In the spring of 2008, 17-year old Zoe* was hanging out with about 20-30 friends in a parking lot in a sleepy Sacramento suburb. At some point over the next several hours, a man who had befriended the group drugged Zoe’s drink when she wasn’t looking. He then offered to take several of the teens home in his Hummer.
After dropping the teens off, one by one, at their homes, he drove past Zoe’s home. He told her that he had something else planned. Over the next eight days, she was raped, sold to human traffickers in the Bay Area over Craigslist and trafficked for sex 15-20 times per day until rescued by the FBI.
It can happen anywhere. To anyone. At any time. Human trafficking — the fastest-growing crime industry in the world — has no typical victim. That’s what has spurred Lizzie Fleming — an All-American volleyball player at St. Ignatius, bound for Duke on a full-ride scholarship next fall — to take up the cause.
Zoe’s mother’s close friend, Ashlie Bryant, founded 3Strands Global to help prevent stories like Zoe’s. Bryant and Fleming’s mother, Staci, had become friends while their husbands attended Duke business school, 27 years ago, and for the last 10 years, Lizzie has not only heard Zoe’s story, but has been deeply impacted by it. That’s what led her, as just a freshman in high school, to co-found Break Free, a human trafficking awareness group at St. Ignatius, along with teammate Sarah Nunes. Four years later, it has over 150 members.
“It’s not all about grades and volleyball,” Fleming said after last week’s WCAL quarterfinal win over Valley Christian. “There are bigger issues.”
Bubbly, charismatic, animated and eloquent, the 6-foot-2 middle blocker has a 4.2 GPA, a commanding presence, and a remarkable self-assuredness. It makes her a leader on the court — where she has nearly 1,000 career kills — and it’s what makes her an ideal spokesperson. When she and Nunes came to St. Ignatius head girls volleyball coach Jennifer Curtin with the proposal to start a club, it wasn’t difficult to say yes to becoming the club’s advisor.
“These are outgoing girls who have a lot of respect in their peer groups, so when they wanted to start that club, and we had our club fair, they attracted a lot of people, and got them signed up,” Curtin said. “This year is really where they took real action. Mackenzie Honey has now joined forces with Lizzie and they were instrumental in getting a speaker to come and talk about the human trafficking.”
That speaker was Bryant. Fleming and Honey — an outside hitter for the Wildcats — asked if the entire program could attend the talk, in lieu of practice. “It was a no-brainer,” Curtin said. The talk served as a culmination of four years of work on the part of Fleming, her teammates and about 10 percent of the St. Ignatius student body.
“She started this club to be able to raise the level of awareness,” Bryant said. “The [initial] discussions were really about what I could send her, about data and information, so she could make people aware.”
In the years after she first heard Zoe’s story, Fleming immersed herself in learning about human trafficking. Commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor make up the two biggest categories in the United States, with forced marriage and organ trafficking also making up large segments. She found that there are about 40 million people in human trafficking rings worldwide, across all races, nationalities, ethnicities and socio-economic classes. Seventy-five percent are women or girls, according to the International Labour Organization.
“We were just thinking about what we need to pay attention to as a society,” Fleming said. “We just think it’s scary, because it happens everywhere. People don’t think it happens, but it happens right here in San Francisco.”
“The definition is not widely understood, and because of that, it’s misunderstood as a crime, and misunderstood as a cause,” Bryant said. “Groups like Lizzie’s allow for truth to happen. Truth in data, truth in understanding of what human trafficking is, and the truth of how we really combat it, and what does it really look like.”
Due to San Francisco’s status as a port city, in 2016 — the most recent year for which data is available — 529 survivors of human trafficking were reported, with 127 being minors, according to the San Francisco Mayor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking. That was just one year, and only the cases that were reported to authorities.
Over the last four years, Fleming and the club have focused on peer-to-peer awareness at St. Ignatius, giving fellow students the tools to detect signs of human trafficking, ending the practice by creating awareness of it. They’ve volunteered at Break Free Runs — 5 and 10k run-walks in Oakland and Sacramento organized run by 3Strands, that have been held for the last 10 years, and which help bring awareness and funding.
“Because of our connection and our relationship for so many years, that was an easy ask of me: ‘What can I do? How can I be a student-athlete, make a difference in this space, and how can I be an individual and a citizen that can make a difference in this space?’” Bryant said.
This year, Fleming and current co-president Honey — an outside hitter for the Wildcats — had the club sell rubber bracelets to raise $750 to help give a fresh start to those who have escaped human trafficking rings. They’ve also worked with the school’s religion department to help build awareness of trafficking in the student body through the GOYB program — Get Off Your Butt — which awards credit to students for taking part in ethical awareness programs and community service.
“That just makes more people come, because a lot of people don’t know what human trafficking is,” Fleming said. “When they hear they can get credit for it, students come and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, I didn’t know this was such a big issue.’ Then, they become invested in it, and start spreading awareness. It’s a continuous cycle. It helps people get involved.”
Honey and Fleming appeared on SITV — an in-house video announcement program at St. Ignatius — and, instead of announcing the next volleyball match, announced that students could earn GOYB credit by attending a talk by Bryant. On Sept. 26, in the school Commons, Bryant introduced students to the PROTECT Program — Prevention Organized To Educate Children on Trafficking.
“The response was really great,” Bryant said. “This generation is socially-minded. They really want to stand up against injustice. Human trafficking is not only a crime that happens all over the U.S., but California has the highest incidence of human trafficking in the nation. As students, that really resonated with them.”
Ashlie calls Fleming and others like her “modern-day abolitionists.”
“We’ve got to engage more Lizzies of the world,” Bryant said. “The only way that we’re going to disrupt the economy of human trafficking is by making sure that Lizzies are helping us to disrupt it.”
Fleming and Honey have tapped junior middle blocker Maddie Doyle to lead Breaking Free at St. Ignatius going forward. Traveling cross-country to play volleyball isn’t going to stop her, or end the efforts back home at St. Ignatius, whose school motto states that the school is committed to developing students who respond “courageously to the opportunities and challenges of our time.”
“I want her to continue spreading awareness here, while I go to the East Coast,” Fleming said. “I’m just going to keep passing it down, make it stay alive. When I get to the East Coast, I want something I can join, maybe there’s something at Duke I can join, or that I can help create, and I’m definitely going to do that.”
* = real name changed to protect the privacy of the individual