Rachel Foster has committed her life’s work to empowering individuals who most need it: currently, she is the Campaign Director for the New Abolitionists, a national multimedia campaign to raise awareness about human trafficking. She is also a Founding Co-Chair and Executive Council Member of World Without Exploitation (WorldWE), the national coalition working to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Her work representing disenfranchised individuals has been recognized in the form of a “New Yorkers Who Make a Difference” Award from United Neighborhood Houses.
We sat down with Foster to discuss the important work that the New Abolitionists and WorldWE are doing to counteract human trafficking across the globe.
Keys to the Community: Could you walk us through your educational background and early career path? What formative moments have led you to pursue the work you do now?
Rachel Foster: I was raised in a very progressive, liberal-minded family. My mother was a social worker and a pioneer in hospice, and I grew up with a very strong sense of social justice. That led me to study Human Development and Family Studies at Cornell — I also worked with the Tompkins County Task Force for Battered Women as a domestic violence advocate counselor. After I graduated, I became a community organizer, working mostly with elderly tenants who were being harassed by their landlords.
These experiences led me to pursue a career as a lawyer, which I felt would be the most effective platform from which to advocate for people. Then I started working at Brooklyn Legal Services, which was an incredible experience. The organization provides high-quality legal services for people who normally would not be able to afford them — I worked in the HIV unit, so all my clients were HIV-positive. I was able to work really closely with clients on legal issues, but also with an understanding of what their lived experience was.
Then, for about 10 years, I was on the advisory council and board of the Citizens Committee for Children. Work around sexual exploitation and human trafficking fit in with my desire to work towards gender equality — fighting systems that were oppressive and harmful to women and girls, as well as to people in poverty.
K2C: Tell me a bit about your involvement with World Without Exploitation and the New Abolitionists. What issues does each organization aim to address?
RF: We launched World Without Exploitation in October 2016 as a national anti-trafficking coalition, and we have almost 100 organizations that have joined to date. We have a number of goals: we want to bring together anti-trafficking advocates and survivors of sexual exploitation from around the country, who are doing critical work often in silos, so we can collaborate, support and amplify each other’s work.
New Abolitionists is an anti-trafficking awareness campaign that’s connected with World Without Exploitation. I’m the Managing Director and Lynn Savarese is our exceptional photographer. We go out and photograph and interview a whole range of people, including celebrities who seek to raise awareness about the issues — Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Representative John Lewis, Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem, etc. But at the heart and soul of it are the survivors — we have over 70 testimonials of survivors of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, and it’s incredibly powerful.
WorldWE uses these incredible portraits of survivors and completes an even more in-depth interview and discussion with them. What’s essential to our work is survivor leadership and guidance — we are creating the first of its kind archive of survivor testimony. We want policy changes, and messaging is incredibly important to changing the hearts and minds of people.
K2C: What’s the scope of the work you’re doing for these organizations? Can you give an idea of the size of the population affected and where you work?
RF: It’s really important to look at prostitution in terms of supply and demand. Without the demand to purchase and exploit human beings, there wouldn’t be an industry around human trafficking. It’s often girls and women of color that are being bought by men of privilege, predominantly white. It’s very difficult to measure the scope of the issue because it remains largely underground. But the more we learn, the more we realize how prevalent it is.
There are quite a number of organizations around the country that are survivor-led that provide counseling, support, and direct services — we work with survivor leaders to introduce us to other survivors who would be open to sharing their experiences. Ultimately, when we tell their stories, they have complete say over what gets shared — we’d never print or promote anything that wasn’t absolutely signed off on.
We share stories to give people a sense of the real factors and causes at play for survivors of human trafficking. A huge percentage of women and girls in the sex trade were sexually abused as children and have suffered enormous deprivation and violence. This is an incredibly vulnerable population, because of a combination of youth, poverty, racial and gender inequalities, that doesn’t have a lot of bargaining power, while buyers and pimps have an enormous amount of power and privilege.
K2C: What insights have you gathered from speaking with survivors?
RF: When you’ve had all avenues closed off and you’ve come from a very unstable upbringing, your trajectory is completely changed. The vast majority of women and girls are there because it’s the choice of the choiceless — it’s not something that they want to do. Every survivor we’ve spoken with has said it takes a lifetime of healing to recover — not just from the sense of bodily invasion and violence, but from what it meant to lose yourself in that way.
Now, exiting the sex trade doesn’t happen in a day; it’s complex, and very often, adolescent girls have been lured in by someone who has posed as a boyfriend and then turned them out. It’s not as simple as “Well, if she wanted to leave, she’d leave.” The implication there is that sex trafficking is about choice and autonomy, rather than disadvantage, vulnerability, and trauma.
The term “sex worker,” which implies a chosen profession, does not resonate with any of the women we’ve spoken to. It’s not like Julia Roberts meeting Richard Gere and being swept away. That’s a Cinderella fantasy — it’s not real. You and I did not aspire to be in the sex trade anymore than these girls did.
Legalizing the sex trade as a whole doesn’t make it safe, either. Countries that have legalized prostitution have seen an enormous spike in trafficking to meet the demands — foreign-born women are trafficked in and fill the brothels, not native-born women. I support the Nordic Model, which a range of other countries are adopting, which decriminalizes the selling of sex or those victimized in the sex trade, but holds buyers, pimps, and brothel owners criminally accountable.
K2C: How can we get involved and contribute to the cause?
RF: There’s lots of ways for people to get involved in our work — our website is very dynamic and we’re constantly looking for ways to engage people. We encourage people to read the featured survivor stories and learn about the issues, and we have a pledge that people can sign to receive our newsletters and learn more. We have a rapid response feature on our site that mobilizes people to get involved with different actions. Talking to young people about the issues in an age-appropriate way is essential to raising a new generation where sexual exploitation is not normalized.
Our long-term goal: to change the culture that normalizes the exploitation of women and girls.
Photo Credit: Lynn Savarese