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A Q&A with Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation Grant Recipient Celia Williamson

One of the main tenants of the Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation’s work is to fight and eliminate human trafficking in the U.S. In that pursuit, last year the Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation awarded a grant to the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at the University of Toledo, which works to respond to trafficking and social justice through education, relevant research, and community engagement. The organization’s director, Celia Williamson, PhD, talked to us about the Institute’s approach to the issue and how the grant has been put to good use in her work to prevent and combat trafficking.

How did you get into this line of work and end up at the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at the University of Toledo?

Despite my father’s consistent and stable employment with the federal government, my family was redlined into living in a low-income, high-crime area in north Toledo. Three of my friends were trafficked. One was murdered. Despite the happenings in my neighborhood, I was sent to college.

After graduation from a social-work program, I got a job in a community center in my old neighborhood as a social worker. I noticed women in the community involved in street prostitution. I ended up building a relationship with some of them and spent six months on the streets, three days a week, learning about the sex trade, drugs, dope houses, how women kept themselves safe, etc. I ended up learning that many women were abused and exploited when they were under 18. After six months, I built the first direct-service program in Ohio for trafficked and prostituted women called, Second Chance. It won an FBI award for service to victims in 2009.

The Second Chance program involved me doing street outreach to provide food and various information about shelters and programming. I went into the jails and then the juvenile detention center to support survivors. I started running groups and being engaged in more comprehensive case-management work. Years later, I pursued my PhD.

Do you find that people still aren't able to comprehend how big of an issue trafficking is in the US?

Because of the recent awareness-raising news reports and Hollywood movies I believe more and more people are learning the words “human trafficking” but don’t exactly know how it really happens. There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Many believe the sensationalized stories about kidnapping people off the street and chaining people to beds or that there are millions of babies and small children that are trafficked into the sex trade.

Tell us the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute's approach to combatting this issue.

We are most interested in effective work in the areas of prevention and intervention. We do a lot of research and evaluation so that the information we share will be used by those in social service agencies or by policy makers. When shared, we want to make sure it is the best knowledge or programming we can develop because it’s rooted in evaluation and science—not just what we feel or think.

We find that there are a lot of programs and people engaged in a lot of activity. We don’t believe in doing something, we believe in doing the best thing. You can’t manage and solve what you can’t measure, and so we put a lot of work into evaluating our ideas and programs to make sure that victims or survivors and those that care for them are providing them with the best interventions.

How have you put the Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation grant to use in your work?

The Hostetler/Wrigley Foundation grant is helping us to implement the PATH Model (Partners Against Trafficking in Humans). 1.) We have coordinated our community by educating our social service, criminal justice and health-care agencies and staff to understand human trafficking, trauma-informed care, and the PATH Model. 2.) We train and contract with Care Coordinators (e.g. social workers), located in various organizations across the city, who can walk beside and provide comprehensive service to victims. 3.) We educate our general community and coalition members to refer victims or survivors to PATH. We also get referrals from our local FBI, juvenile court, and child-protection agencies. 4.) We assess our victims across 10 critical domains. 5.) We link them with the services they need based on what is found when we complete their individualized assessment. 6.) Our Institute receives all of the data related to their assessment and the service linkages made. We also assess our survivors every six months to determine if their well-being is improving (e.g. if their mental health is improving; if they have housing, etc.). We use our data to also understand barriers so that we can revisit these barriers on our local coalition— made up of 34 difference agencies—so they can make improvements to their services

How do you think this grant has helped you move the needle on this issue?

We identify victims weekly, assess them, build relationships and trust, and walk beside them toward their healing and well-being. We can work with a survivor for up to three years. The Hostetler/Wrigley grant is used to pay for our PATH Coordinator who makes sure that all of this happens. Our data will eventually be used to help other communities to engage in effective work with victims. Our process—although elaborate—helps make the work transparent so we can see what is working. It makes us and our agencies accountable, because we can see what is happening and not happening and can report on what is working and not working. We can also tweak our programs to make them better. This eventually becomes a “best” practice, because we can evaluate our progress. We believe our survivors deserve nothing but the best, and so we try to give that to them.

You were recently nominated to the G100. Can you tell us a little about that distinction?

This is a group of 100 women leaders from around the world who are at the top of their respective industries. I have been nominated as the G100 women engaged in anti-human-trafficking work. These women have the opportunity to speak to the UN, the EU, and various governments.

You've had a lot of success educating your community on trafficking. Can you speak to how you've been able to accomplish that?

Our local coalition, the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition provides human trafficking-focused education to the general public. The Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute provides training to professionals who need to learn to identify victims, intervene, and make referrals.

We also host a global conference called The International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference. We have hosted representatives from 47 different countries and all 50 states. We have approximately 2,000 in attendance each year. And we host a High School Summit. Last year, we hosted high-school aged youth from across nine states. They learn about human rights and human trafficking. This coming year we have attracted former child star Corey Feldman, who will be speaking about the need to protect youth who are in the entertainment industry. He has some great and interesting knowledge about how youth are sexually abused in the entertainment industry and about loopholes in the law that need to be closed to protect children. Chris Hansen from To Catch a Predator and Kai Zen Bickle, the son of billionaire and recently arrested and accused trafficker Peter Nygard, will also be there. Bickle came forward about his father to share with the world the loopholes in the law that allowed his father to abuse and exploit. It is our goal to work with federal legislators to introduce federal legislation to close the loopholes. One of Bill Cosby’s victims will also in attendance at the conference to speak about her victimization.

You've also succeeded at getting local agencies to work collaboratively toward the goal of identifying victims/survivors and helping them. That can be a difficult task—how have you been able to achieve that?

Many in our Institute are social workers, so we engage social-service agencies and train them for free. We also have a great relationship with our local FBI and the local police task force. They have trained all Toledo police officers. We have a diverse local coalition—we train health care-providing agencies, churches, university students, high school students, etc. We use our connections and members of our coalition to train anyone that wants it. We have also trained all of our local transit bus drivers, beauticians, and others.

Your mantra is: “Moving victims to survivors and survivors to thrivers.” Tell us a little about that mantra and what it means.

We focus on working to move victims along a continuum of care and also measuring their recovery so that we can know that someone is truly healing. We connect them to services so basic needs are met—health care, housing, food, clothing, substance-abuse treatment, etc. And we are working to ensure some level of internal healing and well-being is happening so that they can thrive.

To learn more about Williamson’s work, visit