Human trafficking is a violation of the most basic human rights. The global scale of the problem is immense with an estimated 40 million victims around the world. Slavery exists in every state in the US, not just in isolated corners of the developing world. Texas has the second highest number of reported cases annually according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, right behind California. But for Austin-based nonprofit Allies Against Slavery, the underreporting of this exploitation represents one of the major impediments to eradicating it.
The anti-slavery community in Austin has been active for almost a decade, and Allies CEO John Nehme was an early grassroots activist. He remembers being at one of their earliest meetings and thinking, “Slavery is happening in our city, what can I do about it?” That feeling of needing to take personal responsibility for addressing this violence continues to motivate him and his colleagues.
Allies Against Slavery attained nonprofit status in 2014 and is now a small but mighty team of three. The first insight into how such a small organization can make a dent in such a big problem was to embrace their role as a coordinator among 65 Central Texas organizations addressing the crisis. As a leader of this coalition of service providers, law enforcement, survivor advocates, and community groups, the team focuses their impact on what Nehme calls the “leverage points in the system.”
In 2017, Allies collaborated with the University of Texas to publish a study that quantified the extent of youth and minor sex trafficking in Texas for the first time. Of 79,000 victims, only 2% were identified and connected with recovery services. “If you never identify someone, they can never access any of the resources that we've worked so hard to build as a community,” says Torey Tipton, Director of Strategic Partnerships.
Nehme says, “if you identify somebody accurately as a victim, then it actually unlocks this positive cascading effect across the system.” The data from the study focused their goal on helping frontline practitioners increase the rate of identification. The answer, Nehme realized, was software.
With the help of local social venture partners and in-kind donations from developers in Seattle, Allies launched a web-based application in January of 2019 called Lighthouse. The app encapsulates their training methods to help social workers, nurses, case managers, therapists, probation officers, and other professionals identify individuals experiencing sex trafficking. Lighthouse is an encrypted, HIPAA-compliant platform that collects and visualizes screening data and will eventually help coordinate recovery efforts as well. To date, five partners in Texas are using it and have screened more than 2,000 youth and identified 198 survivors.
Meeting their impact goals for Lighthouse depends on getting more organizations to use the app. Program Coordinator, Tally Jorn, works on outreach in the community, including evangelizing for Lighthouse. “Very often trafficking can feel like something that is far away from people,” she says, “and I would hope that Lighthouse can be an application that is used to cut across disciplines.”
Allies Against Slavery’s ambitions go beyond disciplines. Nehme hopes Lighthouse will be adopted across the country and that they can scale as an organization to meet that need. “My biggest fear is not being able to grow as quickly as we'd like,” he says. “We know there's such an urgency. Every day there are thousands upon thousands of kids across just the state of Texas—not to mention the country—who are in need, and we're sitting on top of a solution that can help them.”
Allies Against Slavery, established in 2014, is based in Austin, Texas. In the photos above (top to bottom): John Nehme; Torey Tipton; Tally Jorn. Photography by John Davidson.