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July 9, 2018

Pathways to Freedom: Meet Shunu Shrestha, Senior Fellow for the City of Minneapolis

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.

Shunu Shrestha joins the City of Minneapolis as its first anti-trafficking fellow after eight years serving as trafficking program coordinator at the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA). During her tenure there, Shunu implemented the Duluth Trafficking Task Force and supervised Safe Harbor grants to develop a Northeast regional response, including supportive services to sexually exploited and trafficked youth in seven counties. Shunu brings in-depth understanding of survivor issues as well as valuable insight into city systems to her new role.

Pathways to Freedom: What key learnings from your experience with human trafficking survivors will you bring to your new position?

Shrestha: Over the last eight years I have had the privilege of supporting and working alongside human trafficking survivors and survivor leaders in Minnesota. Very early on in my work as the Duluth trafficking task force coordinator, I had the opportunity to sit one-on-one with survivors and conduct focus groups where the most important thing I learned was that exploitation and trafficking aren’t isolated issues. Rather, they are often the culmination of many issues that victims and survivors may have faced beginning at a very young age such as: childhood sexual abuse, violence at home, physical abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence, foster care placement, intergenerational poverty, institutional racism, colonialism, sexism, disabilities, chemical dependency, homelessness, and biases toward transgender people and sexual orientation. Because these intertwining factors can make some individuals really vulnerable to be exploited and trafficked, it’s imperative to address all of them.

In addition, when it comes to developing new policies and services for survivors, it’s crucial to deeply analyze the (potentially detrimental) effects a new policy could have on existing policies focused on other issue areas. It’s a problem we’ve seen manifest in budget allocation, such as cutting one issue area in order to fund something else.

Pathways to Freedom: You’ve primarily worked on issues related to sex trafficking. How might that experience differ from your new role that will also focus on labor trafficking issues and survivors?

Shrestha: While my primary focus at PAVSA was on sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, we also provided limited services to labor trafficking victims.  While such cases were few and far between in Duluth, labor trafficking exists everywhere—there is just less awareness of the issue and, therefore, less identification by service providers and/or self-identification of victims. This lack of understanding underscores the need to have a dedicated position like my new role as senior fellow who can address human trafficking in all its forms.

The issue of labor trafficking hits home for me, as I am from Nepal, a country that depends heavily on remittances, or money received from migrant workers. In fact, remittances account for 30 percent of Nepal’s GDP. Thanks to the nongovernmental organizations in Nepal where I volunteered and worked before coming to the United States in 2003, I had the opportunity to learn about both labor and sex trafficking and, ultimately, build a career fighting them. Even as a new immigrant in this country, I stayed engaged in efforts and activism to better the situation of Nepali migrant workers, especially those living and working in the Gulf countries.

In addition to continuing our work on sex trafficking, I believe the City of Minneapolis must be very intentional in our efforts to integrate labor trafficking into the current human trafficking lexicon, conversation, and work. We must also expand efforts to reach those who are underserved, such as those in the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. I look forward to working with the organizations and people who are already providing services to immigrant communities, low wage workers, and folks who identify themselves as LGBTQ.

Most importantly, I plan to work with survivors and learn from them what a model response would look like for labor trafficking victims, and how we as a city can structure and restructure our policies, energy, and resources to create a safe space for all to thrive, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, immigration status, or nationality.

Pathways to Freedom: What is key to the City of Minneapolis successfully implementing a citywide approach to labor and sex trafficking?

Shrestha: The City of Minneapolis has already set the tone by applying for this grant. I sense a sincere effort and intention from leadership to address the issue of human trafficking in all its forms in a more holistic way, including finding creative ways the city can address the root causes of human trafficking. The Minneapolis City Attorney’s office, as well as the police department and health department are just some areas I am aware of within the city system already actively engaged in this work. I look forward to working in tandem with departments across the city to communicate and coordinate existing policy and practices and enhance the capacity of other departments, such as the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and Regulatory Services, to assess gaps as well as draft and successfully implement policy.

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