KEARNEY – When Kristin Wiebe traveled through Thailand about two decades ago, the country’s sex industry was far from hidden.
Prostitution, and the sex trafficking that came with it, were impossible to ignore.
“It struck me very hard, and I had a hard time shaking all of these images from my mind,” said Wiebe, who made the trip through southeast Asia on her way back from Bangladesh.
The Kearney native spent about three years in Bangladesh, working with the nonprofit Mennonite Central Committee to design and promote handicrafts that supported women’s cooperatives there.
After returning to her parents’ home in Nebraska, she couldn’t stop thinking about those images of modern-day slavery in Thailand.
“It’s not just southeast Asia, and it’s not just sex,” said Wiebe, adding that forced labor is another common, and often overlooked, problem.
The graduate of Kearney High School and Bethel College, now Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, wasn’t going to ignore these issues.
She enrolled in the University of San Francisco School of Law, graduating in 2001, then embarked on a mission to combat human trafficking.
Wiebe worked for World Hope International for about a decade, spent time creating an aftercare program in India as the international program director for EmancipAction Inc. and served as technical advisor for the Human Trafficking Standards Initiative. She’s developed anti-human trafficking and humanitarian programs in Europe, Asia and Africa, and lobbied the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
A decade ago, she spoke about human trafficking during the James E. Smith Midwest Conference on World Affairs on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus.
Wiebe will return to UNK next month as the keynote speaker during the JCM Morality of Capitalism Symposium. The theme for the event, hosted by the UNK College of Business and Technology, is “Human trafficking: Can free markets free people?”
Wiebe’s presentation, scheduled for 7 p.m. April 9 inside the Ponderosa Room at the Nebraskan Student Union on campus, will focus on what she’s learned about human trafficking over the past two decades.
“It is an issue that impacts people everywhere, and Nebraska is not immune to human trafficking,” she said.
Wiebe, who moved back to the U.S. in 2013 and currently works as an independent consultant based in Baltimore, said human trafficking may not be as blatant here as it was in Thailand, but it certainly exists.
“You don’t have to look very far to find a supply chain that may be tainted at some point, especially in the sex industry,” Wiebe said while noting that many consumer products can be connected to forced labor.
She called Nebraska a “corridor” for human trafficking, given its central location in the U.S., and a state where some trafficking groups are actively operating.
At the same time, Wiebe is proud of the steps the state has taken to address the problem through public awareness efforts and the enactment of stricter laws.
“I’m so grateful that Nebraska takes this so seriously. Keeping it relevant in the public eye is excellent, because the issue hasn’t gone away,” she said.
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Kristin Wiebe, a 1987 graduate of Kearney High School, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio art, English and writing from Bethel College and a law degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law. She took some undergraduate and graduate courses at UNK and remains an active artist. Her father lives near Cottonmill Lake on Kearney’s west edge, and she has siblings in Scottsbluff and Lincoln.
The JCM Morality of Capitalism Symposium will be hosted April 9-10 in the Ponderosa Room inside the Nebraskan Student Union on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus.
The symposium, which focuses on human trafficking and how free markets can address this problem, features a keynote address, panel discussions, professional presentations and survivor stories. Speakers will address human trafficking at the regional, national and international levels.
The event is free and open to the public.
9:05-9:55 a.m. – “Bringing the problem to light: The importance of education to fight human trafficking.” Washburn University College of Arts and Sciences professor Sharon Sullivan.
10-11 a.m. – Student poster session.
11:15 a.m.-12:05 p.m. – “The economics of human trafficking.” Doane University associate economics professor Jennifer Bossard.
1:25-2:15 p.m. – Law enforcement panel presentation featuring Jim Davis, UNK director of police; Dan Warrington, Kearney Police Department investigator; and Tony Kavan, Nebraska State Patrol investigator.
3-4:30 p.m. – Informal meetings, media and student-presenter conversations.
7 p.m. – “Human trafficking and modern day slavery: Lessons learned in the last 20 years.” Keynote speaker Kristin Wiebe.
9:30-10:45 a.m. – Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force panel presentation featuring Federico Vicente and Alicia Webber of The Salvation Army and Glen Parks of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
11 a.m.-12:15 p.m. – “Survivors’ perspective” presentation. Leticia Bonifas, founder and executive director of Central Nebraska Human Trafficking and Immigration Outreach and a member of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force.