It’s nice to assume that we all have something to believe in. What are you fighting for? What do you want to see more or less of in your community? What sort of advocacy fulfills you?

And are you out there, relentless?

Kadra Abdi is out there, and she’s fighting to get our attention.

As difficult as it is for us to realize and believe, sex trafficking is not just an international issue. It’s a local issue, and it’s happening right in Kadra’s community of Minneapolis / St. Paul.

And we are not doing enough to stop it.

“No one in Minnesota can believe that it’s happening right here,” Kadra says.

As a brave activist, we need people like Kadra in our region, but we need to remember — today and always — that in order for people like Kadra to succeed, she needs us, too.

‘I have to do this’

The OTA Builder program is just the accountability that Kadra needs to move forward right now, and to stay on track.

“I’m still socially active, I’m still protesting and causing trouble here and there,” she says. “But since graduation, I feel like I have neglected the human rights work.”

Kadra focused on women and gender studies while getting her undergraduate degree at Luther College and then studied human rights while attending the University of Minnesota for her masters. The passion has always been within her to advocate for women’s rights, but it wasn’t until taking on a school project that she became invested in sex trafficking.

“I’d always heard of this being an international issue, but only recently have we started to focus on things that are happening nationally or locally.”

Around the time that she was working on this humans rights project, in November of 2010, 29 Somalis were arrested in Minneapolis for sex trafficking young girls across state borders.

It became the largest sex trafficking case in the United States and was a devastating realization for the Twin Cities communities.

“This became a huge thing, something that shocked the Somali community because, in my community and in the mainstream community, too, there’s still a lot of stigma, wanting to further yourself from this issue,” Kadra says. “People didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe that it was bigger than it was and that it was happening right here in our backyards.”

What shocked Kadra the most is that three women were involved in the Somali sex ring as well.

“Their role was to lure these young girls, find these vulnerable kids who had issues at home. Maybe they wanted to run away, and those women just presented them a ‘perfect opportunity.’ ”

After the federal indictment against the 29 Somalis, Kadra’s mission became clear: Connect those who also are trying to abolish sex trafficking in our region, and allow those communities to learn from one another.

“I can do this,” Kadra says. “I have to do this! If we want to end (sex trafficking) anytime soon, it’ll require comprehensive, multi-disciplinary and regional approach. We’re doing the best we can.”

Can you imagine taking on such an effort?

Education and awareness

A lot of Kadra’s work is simply educating her community — and her region — on what sex trafficking is and insisting that we pay more attention.

“It’s really hard to grasp how big this thing is,” Kadra says. “People still do not understand how systemic and organized sex trafficking really is.”

“It’s really hard to grasp how big this thing is.”

Many people mistake sex trafficking for prostitution and therefore don’t feel a sense of urgency. They see it as a form of prostitution that’s been happening for years. But Kadra explains that it becomes sex trafficking when a young victim is forced to cross state lines and is coerced with drugs and alcohol.

This is not prostitution, Kadra urges. “Community members will ask, how are they being forced when it seems these girls are willing to go? But the girls are being recruited and coerced and conditioned, and then it becomes a survival thing for them. It becomes the only thing they know, and they aren’t going to say no because they know something bad could happen to them.”

A lot of shock, too, is the age of the victims. “People assume these are grown women, but then they find out they are actually 12, 13 and 14 years old. Then they are willing to help.

“Then they are willing to do whatever it takes to stop this.”

It starts with law enforcement, but it ends with you

Kadra says that some girls do find their way out of sex trafficking rings with the help of law enforcement, but not enough.

“Not every police department has the experience to identify a sex trafficking case. This is why more states need to pass the Safe Harbor Bill, so law enforcement can treat young girls as victims, not as prostitutes, and get her somewhere safe.”

The Safe Harbor Bill, which passed in the state of Minnesota in 2011, states that “sexual exploitation of youth in Minnesota is commonly overlooked and misidentified as something else and undocumented. Now, Minnesota youth who engage in prostitution are viewed as victims and survivors, not criminals. They will be treated with dignity and respect and directed to supportive services, and shelter and housing that meet their needs and recognize their right to make their own choices.”

Instead of helping to pass this bill in every state — which she hopes to see someday — Kadra is focused instead on her own region and helping to pass the law in North Dakota.

“That would be really helpful, just one step in the right direction,” Kadra says. “But passing the law is one thing, changing attitudes is another.”

Not that any of this work is easy, but changing community perception is the hard part.

“This is not just a problem ‘over there,’ in the impoverished communities,” Kadra says. “This is a problem right here, and it’s happening every day.”

Once communities begin to realize and accept this, they can focus more on awareness instead of denial. Moreover, they can help.

“It’s so important to partner up with community-based organizations — people who know the community well,” Jade says. “They are the ones who can identify areas where girls are being recruited from, or areas where the sellers are. They will be able to identify these people a lot better than law enforcement would.

“A great partnership among foundations, community-based organizations and law enforcement, that’s going to be the magic.”

To me, this is such scary, sensitive and vulnerable work, but for Kadra, that’s all the more reason to forge ahead. She is resolute, strong and brave, and she’s confident in the help her community can be, too.

We are necessary for Kadra to succeed.

“This becomes less scary when there are more people involved, when the community stands together to say, ‘No, this should not be happening here.’ ”

Let’s start today.