so from necessity, following the flow of resources out of their countries to the First World, where they become exploitable commodities, disposed of when they are no longer needed.

“There is a complacency surrounding human trafficking outside of sex and child trafficking that is disappointing," Chang said. “Other forms, such as trafficking in the agricultural industry, domestic work, elder care – there’s a disconnect that isn’t just tied to awareness, but, sadly, it doesn’t seem to spark the same moral outrage.

“But anyone can be a part of the solution,” she said. “The beauty of education is that you can become educated about the issue of human trafficking and then spread the awareness about these social justice and human rights aspects among your friends and co-workers. I always say issues that at the core are complex are not ungraspable, that people can get their minds around them.”

Chang said she first developed an interest in human rights as a young mother of two pursuing her doctoral degree at Cal.

“I was dealing with raising a family and working on my Ph.D., and my own mother said to me that I could find an ‘old Chinese lady’ – and I’m Chinese! – to do the housework and that I wouldn’t have to pay much.

“I looked around and I saw, just like I saw in New York earlier in my life, an entire slave force made up of mostly poor women of color. That sparked my interest. In terms of my specific focus, I initially avoided the question of human trafficking because it was such a big mess in feminist circles. But I saw what was being done by some in feminist scholarship and politics wasn’t working, was unhelpful, to say the least, so I jumped into the fray.”

Chang sounds a cautionary note to those prepared to take the same jump.

“Anti-trafficking has many components,” she said. “Oftentimes, those who carry the anti-trafficking banner miss the mark when it comes to actually helping the survivors; they further the misguided rhetoric without helping the actual victims.

“Be careful what you put your money, your time or your energy into," she said. "Dig deeper and know that the majority of the human trafficking abuses that exist are in industries where most people don’t even realize it is going on.”

Stancliff, who teaches courses on slavery and human trafficking in the New College MA program in social justice and human rights graduate degree program, said the human trafficking discussion is particularly relevant based on the Valley’s proximity to the U.S.-Mexican border.

“The Phoenix area is said to be a human trafficking hotspot,” he said. “While the data is still being gathered, it is certain that being positioned on a national border, and with one of the nation’s largest refugee communities, all of us in Phoenix should be thinking carefully about human trafficking and efforts to stop it. The fear for many is that in our diligent efforts to address trafficking, we tend to forget larger issues of vulnerability that put people at risk in the first place, beginning with issues of economic justice and immigration.

“Dr. Chang’s presentation is an opportunity to consider the crimes and complexities of human trafficking; she is particularly interested in advocating for the rights of immigrants and sex workers whose lives are impacted by trafficking and anti-trafficking policy.”

According to the Arizona League to End Human Trafficking, more than 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually and enslaved in conditions that are abusive, exploitative, inhumane and illegal. They are mostly economically disadvantaged men, women and children from around the world.

“This is What Human Trafficking Looks Like” is presented by New College and its Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies; the master's degree program in social justice and human rights, and the New College Center for Critical Inquiry and Cultural Studies. The center, launched earlier this year, supports faculty members as they cross disciplinary boundaries and engage in socially relevant research. It features five research clusters: Oral History; Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Literature; Sexuality in Practice and Theory; Public Art Challenge; and Law and Governance, Practice and Discipline. More clusters are expected to be added as the center grows in the coming years.

For more information, contact Michael Stancliff via email at or call 602-543-5105.

ASU’s West campus is located at 4701 West Thunderbird Road in northwest Phoenix.