HPC Fellow: Shanifa Bennett, Covenant House

Shanifa Bennett is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with Covenant House New York (CHNY), an organization that helps transform and save the lives of homeless, runaway and trafficked young people by offering housing and support services to young people in need. During her fellowship, Shanifa develops and facilitates workshops and training for CHNY staff and youth on how to recognize the signs of human trafficking and what steps to take once recognized. 

Standing Strong in the Fight Against Human Trafficking
by Shanifa Bennett

My time as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with Covenant House has been extremely rewarding. Since September of 2017, I have had the pleasure to work with a group of amazing youths who are eager to learn about the commercial exploitation of children and how to prevent it in their communities. Currently, I am a mentor at G.E.M.S (Girls Education Mentoring Services) and a Peer Educator at Legal Momentum. These two programs allow me to educate and bring awareness about the tragic and surprisingly local issue of human trafficking.

Trafficking is one of the toughest topics to speak about because of how uncomfortable and sensitive it is. Most people affiliate trafficking with something that happens overseas and do not realize that it actually happens much closer to home than they think. Red flags to watch out for in communities include seeing a child with an older male or children appearing malnourished and continuously standing at store corners. Talking to the population who is most often affected by trafficking is key to addressing the issue.

Our youth can take action in the fight against human trafficking if they are aware of the problem. As an advocate for ending the practice of sex trafficking, I develop workshops that give people a sense of what sex trafficking is as well as educational resources and ways to become more engaged in their communities to prevent it from happening.

I demonstrate my passion to stop human trafficking by spreading awareness and giving victims of sex trafficking a platform to tell their story and not feel ashamed. Through my work, I have had numerous opportunities to speak out against the issue, such as going to Washington, D.C. for the Rights Now Sex Trafficking Lobby Day. Nearly 150 people were there, including survivors and advocates, who explained to U.S. representatives why survivors need more protection and better services in the U.S. court system. Due to our hard work on Lobby Day, SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) passed on March 28, 2018.

At the Traffick Free NYC “Celebrating Survivors” breakfast, I was presented with an award. As a survivor myself, joining other survivors across New York City, I was amazed by how many advocates and survivors were acknowledged for their fight against human trafficking. Hearing their testimonies was incredible.

Mentoring the girls at G.E.M.S is rewarding for me because they are comfortable talking about their stories and sharing their opinions. Even when a story may be intense or emotional, through sharing, the girls become more open to learning about each other’s struggles with being in “the life” or exiting it. These healthy platforms are essential for youth to gain the courage to speak up about what’s going on in their lives.

This year one of the mentees in the G.E.M.S program expressed that she was finally ready to leave “the life” and focus on obtaining her G.E.D so she could then go to college and become a social worker. G.E.M.S. provides a chance for everyone to have a voice, take charge of their life, and regain everything they lost during a dark time in their life. The majority of women that I talk to after they exit “the life” feel out of place in situations that many people may call normal. Things like getting a job, finishing school, applying for housing, or getting their important documents such as a birth certificate can be frustrating.

I serve as a vessel that guides these women towards the help and services they need. Whether I’m small talking or giving them a referral, it’s important for these teens to have someone taking the necessary steps to change their lives for the better. Healthy platforms like G.E.M.S are essential to youth, so they can have courage to speak up about what’s going on in their lives.

Opening up a conversation about human sex trafficking is not easy, but the more I get engaged in helping fight the issue, the easier it is for me to continue the fight and stand strong. I aspire to be a social worker dealing with foster kids and homeless youth, who are often the ones most vulnerable to trafficking. It would bring me joy to know that one day I will have helped a child stay safe and find a happy loving home.

About The Hilton Prize Coalition
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the Fellows Program, the Collaborative Models Program and the Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat, Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit prizecoalition.charity.org, or contact prizecoalition@charity.org. Follow the Hilton Prize Coalition on Twitter and LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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