Kendis Paris

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow Since 2013
This description of Kendis Paris's work was prepared when Kendis Paris was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013 .

Introduction

Beginning with the trucking industry, Kendis Paris is building an anti-human trafficking movement model that could be applied across every mode of transportation in the US and beyond.

The New Idea

Given that a large proportion of human trafficking “quietly” takes place along the nation’s highways and at truck stops, Kendis resolved to mobilize the US trucking industry as a leader in the modern-day abolitionist movement. Through Truckers Against Trafficking—the organization she co-founded in 2011—Kendis is creating an entirely new role for truckers by targeting them in awareness-building campaigns about the issue; building a clear, safe pathway for them to act when they detect abuse; and using the trucking industry infrastructure as a strategic platform for the movement.

Kendis understands that for this movement to be successful, truckers must be part of the solution. Previous attempts to target this group in the fight against trafficking—though few and far between—assumed truckers were at least partially to blame and used public shaming campaigns to spur behavior change. Recognizing that truckers were largely unaware of the phenomenon of forced-prostitution, let alone that they could do something about it, Kendis is reversing the approach of the past by helping truckers reimagine the positive role their industry can play in tackling the issue. She is strategically targeting the nation’s largest truck stop corporations, trucking companies, trucking schools, and media mavens, while creating bridges with law enforcement and other anti-trafficking initiatives to build out this national movement.

Kendis has rapidly established herself as the authority on trucking and human trafficking in the US. Her approach is beginning to attract international attention. Kendis is also in the early stages of thinking through how Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) might play an instrumental role in ensuring that similar anti-trafficking protocols be implemented across every mode of transportation in the US.

The Problem

Human trafficking—a $32 billion-a-year business, which includes forced prostitution of women and girls and other forms of slave labor—is affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the US. Though numbers are hard to come by, the Department of Justice estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 of America’s children are at risk to enter the sex trade industry each year. The FBI recently identified truck stops and rest stops as one of the primary places where women and children are forced into prostitution. Truck stops are largely invisible to the majority of the population, including law enforcement, making them an ideal place for illicit activities. In addition, traffickers, much like truckers, are transient—they often transport victims from state to state and stop at truck stops because they consider them to be ideal locations for selling victims.

Truckers are generally unaware that many of the sex workers they encounter along the nation’s highways have been forced into prostitution. They assume that women and girls knowingly choose the profession, often find them to be a nuisance and refer to them in dehumanizing terms, such as ‘lot lizards.’ Needless to say, the attitude of truckers toward trafficked people has not historically been one of empathy and support.

Despite their unique potential to be detectors and reporters of trafficking, to date, truckers have not led or been instrumental in the abolitionist movement. Before Kendis came along, the only tactic used to dissuade truckers from buying sex consisted of public shaming campaigns and picket lines at truck stops. The approach further ostracized truckers, failed to take into account the needs of the victims and didn’t provide an avenue for the industry as a whole to build a role for itself in the fight against trafficking, beyond abstention. In addition, these activist campaigns did not help truckers see themselves as problem solvers.

Though it may seem surprising, local law enforcement, particularly in rural areas of the country, is largely unaware of, or poorly trained to respond to human trafficking cases. Inadequate responses on their part have been found to further dissuade truckers, among others, to do something when they see something.

The Strategy

Initially, Kendis focused her efforts on developing a system of tools and resources—including a training DVD as well as a wallet card with the National Human Trafficking Hotline information—that would specifically target the trucking industry and that truckers could easily plug into on the job. The goal was not only to shift their understanding of the women and girls, but also to help them recognize abuse when they saw it and act on it, ultimately leading to increased investigations and to curbed demand. Despite the industry’s initial resistance to being associated with trafficking, TAT has been able to draw them in as allies by showcasing them as part of the solution.

Individual drivers are the eyes and ears of the highway but there are so many of them scattered all around the country that they are hard to organize. The US trucking industry is comprised of 9 million people, 3 million of whom are professional truck drivers. There are 360,000 trucking companies in the US, yet the majority of them operate fewer than 30 trucks.

To reach them, Kendis set out to partner with both the commercial and owner-operated trucking associations. In the last year and half, Kendis has seen a domino effect of support as key stakeholders have gotten involved—from trucking companies, trucking associations, rest stop operators, trucking schools, radio mavens, trucking shows, and truckers who connect with each other through CB radio. TAT is now working with the Owner Operator Independent Driver Association as well as with the Commercial Vehicle Training Association and the National Association of Publically Funded Truck Driving Schools to incorporate TAT’s curriculum in their course-load. The goal is ultimately to get all commercial driver’s license instructors to train truckers as early as possible. The American Trucking Association also joined TAT, and since then over ten state trucking associations have joined to share the TAT message with their member companies. In addition, TAT has partnered with TA/Petro and Pilot/Flying J--the two largest truck stop companies in the US and Canada—who are now training their employees with TAT’s materials and distributing information about human trafficking in all of their locations. TAT also works with trucking companies in the same way, including some of the largest ones: C.R. England, Ryder, United Van Lines, and Mayflower.

Thus, TAT has helped the trucking industry recognize the instrumental role it can play in combating human rights offenses. Moreover, Kendis’s approach has shown truckers that being proactive about trafficking can actually improve the industry’s negative image in society rather than taint it further.

Since TAT began its work, the Polaris Project—a national organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Derek Ellerman to combat human trafficking—has reported an increase of hundreds of calls coming in from truckers across the US. As a result, truckers are now ranked eighth in the country for reporting potential human trafficking of all kinds. In addition, the Polaris Project is reporting that these callers are particularly well prepared—they know to call as soon as they identify a potential victim and what useful evidence to report. For example, one trucker’s call not only saved a 15-year-old girl, but also her 14-year-old cousin a week later, and ultimately broke open a 13 state prostitution ring where seven other minors were rescued. Another call from a general manager enabled law enforcement to rescue two young runaways (aged 12 and 14) who were hitchhiking with only $5 between them.

With the trucking infrastructure nearly fully on board, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are other parts of the system that also need fixing. Kendis is beginning to think through how TAT might help address some of the challenges faced by police forces in rural areas, who have not been adequately trained to respond to human trafficking cases. For example, after TAT was asked to train the Illinois Truck Enforcement Association—which tickets truckers when they do not comply with road safety laws—the Illinois State Patrol decided that it needed to complete the Department of Justice’s anti-human trafficking training. Similarly, TAT was asked by law enforcement in Riverside County to assist in the formation of a loose coalition between law enforcement and the general managers of the lots they investigate. Some police forces are considering whether they might partner with truckers in undercover operations to gather evidence from within the industry. Thus, TAT is playing a bridge-building role between truckers, the police, and anti-trafficking efforts.

Thanks to these early successes Kendis has become a sought out authority on the intersection of trucking and human trafficking in the US. She is consistently asked to speak to various groups and at key conferences about TAT’s best practices. TAT is working toward a longer-term vision to enlist every transportation industry to become part of the abolitionist movement. Kendis and her small team recently partnered with the US Department of Transportation, which wants to see an anti-trafficking protocol implemented across every mode of transportation. They are using TAT’s tools and best practices as an important foundation. In addition, TAT works with Taxis on Patrol, a national group that employs taxi drivers to assist law enforcement by reporting DUI’s and hit and runs. They have now incorporated TAT materials and training across their base.

In the future, Kendis plans to expand the impact of TAT beyond the US context. Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in Humans in Canada was modeled after TAT and has incorporated the TAT materials into their trainings. A similar group in Brazil has expressed interest in the model. Although Kendis does not see TAT becoming the implementer of programs abroad in the immediate future, she plans to continue serving as an advisor for key groups internationally.

Over the last year and a half, TAT’s annual budget has grown from $51,000 to $155,000. TAT is mainly financed through small individual donations and the Jim Greenbaum Foundation. From the beginning, Kendis’s ultimate vision was for the trucking industry to adopt this initiative as its own and to lead it. She believes this also entails getting the industry to pay for TAT’s work and she is on her way there. So far, Kendis has been the only full-time employee at TAT. She has one part-time colleague working on social media and communications and an active board, made up of many trucking industry leaders.

The Person

Kendis was the sort of child who could navigate different cliques and play the role of peacemaker at school. She grew up surrounded by women and was one of four sisters. At age nine, Kendis’s father passed away and two years later her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kendis and her sisters joined forces to ensure that their family farm ran smoothly, while keeping school their main priority. She and her two older sisters were the presidents of their classes. Competitive basketball also helped her develop teamwork and leadership skills. Kendis became the captain of her basketball team beginning in junior high school and eventually got a full scholarship to play for the University of Hawaii’s Division 1 basketball team. In Hawaii, Kendis worked in a youth correctional facility where she decided to create and implement a character development curriculum—a space where young people could discuss the issues that most mattered to them and explore their dreams.

Growing up around so many strong female role models, Kendis became compelled to address gender issues where she saw them. As part of her involvement with the church, she created a curriculum for girls ages 11 to 15 to explore issues related to body image, as well as a parallel track for their parents. Similarly to Kendis’s work in the youth correctional facility, this class offered young girls a rare opportunity to openly discuss these issues with their peers and their parents.

Kendis’s concern for gender issues meant that she was generally aware of the phenomenon of human trafficking but it is only after reading Not For Sale by David Batstone, that Kendis learned that it existed in her own backyard. Shocked that even she had not known of this before, she decided to plan a statewide conference to educate and equip people in Colorado to take action. The Human Trafficking Awareness Conference in 2008 attracted speakers from across the US as well as 300 attendees. Kendis and two colleagues soon after created the Volunteer Network to End Human Trafficking in order to streamline the anti-trafficking volunteer process in Colorado. It is at that conference that an FBI agent revealed that their latest findings suggested that a large proportion of human trafficking took place in and around truck stops. Kendis’s mother was struck by this fact and thought something should be done to target the trucking industry. She decided to found a family ministry—Chapter 61—within which Kendis, her mother and sisters began to experiment with this initial idea. As part of these efforts, Kendis attended her first trucking show in Tulsa in October 2009 where she led the first two trainings for truckers. There was no doubt in her mind that truckers could be an incredibly powerful node in changing the market for human trafficking but it was there that she realized that training individual truckers alone would never begin to tackle the issue at the scale needed. She understood she would need the entire industry to strategically ally itself to the cause.

Kendis quickly and naturally became TAT’s leader and visionary. She built TAT’s major partnerships, including with law enforcement, and became adamant that TAT needed its own 501c3. Separating TAT’s work from the ministry was important to Kendis, both because the faith-based linkage could become a fundraising hindrance and because spreading the mission of TAT as well as building key partnerships could be greatly strengthened that way. This shift was critical in enabling TAT to become a movement, rather than solely an initiative within a family ministry.

Kendis lives near Denver, Colorado with her husband and children.