Heartland Alliance’s Freedom From Trafficking (FFT) team has been helping survivors of human trafficking since 2011 – and Megan Mahoney (Director of FFT) and Darci Flynn (Associate Director of FFT) have been around since the beginning. During that time, they have developed region-wide coalitions of human service agencies that have gone on to serve over 800 survivors of trafficking – including 107 survivors within the Freedom From Trafficking program itself.
We recently had a chance to sit down with the duo to talk about why they are so passionate about this work.
What got you into this work? (In your specific cases, what led you to creating the FFT program?)
Megan: I took an Intro to Social Work class my senior year of college and something got me hooked. Maybe the combination of the strengths-based approach and non-judgmental attitude, or the partnership aspect of helping people activate their power and resiliency to break out of very sticky and intersecting cycles of poverty, violence, and trauma. So after a few years in the working world I went back to school for my MSW.
When I returned to Chicago after grad school I knew I wanted to work at Heartland. What better place for a social worker! I think I interviewed for my job before it was even posted. When I was hired, we had 10 days to implement a 14-state program and I started on day 3. FFT has changed A LOT since but one constant is that it’s never been boring.
Darci: I came into the anti-trafficking field straight from graduate school after obtaining my MSW. I entered graduate school thinking I wanted to work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, having worked with these populations while in undergraduate school. But during my second year field placement in graduate school, I had the pleasure of working at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), which opened my eyes to sex trafficking and exploitation.
Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?
Megan: Most days we’re just plugging away, not getting to see the impact of what we’re doing. But then there are moments like when our recommendations were published in the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States, or when the Chicago Housing Authority approved a pilot for trafficking survivors to access Housing Choice Vouchers. Now when survivors move out of shelter and into their own apartments, or when we see a federal funding opportunity infused with trauma-informed care language we can see our fingerprints on it.
Darci: This will always be stuck in my memory: I was just about a year onto the job when I met a male survivor of sex trafficking. He was living on a mattress in the laundry room of a hotel in the suburbs paying the hotel $800 per month to stay there (in addition to helping out around the hotel). He had never had a safe place to call home. In his home country, he lived in an abusive household where he was ostracized due to his sexuality. He fled his home country as a teenager hoping for safety and a better life in the US. It is here where he became trafficked for 20 years. Since then, he had lived in and out of homeless for 20 years. When I met him, he was 40 years old. After about two to three weeks of working with him, I was able to find him a studio apartment that would allow him to rent the unit despite his undocumented status. Our program was able to help with the rent.
The day I moved him in, we stood in his empty apartment and I handed him his very own keys. He said, “I always go to the Salvation Army Thrift Store to buy things I need. One day, I bought a cooking pot and the cashier had grown to know me by then. The cashier looked at me and said ‘Why are you buying a cooking pot, you don’t have a home or kitchen to cook in?’ to which I responded, ‘because someday this cooking pot will have a home.” On that day, 20 years post leaving his trafficking situation, and forty years into his life, this participant had a safe home to lay his head and to cook with his cooking pot.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Megan: I love collaboration and FFT has always embraced a partnership-based approach. Our successes have been because we’ve engaged with smart people willing to consider not just what is, but what could be. My role has expanded in the past few years so now I get to work with other Heartland Alliance programs like our Opciones Saludables (Healthy Options) and Violence Recovery Services teams. We’re thinking across the board about how to reach more people and maximize our impact—in the past year alone we’ve built two new partnerships with HHCS’s Housing & Health and Pathways to Success Initiatives.
Darci: A huge part of how we work with participants is helping them achieve justice. Justice looks different from one participant to another and very rarely does justice look like the traditional criminal justice response of prosecution and incarceration. So often justice looks like obtaining a safe place to live, re-uniting with family members, obtaining a job making a livable wage, obtaining an education, learning English, and receiving legal status. Participants dictate these goals. I love helping participants achieve these goals and I also love fixing broken systems and resources that stand in the way of justice for these survivors and their families.
How can others help your work?
You tell us. What are your skills, resources, assets, and interests? We’ll put you to work!