StyleBlueprint: Derri Smith - FACES of Nashville

Derri Smith has spent practically her entire life helping and advocating for others. Her resume includes teaching, managing an inner city ministry and being an international refugee worker. She is now executive director of End Slavery Tennessee, and is helping to save girls and boys from the bondages of human and sex trafficking, right here. Today, we applaud Derri and find out more about what she does and who she is. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, after all.

*SB Note: for clarification, for an action to be considered human trafficking, the use of force, fraud and/or coercion must be involved and an exchange of goods must occur (payment of some type). If the exchange is sex, it’s considered sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is different than prostitution as the victim must either be a minor (under 18) or be in the situation as a result of force, fraud or coercion. 

Derri, first we wanted to ask a few basics for those reading who may be unfamiliar with human trafficking and how it affects our community. How does human trafficking affect us all?

The average age of entry into human trafficking is 12 to 14 for girls and 11 to 13 for boys. Our clientele includes girls and boys. Poor and rich. Uneducated and well-educated. Traffickers are master manipulators who look for vulnerabilities in young people to exploit. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s “It Could Be Me” campaign is exactly right. Those who use the services of slaves harm us all by encouraging criminals and dehumanizing victims. They harm themselves and their families.

What makes Nashville so appealing to human traffickers?

The same things that make this a great place to live. A healthy economy and tourism provide a “customer” base (because people sometimes leave their morals at home). We’re at the intersection of three major interstates, one of which comes up from Atlanta, one of the top child sex trafficking hubs in the nation. Law enforcement and survivors tell us the Atlanta market is glutted, so traffickers head north to Middle Tennessee.

Is human trafficking on the rise? If so, why?

It’s the number two and fastest growing crime on the planet. Those who once trafficked drugs and weapons see human trafficking as a less risky and more lucrative crime. The Internet allows anonymity for those who buy sex. There are even forums that allow “Johns” to compare notes and to feel normal about their actions. Gangs recruit young males whose job it is to lure young girls into the sex trade, and the income fuels gang activities. By the way, ANY minor used for commercial sex is legally a sex trafficking victim. There is no such thing as a teen or child prostitute.

Who is a target for a human trafficker?

Any young person. Those who have been abused or who have gone through some type of trauma are especially vulnerable. Runaways are prime targets. The universal need for love, acceptance and belonging is the number one lure exploited by traffickers; if a young person feels a lack in these areas, traffickers will sell them a dream, appearing to meet those needs.

Okay, now that we know the basics, we want to know about YOU! When you were young and in school, was helping people your vision as well?

When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina! Being a total klutz didn’t dissuade me one bit. Maybe there is a connection between that time and why I let my later-life passion drive me, where some people would just wait for someone more qualified to dive in.

How did your family life growing up affect these decisions to give back in such a powerful way?

I never meet a survivor without recognizing how easily I could be on their side of the table. My father, a much-admired pastor, sexually abused me from the time I was 11 until I left home at 16. My mother was unaware and emotionally absent in a difficult marriage. I would have been easy pickings for any exploiter who came along. Thankfully, no one did, and I ended up in college, married a fine man and escaped that fate. Now, I have the opportunity to put the empathy gained to good use.

Many of the rescues must be dangerous. How do you calm yourself to continue to put yourself in harm’s way, and save countless lives, again and again?

Actually, we do not carry out rescues. That is the job of law enforcement. We are sometimes called in on stings to be in a nearby room and offer help, comfort and options to those released by the officers. The level of risk isn’t as high as you might think. I think the threat comes primarily from the more organized criminals who believe they must make examples of victims who get free. Not to be flippant, but I am 61. I have to die sometime. How better than by pursuing my calling.

Are you on call 24-7?

Yes, I can and do get texts or calls from law enforcement 24/7. Our intervention specialist, a survivor herself, is on call 24/7 and is usually the first point of contact for a new referral. She can build trust faster than anyone, because she has been where they are. Our case managers can get crisis calls from a survivor having a meltdown or emergency at any time. We’re all determined to do whatever it takes. I’m thankful for the uncommon commitment our staff makes to the health and safety of each survivor.

After a particularly hard day or week, how do you rejuvenate to go back and do it again?

Ask my husband how many times I’ve come home and told him I can’t go on another day. Exhausted. Then I get a text or call or hear about some progress made by one of our survivors, and I’m back the next day. I don’t have what it takes. But I was made for this role, so whatever I need seems to come just in time.

How has the Nashville community stepped up to fight this battle, and what more can we do to support your efforts?

Seven years ago, I invited people to come talk about what we could do about human trafficking. To my surprise, 85 people showed up. We still have hundreds of volunteers every year, some very engaged. Then, I had zero budget and worried about the next ink cartridge. A lady of small means named Angela handed me a check for $15,000. Said God told her to. The plight of survivors touches people, and they respond with what we need.

As we grow and serve more survivors, foundations, businesses, churches, organizations and more like Angela take a sense of ownership in the plight of victims in their own backyard and desire to make right this blot on our community. And I can’t forget the trust that law enforcement, the D.A.’s office and other service providers have placed in us. This is truly a community effort. And there is a place for everyone to be exactly who they are and find a niche in this movement.

Who are your heroes?

William Wilberforce encourages me to persevere, and that a determined person, surrounded by a great team, can change the course of history.

Locally, Bill Cochran has been a kind benefactor and guide, lending his expertise to help us grow stronger. He died over the holidays, and I am among the many who feel his loss.

Then there is “Shelly,” whose mother sold her for sex at age 6. She was trafficked and abused through childhood, but then turned her life around. She got a college degree and now works every day to empower other survivors to turn their lives around. She is a model of hope, and I greatly admire her.

What is a piece of advice, or a quote, that you lean on that has helped you navigate this life?

Winston Churchill said it well: Never, never, never give up. It helps me, in the midst of setbacks and obstacles, to remember that no one’s story is finished as long as they are alive. Not mine, not yours, and certainly not the survivors who typically take many steps backward on the way to progressing forward. I finally gave up on ballet, but I never gave up on going forward.

Thank you, Derri, SO MUCH! Find out more about End Slavery Tennessee at endslaverytn.org and help these front line warriors fight back.

Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for our FACES photos each and every week! ashleyhylbert.com

If you missed our feature, for which we interviewed Derri in August 2014, here it is: Human Trafficking in Green Hills.