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Meet Ouleye Ndoye Warnock, Senior Fellow for the City of Atlanta

A conversation with Atlanta’s new human trafficking senior fellow

Spelman College graduate Ouleye Ndoye Warnock brings a wealth of local knowledge to her new role as Atlanta’s human trafficking senior fellow. With more than a decade of experience working to address human trafficking and other human rights-related issues around the world, Ouleye is well-positioned to lead efforts to tackle labor and sex trafficking in a city with a rich history of civil rights leadership.

Pathways to Freedom: You’ve worked on issues including human trafficking, refugee resettlement and girls’ and women’s rights in Thailand, Israel, and Senegal. How will those experiences inform the work you’re doing in Atlanta?

Warnock: Living in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East taught me that the problems we face around the world are so similar. We must protect our most vulnerable populations — such as children, stateless people, and those born into generational poverty. When I lived at a child-rights protection center in Thailand, a large focus of our work was finding ways to support children so that they could stay in school, receive vocational training, and ultimately thrive independently. By doing this, we helped to ensure that our young people were less vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking.

Though our problems are similar, different cultural contexts must be considered while finding solutions. I have seen many well-intended projects go awry when culture is overlooked or misunderstood. When I say “culture,” it’s important to note that I am not simply talking about different countries because different cultures often exist within a single city, or street block, for that matter.

As it relates to human rights and, especially, the trafficking of minors, education is key. When we stress the importance of education for our children, monitor their attendance and their performance in school, and really pay attention to what is going on in their lives, we can prevent a lot of harm.

Pathways to Freedom: You’ve also completed extensive graduate studies on issues of migration and human rights at Oxford University and Columbia University. Does this inform the work you’re doing now?

Warnock: Absolutely. This is not just an Atlanta issue; it is an interconnected global problem to which we are not immune. This is a $150 billion dollar a year industry impacting an estimated 21 million people around the world. My graduate work helped provide a holistic perspective. At Oxford, my studies focused exclusively on migration – why, how, and when people move – whether forced or voluntary. This is a more inclusive framework through which to view migrant workers’ and labor rights violations and to understand how young people get pulled into the sex trafficking spiral around the world. While living in England, I learned more about the European Union’s efforts to tackle trafficking on a governmental level.

Just prior to joining the City, I was a History Professor at Spelman College. Through this work, I was able to hone my skills in teaching new information to a diverse audience of gifted young people. This work will greatly benefit from my background as a professor and researcher.

My responsibility now will involve educating and informing city policy makers, service providers, and the public about the many forms of human trafficking so that Atlantans will be more aware of their surroundings and better equipped to recognize it. We need to have strong city policies to respond to human trafficking.

Pathways to Freedom: What makes Atlanta unique as a city?

Warnock: Our civil rights history and our faith. I think of Atlanta as the civil rights capital of our country, and we are very proud of that legacy. Atlantans also want to continue to take part in making history by standing on the right side of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated across the country, and tourists pour in to our city throughout the year to experience this history. King said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This quote embodies our responsibility to one another, a commitment that requires thoughtful and strategic policy with respect to disenfranchised, marginalized populations. These are the people who are most vulnerable to labor exploitation and homelessness, and other factors that can expose people to human trafficking.

There is also an atmosphere of faith in our community. We’re in the Bible belt, and a lot of the civil rights movement was birthed out of local churches. So, in addition to this legacy of activism, we also have a multifaith community here which brings together people from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Bahá’í faith communities and many others to talk about the issues affecting our people. I have already heard from many faith leaders who are eager and excited to get involved in the City’s efforts to end human trafficking.

Pathways to Freedom: What do you want people to know about the labor and sex trafficking issues Atlanta is facing?

Warnock: I have found that there is a fairly widespread understanding of sex trafficking in Atlanta. There was a CNN special that shed light on it a few years ago, and the 2015 Safe Harbor Act/Rachel’s Law drew a lot of attention to the sexual exploitation of children.

However, there is less understanding and awareness of labor trafficking in the general public. I’ve had many recent conversations where people asked me: “What is labor trafficking and who does it happen to?” Even though it happens right in front of us, labor trafficked victims are often “invisible,” and part of my challenge is to make the issue more visible. We already have many wonderful local nonprofits striving to do that, and I am connecting with them to find out where there are gaps we must work to fill. The City of Atlanta can play a unique role in defining this space and creating better programs and policies that respond to the issue.

Within city government, so many people I’ve talked to, including those in public works, watershed, city planning, housing, customer service, police, fire, finance, education, transportation, and housing, are open to having city employees think about new ways to prevent trafficking and better support trafficking survivors. There is an incredible opportunity to reach so many citizens with information that will raise awareness and create new and better policies—an important step toward developing a citywide plan to end trafficking. I think the ground is ripe in Atlanta, and in the state, for new and innovative anti-trafficking efforts.

Pathways to Freedom: What motivates you to do this work?

Warnock: On a personal level, my experiences with trafficked children and refugees widened my eyes to a dark side of humanity. Once you know, there is no turning back. Providing direct services to refugees, vulnerable children and others, I saw and heard their stories first-hand. This will haunt you, and I’ve found the only way to live with the knowledge is to stay active in the work. I already see that we can make such a positive impact from the Mayor’s Office – both by bringing about new policies and supporting the local organizations that carry out this work in Atlanta every day. I am eager and optimistic that we will be able to make a positive difference in so many people’s lives and that is very fulfilling.

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About Pathways to Freedom

Pathways to Freedom calls on cities to take urgent action to prevent human trafficking and address the unmet needs of survivors. This third challenge of the Partnership for Freedom focuses on challenging assumptions, spurring innovative city-wide responses, and sharing local solutions. Humanity United and the NoVo Foundation lead this final challenge in collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities.

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