Season 2, Episode 8: Art for Anti-trafficking Advocacy - Interview with a Visual Artist


You’re listening to Episode 18 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Emily Wang. In this episode, we’ll hear from a visual artist who uses her talents to support survivors and fight trafficking.

Panmela Castro, a famous artist who has been dubbed “Brazil’s Graffiti Queen”, once said: “Art is how we can be influenced and be an influence.” Kiersten Blake, a student at New York University, is an artist who has been influenced by Castro’s work and now uses her own work to influence others. Not only does she use her art to raise awareness about social issues like human trafficking, she also works directly with survivors through an organization in the NYC area. In addition to her art and advocacy work, she is the co-founder of Salam Clothing, a nonprofit clothing line that donates a majority of its profits to Syrian refugees, a population that is especially vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking. Let’s turn to Kiersten now to learn more about her art and advocacy journey.

Emily: So, Kiersten, I know that you've been researching human trafficking issues for about 3 years now, but what prompted you to begin learning about human trafficking in the first place?

Kiersten: Well, I started working at the League of Women Voters in Los Angeles in between the summer of my 10th and 11th grade. But it was only in the following summer that I was really given the autonomy on what tasks I could be able to help. And back then, the League was interested in creating a committee to research the issue of human trafficking, its universal and local effects and what we could do to eliminate it. So while I was on the committee, I actually helped organize a forum that brought police, researchers, non-profits, and the general public together to talk about their experiences dealing with cases of trafficking, like, how to correctly report it, statistics, and much more. I believe that this was the most galvanizing experience because it was then that I heard firsthand accounts of what people were witnessing in my community, a community that I thought wasn't experiencing this horrific issue. And, you know, it was very startling because this one lady that stood up to speak just told so many stories of how she'd be out at night and she'd see -- girls, in her case -- disappearing in cars at night and never being seen again in some of the poorer districts. And, after that experience, and then doing a little bit more research with the League, to kind of find other organizations that were working on human trafficking and providing resources for survivors, I found that there was a lot of aftercare. There wasn't much things being done to actually prevent the issue at first. It was only until later on when I became a little bit more, when I knew more where to look, I found more organizations that were a little more holistic. But I think that that first was kind of like the overlay of how I got started in it.

Emily: It sounds like your high school experience working with anti-trafficking organizations prompted you to transition from learning to doing something about human trafficking, is that right? So what caused you to apply your artistic abilities specifically to your anti-trafficking advocacy?

Kiersten: Yes! So, well, I've always been drawing, ever since I was a little kid. And it was something that I kind of did casually. At our high school we had a department where I was part of the art department. So I was there. I was getting classes and more training there. But I really was kind of influenced not so much by the fine arts, although they're very cool, but I was very interested in contemporary art. And at the time I was very interested in graffiti art. So, then I was working on a report on graffiti art in California, specifically Los Angeles. But after finishing that report I just fell in love with the way that creating art on large surfaces can really just have a really big impact for the viewer and in general in making statements, especially politically and socially. And this was definitely embodied by an artist that I ended up finding. Her name is Panmela Castro and she's a Brazilian graffiti artist who uses her graffiti art as a platform to raise awareness on women's rights and the prevalence of domestic violence occurring in Brazil against women. And she actually commented that often times women wouldn't even know about the laws that prohibited physical abuse, and so she used it as a very obvious reminder to women. I mean, her artwork spanned huge walls, multiple feet long, so there's no choice but to look up. And her story really touched me for that reason, because, for her, her mother, aunt, and her own self were subjected to domestic violence, which she commented was kind of part of the culture that she was trying to destroy in Brazil. And she's amazing because, the graffiti art world is something that is still dominated by individual men or male crews. So, I found it very astounding that an individual female artist was able to gain world recognition. And I thought, "Wow if she started just by painting on one wall, I can at least do the little bit that I can do by drawing and talking about these issues." Not just human trafficking, but just like the abuse of women, the lack of rights for all people, not just abuse of women but also men, and human trafficking, and the other forms of trafficking which also include labor and organ trafficking as well. So, it provided me a very fluid platform to kind of, raise awareness, especially on a platform that I felt I really, really understood. Even though I didn't entirely [understand] all I could about human trafficking at the time.

Emily: That's really, really cool! Especially since you mentioned that you not only focus on sex trafficking, but also organ trafficking and labor trafficking, and are were able to use your art to tell stories and to raise awareness. But you also work with survivors directly, right?

Kiersten: Yes, so I can't talk about it in much detail, but it mainly involves making them feel cared for. So at the space that they're basically housed out, it's kind of going back to the theme of care, that actually Pamela Castro has this very beautiful saying, when she says, "Gentileza gera gentileza" which means "Kindness generates kindness." And I think that's something that's very key and central to a lot of the work that I do. Because, the theme of care, so a lot of psychological support I found was one of the most critical and kind of like the most underestimated things in the field right now. Because, there's a lot of emphasis on rescue, providing them with basic shelter and basics like even water. But, there's also physical and psychological trauma that a lot of these survivors [accrue] over the time that they're trafficked. And, I found that with the survivors, the thing that really helped them in their process, from first entering the home to first leaving the home, was just being able to talk, share about things, ask questions. For me to understand what it is that may trigger them, but how to deescalate symptoms of trauma and a lot of baggage that they tend to come with -- which is not their fault, it would be my fault if I actually triggered it, which made me even more careful and made me step back and kind of realize and learn more about this other side that I felt not a lot of people really talk about form before. So, with my work with them, it's basically just a lot of the care that goes into them entering and leaving the program that I'm with.

Emily: Okay, so how did you get involved in this program?

Kiersten: So, I mean there's a lot of, there's a lot of programs that you can find. I know a couple that I looked up. So one is Restore NYC, and also Safe Horizons, and there's like a couple others across the nation but, since we're in NYC I thought I would like highlight some ones that I thought were especially special. Because these two organizations do try to make the process as holistic as possible. So they end up providing a lot of, not just shelter and clean water, but also legal services, language services, counseling, assistance with benefits, other economic in-services, etc. etc. etc. And I think a lot of times, the narrative stops with when they're rescued, and we kind of have it weighed in our minds that they'll be this sad, curled up, physically and mentally shackled person forever. I mean, a lot of the photos that you see online kind of depict this. And, I guess that I'm really interested in deconstructing that whole kind of narrative. And, I mean it just shows when you meet them. I remember I was expected to -- kind of naively -- to see kind of like see stress and depression. And yes of course that happens, but in a lot of cases, I do see a lot of optimism and the strength to be able to give. And, after all that they've been through -- and a lot of them have been through years of this -- and yet somehow they're able to push through. They're able to laugh so genuinely and heartily that sometimes I have to remove myself because it kind of brings me to tears how spectacularly strong they are in their fight and their wanting to keep on going through with life.

Emily: That's really inspiring. So, transitioning from an organization that you volunteer for to one that you almost created, I overheard that you were in the process of creating an organization called TapTap, but decided not to. Can you tell us more about what this organization was going to be and why you decided to focus your energy elsewhere?

Kiersten: Okay so, TapTap actually was born out of my want to have even more of a, kind of, direct impact in human trafficking at first. But the more and more I researched on ways that I could kind of be very preventative and be very progressive in trying to reduce and eliminate it -- a lot of these communities came from the fact that -- a lot of these communities, these kids just aren't in school or aren't in an organization where they can be safe. And by having them be out on the streets they're often vulnerable to being coerced by a lot of these trafficking rings or being put into these jobs or industries where they're not paid as well and they're often abused. Or they get kidnapped and their organs are taken from them without consent, sometimes they don't even know how to give consent or if they can give consent. So TapTap was kind of born out of the need, especially we decided to focus on Tanka, Egypt in creating a program where a lot of these kids could get after school tutoring and a lot of the services they need to continue school. Because a lot of them would drop out because they didn't have the funds to fund their education. School was seen as a forum for examination rather than education and there really wasn't any programs that was geared towards them to help them catch up and graduate. The reason why we decided not to go along with TapTap was, well, number 1, we were in a challenge at NYU trying to get funds to fund it. And they were giving us a lot of critique on the organization which we thought about at the end, thinking about how we would actually get this started on the ground. And while we had a lot of like lawyers and businessmen, both domestically and internationally who would be willing to help us with this project, we were thinking, "What if instead of us trying to insert ourselves, our very western kind of mindset into a lot of the societies that we probably can't even scratch the surface of understanding because we don't even live there..." I'm learning Arabic and French but I know nowhere near as much as the people in the community do. And I was thinking, there's so many wonderful organizations that are already doing so much great work, why not not utilize our funds to fund them in their mission and help them further their own goals? So kind of having a similar kind of mission to other organizations such as Vital Voices, which aims to empower female leaders in their communities to reach higher goals through their funding programs.

Emily: That’s a really good point that you bring up. It’s not that people can’t start their own organizations, but they should be careful in their approach and make sure that it wouldn’t just be better for them to partner with those who are already doing the work. But in general, what advice would you have for other young advocates who want to do something to fight human trafficking?

Kiersten: Um, the number one thing that I would say is -- and this is kind of my motto for life, would be -- to live with purpose. So, realize where your money is going. And the reason I say that is because we're living in a society that is very focused on material goods. And one of the most prevalent fields of human trafficking that I feel like I'm in the most direct contact with is labor trafficking. Making sure that your goods are made by people who are paid fairly and are in spaces where they are treated ethically. There's like a whole slew of organizations that you can find online that are accredited and have certification, as well as websites that name a lot of these. But just making sure that you know, it's wonderful to take a stand and it's wonderful to march and fight for a lot of these things. But a lot of the key changes, the ways that we really deconstruct these economies are by not funding them. Because really it's, its -- a lot of it is really driven by money and where it's being put. Sex trafficking, same way. The way that we pay for pleasure, organ trafficking, the way that we pay for the accruing of organs. Just thinking about your money is going and where these products that you're getting are coming from, I would say.

Kiersten’s journey as an anti-trafficking advocate highlight several important points. First, she shows that you can apply any of your unique talents to anti-trafficking work. Secondly, even if your original approach in fighting human trafficking doesn’t work out, you can always find another way. While TapTap did not get off the ground, Salam Clothing is another approach that is currently in operation. If you’d like to learn more about this initiative, you can find a link in our shownotes. Speaking of our shownotes, you’ll also find a link to Alyâa Kamel’s artwork. Kamel is another artist who is partnered with our partners, Youth Underground, and illustrates the hardships, but most importantly, the hope that we have in this fight against human trafficking. Whether you’re an artist or not, there are certainly ways that you can use your skills to contribute to this fight.

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Emily Wang. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on May 6 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

Youth Underground x Alyâa Kamel:

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