Human trafficking has recently had a big spotlight in the media, and our personal hero, Brianna Chaves, works to raise awareness for human trafficking, and has also worked at a shelter for survivors of trafficking. We recently spoke with Brianna about how she found herself working for this important cause, and she even shared a heartbreaking survivor story with us.
What you do for a living, how did you choose your career, and how you got to where you are today?
I am the Project Director of New Hope Foundation International (NHFI). We are a non-profit dedicated to strengthening communities through education on different humanitarian issues. In Las Vegas, we are most known for our human trafficking awareness work. My role as Project Director is to oversee our awareness campaigns, training and develop our international programs.
In terms of choosing this career, well, I didn’t exactly choose it. I think I had a general idea of the kind of field I wanted to work in but couldn’t exactly envision the specifics. When I graduated high school (in 2005) I had a dream to open an arts NPO in an urban area and empower youth through mastering their talents. I was always drawn to service. Well, shortly after graduating, I decided to go on a kind of spiritual journey and that road took me on a few different paths. I traveled the US, was a missionary for some time, studied different world views, and eventually years later, I settled back in Los Angeles and started college. The short version of the story is that along the way, I found that my passion was really about having a purposeful life, giving to my community and living for something bigger than myself. So that led me to Sociology, where I developed my passion for, I guess what we now call, “social justice”.
While I was studying at UCLA, my mentor, who is the founder of NHFI, asked me to get involved with a documentary he was working on about human rights violations happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC is one of the most mineral rich countries in the world and has vast amounts of other natural resources that could give the DRC endless opportunities and abilities to change the entire continent. Unfortunately, this coupled with decades of tyranny, have created a horrendous situation in the DRC. Looting and pilfering of the land, armed rebel groups, child soldiery, murder, rape and the list continues. As soon, as I heard about the atrocities, I couldn’t ignore it.
I joined the research team and focused on women’s issues in the Congo, specifically how women were being victimized in this war of resources. How rape was used as a weapon of war. At that time, the DRC was seen as the number 1 place for murder of women and children, so you can imagine the horrific stories I became very accustomed to learning about. I continued this research for over a year, and I was offered a full time position at NHFI after I graduated.
I moved to Las Vegas and continued my work as a researcher. At that same time, NHFI began holding community forums about sexual violence in our global community and this is how our human trafficking awareness project started. We were very much aware about human trafficking on a global scale, looking at third world countries mostly. It’s a huge problem in the the DRC also. However, we didn’t realize that it was affecting our own community in Las Vegas, or at least to the degree that it actually was.
While organizing on this broader issue, we started to meet survivors, community leaders and organizations that were talking about human trafficking in Las Vegas. Being an NPO with a history in film and media, we decided to dive in and make a documentary so that we could educate ourselves and the community at large. We released Surviving Sin City in 2013, and that ignited what is now our human trafficking awareness project.
For a long time, I worked on both projects. Eventually, my focus switched and I took on more of a leadership role in the human trafficking project and that’s in essence how I got to where I am today.
Are there any survivor stories you can share that have really stuck with you?
Yes, absolutely. There are many, and often times those stories, the survivors themselves rather, are the reasons why you decide to keep fighting, keep doing the work. I will share one. A few years ago, I was living and working in Baja California (Mexico). We (NHFI) decided to expand some of our outreach and preventative efforts to the border region. So I moved to Tijuana to get a better understanding of human trafficking in that area – and how the international border affected all of this.
I had the honor of working alongside Alma Tucker, President of International Network of Hearts (INH). INH is a bi-national NPO that fights human trafficking on all fronts – prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership. They also operate two safe homes for child survivors of human trafficking in Baja California. The time I spent in Baja was life changing.
All of the children at these homes have incredible stories, but I will just highlight one for now. Years ago, Alma received a report from a community member about possible human trafficking with some students. Upon investigation she found out the two sisters had been talking about “modeling” and inappropriate photo shoots. These two very young girls were actually being trafficked by their mother for drug money. She (their mother) was often selling them to American men who would pay $100 for one hour with one of the girls in a hotel room. These two sisters were placed in Alma’s care, and in time it was discovered that these two sisters had other younger siblings that were also being abused and likely trafficked. When I first arrived in Mexico, it was a few months after one of the younger siblings had been rescued. She was six years old then, and I remember her big eyes strolling around the home with her stuffed animal. Later, Alma rescued their brother and she is still fighting to save their youngest sibling today. Tracking their mother has proven a challenge, but Alma and her team are dedicated to reunite all of the siblings.
The life of these children is not something most of us can imagine. How can a mother view her children as a commodity to sell? How do children survive this?
The reason I’m sharing this story is not because of the trauma they experienced or the fact that it was a family member who trafficked them (which we tended to see a lot of in the region). I’m sharing this story because of the survivors themselves, and the how they changed my life, my perspective. If you just happened to have met them and never knew their story, you would probably never know. These children are so full of life. They love to laugh and smile with no hesitation. They love to sing and dance and play sports. They have so much zest for life and they dream. They dream about their futures and having a family and helping others. Each day is new and exciting and hopeful. Of course there’s a healing process but they are so amazingly resilient. They are a true testament to the human spirit, and a reminder to look at ourselves, to be humble and to be grateful. A reminder of grace and gratitude for life. I learned so much from them.
Are you into true crime? If so, was there a case that got you into true crime or that has really stuck with you?
YES! I was always intrigued by true crime, but it took me a while to make space for it, so to speak. For a long time, I refrained from watching those types of shows just because the nature of my work is very heavy, especially when working on cases or researching cases.
I have a group of friends who are indie developers, they make detective games for PC. I have known them for years and watched their company grow. Recently, they consulted with me about their communications and marketing strategies. I agreed to come on board in my free time to help with some ideas and implementation. To get a better understanding of their first game, The Painscreek Killings, they had me watch the show, The Killing.
It totally hooked me! My friends modeled the investigative process used in the show for the game, so they wanted me to see and understand that. I loved that they took four seasons to unravel the whole case and who killed Rosie. The way that all the other stories and secrets were revealed was also very captivating.
An interesting side note too, my friends (EQ Studios) experienced a robbery while creating this game, and they had an opportunity to talk to the detectives assigned to their case, and they said the show The Killing was the show (at the time) that most accurately depicted their life as detectives.
Where can our readers find you? Are there social media accounts you would like them to follow or a place to make a donation?