Pathways to Freedom: Meet Robin Ficke, Senior Fellow for the City of Chicago
The Partnership for Freedom, created by Humanity United, is a public-private partnership dedicated to spurring innovation in the fight to end human trafficking. Pathways to Freedom, the Partnership’s third challenge, will support a senior fellow’s salary in city government for two years and offer technical assistance to better address labor trafficking.
When the City of Chicago got word of their selection as a Pathways to Freedom grant recipient, they began a search for the ideal person to establish a citywide approach to human trafficking. In the end, they found a top senior fellow candidate within. Robin Ficke joined the mayor’s office in 2016 as deputy policy director after many years working in public policy, government relations and with homeless and at-risk populations. As you’ll read below, this unique set of skills and experiences are informing Robin’s approach to preventing labor and sex trafficking as well as meeting unmet survivor needs in Chicago.
Pathways to Freedom: Nationwide, you’re one of only a handful of people at the municipal level dedicated to anti-trafficking. Why were you motivated to move into this unique role?
Ficke: The mayor’s policy team has a wide-ranging set of responsibilities, and I addressed an array of topics that included homelessness, needs-based benefits, and other issues that impact our most vulnerable community members. As senior fellow, I will have the opportunity to go deeper into human trafficking prevention and intervention than what has previously been possible in Chicago’s local government. I’m looking forward to looking at the issue from soup to nuts, learning from community partners and becoming their ally, and helping survivors lead successful, healthy lives. Ultimately, I want to help Chicago become an example of how cities can protect their residents.
Pathways to Freedom: You’re just getting started in your role as senior fellow. In these early months on the job, how are you approaching human trafficking prevention and survivor support?
Ficke: I want to really document in a fuller way what labor and sex trafficking in Chicago looks like, and I am beginning with a lot of learning so the City can understand the scope of the problem. We won’t be able to prevent trafficking if we don’t do a better job identifying it, and I am approaching that by going to external partners such as survivors, advocacy groups and organizations that provide legal and immigration services the city can learn from to find out what they know and what they see. We’ll also continue to look at the hotline data. There is a lot to be uncovered through conversation, and I plan to listen and learn from many people to identify ways in which the city can contribute.
Once I shift from learning to developing and implementing prevention measures, I want to ensure we make lasting changes. Whether it’s labor laws or looking at how we regulate businesses, we want to make meaningful changes. People within city government are really eager to know how they can help, and I want to be thoughtful about their efforts. For example, various city inspectors can make a real difference if they learn how to identify a suspected victim of human trafficking—but only if we think through a screening tool or questionnaire. Once that is developed, we can take it one step further by identifying industries with potential for trafficking that haven’t even been thought of yet.
In terms of survivor support, I want to learn where the gaps are. Then, we’ll determine how we can better meet survivor needs through the realignment of current systems. We have so many great systems already in place, but perhaps this grant can inform the work they are doing in terms of supports for survivors. For example, our Homelessness Youth Demonstration Program Subcommittee, convened by the Chicago Task Force on Homeless Youth is already doing great, creative things for homeless youth, but now we can build the trafficking survivor perspective into this work.
Pathways to Freedom: How does your role build on Chicago’s existing priorities?
Ficke: Chicago has one of the strongest anti-wage theft laws within the US. We strive to be proactive and work hard to ensure workers have strong protections, so working to prevent labor and sex trafficking is a logical extension of that. While labor trafficking is hard to quantify, we want to build upon and act on knowledge as well as take the time to understand the scope and uniqueness of the problem. This is a natural evolution of our priorities, and people here are particularly concerned with how to address the needs of our most vulnerable residents, and how to push our policy to the next level from intervention to prevention.
Pathways to Freedom: How has your career prepared you for facilitating a comprehensive anti-trafficking plan for Chicago?
Ficke: Throughout my career, I’ve spent time working with sexual assault and domestic violence victims as well as veterans, especially women veterans, and low income or homeless veterans. There are similarities in all of these populations, and there is some overlap in their needs. Trafficking may be a peripheral issue to larger, more visible ones, though it is also a distinct issue and would benefit from dedicated thought and analysis. Because many well-developed policies overlap with trafficking, there are nuances in every subpopulation and great value in understanding what those are. For example, it is important to have integrated policies for all labor and sex trafficking victims, but each of those groups have individualized needs of their own that should also be understood and strategically planned for.
Pathways to Freedom: What is key to the City of Chicago successfully implementing a citywide approach to labor and sex trafficking?
Ficke: It goes back to really integrating this into the normal course of business for all city departments and elevating the institutional knowledge of human trafficking. Whether it’s the public health department or family and support services or housing or the police department or even procurement—we want each to ask, “how can and should we approach trafficking?”
It also requires the city to look at itself as a whole and make changes that show we are not just an actor but also a good consumer. The Pathways to Freedom grant was meant to be preventive, and we want to make sure our role in the marketplace reflects our position on human trafficking.