Learning to Follow rather than Lead: What happens when we let youth take charge?

I’m a professor.  I’m used to standing at the front of a classroom full of students and guiding them through the material that I want them to master.  I decide what is important for students to learn, what they will read and how to run the classroom – whether to lecture or have class discussion.  I assign and evaluate work.  Frankly, I’m used to being in charge.  So when my Human Rights students decided to organize an anti-trafficking event for a class advocacy project, I struggled with letting go.  Now don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled that they chose to confront human trafficking and I was excited about the prospect of expanding the circle of anti-trafficking advocates among our youth.  But the assignment required that the students take the lead – it was a real life test to see if they could translate what they have learned about human rights advocacy in the classroom into an effective event in real life.  My job was only to serve as a consultant.  My job is to follow wherever they led. 

So why did I have a knot growing in the pit of my stomach?  Advocates in the fight against human trafficking have been struggling against the problem of misinformation, and especially with the promotion of myths that have become conventional wisdoms – but are wrong.  These myths, when presented as truths, can actually hurt the anti-trafficking movement and human trafficking victims.  I am passionate about the fight against human trafficking in Michigan and so it was important to me for the students to “get it right.”  I couldn’t do the work for them, but left completely on their own they might actually perpetuate some of these myths?  What was a professor to do?

Over the course of several weeks, I fretted.  I watched students search for information online and integrate inaccurate or misleading information into their materials and presentations.  I asked probing questions and challenged source material.  I asked them to corroborate sources.  I gave them advice – they only sometimes followed it.  I offered list of experts – they did not reach out to experts. Honestly, there was a moment when I wondered whether or not I should let them proceed with the event.  After all, our task force is deeply committed to accuracy and we know bad information is counterproductive.  I kept asking hard questions.  It was a slow and sometimes painful process but in the end I followed and they led.  So what happened?

The event titled #NotinMIstate was an overwhelming success. A class of 18 students directly touched more than 100 people and mobilized them to take action.  They produced educational materials that drew attention to BOTH labor and sex trafficking in Michigan.  They personalized and humanized the crime of trafficking and showed participants that it happens everywhere – including in their own communities.  They got participants involved in actually doing something to respond.  They asked participants to dip their hand in red paint and stamp it on a giant map of Michigan to visually show where trafficking happens.  Students took photos of participants holding posters stating “I stand against human trafficking” and asked them to make it their social media profile – people did. They created hashtags –  #Ithappenshere and #NotinMIstate to educate their peers that while human trafficking happens in Michigan, it shouldn’t.  They collected nearly 200 letters addressed to Senator Peters and Senator Stabenow advocating for victim-centered legislation. The students’ efforts had a snowballing effect.  Those they reached spread the message through social media and word of mouth, maximizing the impact.  In short, students and I both learned that they could make an impact and that they didn’t need to wait until they became the experts to do something about human trafficking. 

In sum, students can contribute in creative ways to the anti-trafficking movement.  They bring originality, passion and creative potential to the table. They develop ideas we don’t think of and can reach audiences we can’t reach on our own.  Youth listen to the voices of other youth better than they listen to us and their voices bring a credibility and legitimacy that we won’t achieve with the same audience.  Youth don’t communicate and use media the same way we do.  They have technical skill sets and social media savvy that many of us in a different generation do not.  Finally, they are passionate, have a lot of energy and retain a fair amount of optimism about the world. 


If you are a practitioner in the anti-trafficking movement consider actively seeking students out to involve them in your work.  Hire them as employees and interns.  Brainstorm ways to make them a partner in the conversation about human trafficking and not simply just slot them into your existing work plan.  Consider the contribution students might make to your work if you added them to your Board of Directors or added a youth representative to your regional task force. These actions might mean taking a risk and investing in a student who may only be with you for a short while but I think it is worth it

Carrie Booth Walling is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Albion College and member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force