WCSU student honored with 2015 Newman Civic Fellowship
DANBURY, CONN. — Audriana Blackwell stood in a room in an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia. The orphanage was for children with physical abnormalities or mental conditions whose parents could not care for them. But even surrounded by these children, one young woman stood out. She rocked back and forth in the room and wore a mask to conceal the ravages of untreated AIDS. Blackwell learned the woman, who was in her late teens or early 20s, had been prostituted by her parents so they could earn money to survive.
“For the first time I considered how privileged I am,” Blackwell said.
Her observation is ironic because Blackwell had a very difficult childhood. As a teenager she became emancipated from her parents and lived in a homeless shelter for a time. She became part of a loving family only as a young adult, when a couple she met in church adopted her.
“I’ve had it rough, but for the first time I was confronted with the fact that I was lucky to be born where I was,” Blackwell said, recalling her encounter with the young woman. “I happened to be born here and she was born in Colombia, so we had different outcomes. It made me consider my obligation to society.”
Blackwell, 26, graduated in May with a bachelor’s in social sciences with a concentration in global studies and a minor in conflict resolution. Her epiphany in the Colombia orphanage led her to study human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of girls and women in Connecticut and across the world. In recognition of that, WCSU professors and administrators nominated her for the Newman Civic Fellows Award, which honors college student leaders who work to find solutions for challenging social issues. Blackwell was notified in April that she had been selected for the award.
Blackwell arrived at Western after being encouraged by a friend “who saw I had the capacity for higher education.” The friend was right. Dr. Mary O’Neill, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies, described Blackwell as “the single most inspiring and able student that I have taught in my time here at WCSU.”
Blackwell became a leader in the Compassion, Creativity and Innovation club and was selected as a scholar in the Hancock Student Leadership Program, through which she interned with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families and spent a semester exploring the world of human trafficking in the state. Most of these crimes involve adults taking advantage of neglected girls and boys, who often live in desperate economic circumstances. Social media makes it easier for predators to connect with young victims and trap them in a system of abuse and exploitation when what they seek is affection.
“Love is a human need,” Blackwell said. “If you’re not finding it at home, you look elsewhere. Most of this is online, and it’s all being done under parents’ noses.”
Blackwell had been on church trips to the Colombia orphanage twice and once to Rwanda, when she began to concentrate on Thailand.
“As I’ve traveled more, I realized I have that bug for international development work,” she said.
Blackwell described Thailand as a notorious hub of international human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women. Bangkok features three sex districts that attract foreign consumers of the sex trades from around the world. Thailand also is known as a transit country where women of many nationalities are passed through for visas obtained through bribery. Blackwell applied for a semester abroad through the International Student Exchange Program at Western, which allows students to study around the world while maintaining their academic credits at WCSU.
While in Bangkok, Blackwell planned to write an anthropological research paper on her work. To prepare, she studied Buddhism at the Redding monastery known as DNKL, which was instrumental in securing a visit from the Dalai Lama to Western in 2012. She contacted several organizations in Thailand that worked with victims of human trafficking but the only commitment she could secure was from one, NightLight International, which told her to let them know when she arrived in Bangkok.
Blackwell walked into the NightLight office when she arrived in the fall of 2013 and they put her to work. Her first assignment was to visit bars where prostitutes were on display so she could look them in the eye.
“By making eye contact, I’m saying, ‘You have value as a human being,’ ” Blackwell said. A few of the women would talk to Blackwell and her colleagues and some could eventually be convinced to leave that life and join NightLight in employment making jewelry and T-shirts, which would offer an alternative way to make money.
While Blackwell was there, the Thai military conducted a coup that was met with protests and crackdowns that disrupted traffic in Bangkok. To shorten the two-hour ride to the university where she studied, Blackwell bought a bicycle that could be folded to carry on a bus. When she got to the barbed wire fence separating protestors from the rest of the population, she threw the bike over the fence and rode the remaining way to the university. She shortened her trip to 45 minutes.
She relates the scenes of chaos and danger in a matter-of-fact way.
“In that setting, things are accelerated,” Blackwell said. “It’s like a war scene, high conflict. There are so many demands. You have to keep going. It is what it is and you keep moving.”
As she grew more experienced, Blackwell began working with non-Thai women who had been transported to Bangkok as part of the international trafficking trade. Partly as a result of her travel to Rwanda, she concentrated her efforts on women from Uganda and Tanzania. She said she was able to build trust with many of them and “I became the thread from that population to the organization.” She taught classes in co-dependency and in English as a Second Language.
Although Blackwell was originally scheduled to spend one semester in Thailand she changed her plans and stayed for a year. She said she considered giving up her university career to remain there permanently, but finally decided she could do more good if she expanded her education.
“While everything in me wanted to forsake everything and stay in Thailand, I knew that wasn’t doing the best for them,” she said. “I wanted to get myself in a position to balance the micro and macro approach.” She will apply to graduate schools to continue her studies.
Blackwell’s work made her a logical choice to nominate for the civic award, which is named for Frank Newman, an education reformer who founded Campus Compact in 1985 to motivate students to become active in their communities. Newman believed that “The most important thing an institution does is not to prepare a student for a career, but for a life as a citizen.”
Margaret Mead provided Blackwell’s own favorite saying. Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Blackwell said she reminds herself of that statement when confronted with the seeming impossibility of eradicating a problem like human trafficking.
“You can’t think about it,” she said. “It can render us incapable. This is the goal and the right thing to do. When you take that one small step for a person, there is a human magic that takes place. People are inspired by people. There are so many things in this world. You need something to be inspired. I believe in humanity. I believe if we inspire each other that ultimately good will overcome evil.”
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