Artist, activist and educator Yewande Austin, photographed at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Jackson Ward (Photo by Justin Vaughan)
When Yewande Austin meets me at a Carytown restaurant for our interview, she enters with a small child, dressed in a cream frock, gripping her hand. The girl – we’ll call her Tatiana – looks at me curiously through melted-chocolate eyes, her lips holding the hint of a shy smile. She could be my younger cousin, or a kid from my church. But Tatiana, a beautiful 6-year-old Richmonder, was sold on the streets by her mother, a homeless, drug-addicted prostitute. The same woman sold two of her other children.
Tatiana is a victim of human trafficking, an epidemic Austin — a classically trained pianist and vocalist who left behind a promising career in entertainment to pursue higher callings — has spent the last decade of her life researching, illuminating and fighting.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, in which traffickers use “force, fraud or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against his/her will,” according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Each year, an estimated 20 million people become victims of human trafficking globally; approximately 1.5 million of these victims live and work in America.
Austin’s latest project, a documentary titled “Amazing Grace: Freedom’s Song,” focuses on human-trafficking victims in Nigeria, Atlanta and Richmond, casting a light on survivors such as Tatiana. Directed by award-winning Atlanta-based filmmakers The Horne Brothers, an extended trailer of the film was screened at Afrikana Independent Film Festival’s Noir Cinema Series season two finale event in April. The project is a three-year work in progress that blends Austin’s artistry with advocacy, and it hits close to home.
Jessica Willis [no relation to author], executive director of the Richmond Justice Initiative and the Prevention Project, has worked with dozens of human-trafficking survivors in Richmond and the surrounding counties. The convergence of Interstates 95 and 64 make Richmond prime hunting ground for traffickers, says Willis. The RJI, founded in 2009, advocates for anti-trafficking legislation at the General Assembly; 16 of their proposed bills have passed. The organization’s trafficking prevention education program is now taught in six other states. “There’s a huge need in Richmond for advocacy surrounding human trafficking,” she says.
“It’s happening here every day, and we cannot keep looking the other way,” says Austin. “These are our children.”
Last year, Austin was sitting on her Museum District front porch playing with her cat when Tatiana and her aunt walked by; Austin introduced herself and invited the girl to join her. The two bonded, and Tatiana’s aunt eventually shared the girl’s horrifying story. That Austin met a human trafficking victim by chance, without leaving her own home, proves how rampant the problem is.
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Austin (center, in blue top) with R.I.S.E. (Restoring Inspiration through Science and Artistic Expression) students, Austin's pilot program that used music and the arts to teach core STEM subjects, produced in partnership with VCU's Division for Health Sciences Diversity in 2014. Austin is currently considering other sites in Richmond for the program. (Photo courtesy Yewande Austin)
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Austin with R.I.S.E. students and the son of journalist and civil rights activist the late Marcus Garvey, Dr. Julius Garvey, who was one of the program's guest speakers in 2014 (Photo courtesy Yewande Austin)
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Austin with VCU pre- and professional health students in her 2015 co-curricular diversity healthcare class, HumanCare (the only one of its kind in America); also pictured are Kevin Harris, VCU's associate vice president for Academic Health Sciences (far left, second row) and former Associate Vice President for Academic Health Sciences Dr. Quincy Byrdsong (far left, front row), who first invited Austin to VCU. (Photo courtesy Yewande Austin)
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Austin sits with the president of the Republic of the Gambia, Africa, His Honorable Yahya Jammeh (left), and Ambassador Omar Faye. In 2014, Austin produced a series of empowerment programs for Gambian youth. The same youth participated online in a social justice camp that Austin conducted with 14 rising seniors at St. Christopher's School in Richmond in summer 2015. (Photo courtesy Yewande Austin)
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Abuja, Nigeria (summer 2015): Austin teaching Boko Haram conflict refugees the principles of leadership; the lesson, which taught reading, spelling and personal skills, was conducted entirely through music. (Photo courtesy Yewande Austin)
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Austin shooting a music video for "One More Time," a song that will be featured in the "Amazing Grace: Freedom's Song" documentary; during filming the chief of the village jumped into the shoot. (Photo by Tyrone Horne)
Austin’s work goes beyond her human rights efforts. “I go into dark spaces and find beauty there,” says Austin, her dark eyes imploring me to understand. “I’m a change maker, a mother of ideas, and I teach people how to solve problems creatively.”
That’s a humble way of summing up the scope of her work, which spans the globe and several disciplines. She’s sung backup for the Black Eyed Peas and composed songs in 12 indigenous languages from around the world. She’s a gifted lecturer, enlightening international audiences during the last 20 years on issues such as social change and diversity, including her talk at TEDxRVA in April. Through her Change Rocks Foundation, Austin develops programs that promote inclusion and social responsibility, using creative methods such as songwriting and performance art to reach and teach youth. She’s also a two-time CNN Hero Award nominee, and is recognized as an honorary U.S. Cultural Ambassador by dozens of embassies worldwide. Are you, like me, wondering when she sleeps?
It’s a question Kevin Harris has pondered, too. Last year, Harris, associate vice president for Academic Health Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, oversaw Austin’s development of an innovative class called HumanCare. The course integrates diversity and inclusion principles into health care training, and incorporates presentations on topics including the health care challenges of LGBT individuals, religiosity in health care and empowerment of patients living in poverty.
“The basis of the course is this: At the human level, we are all just people, and here are the real issues people are dealing with,” says Harris. “[Austin] is equipping these future health care professionals with the skills they need to effectively communicate with and treat patients from every walk of life.” According to Harris’ research, this is the only co-curricular course of its kind in the country. Student evaluations conducted before and after the course revealed that after completing the class, 49.6 percent more students felt equipped with strategies to promote diversity, and 89 percent of the students felt that Austin’s HumanCare class should be a requirement in their health care education.
Austin continues her work at VCU this fall as a Globe Faculty Fellow and instructor, and she plans to take students in her multidisciplinary “Art of Change” course to Botswana. There, they’ll work with a group of Austin’s former students from another of her organizations, the Global Institute for Change, to create sustainable business models and programs combating socioeconomic problems.
Austin moved to Richmond two years ago for her work with VCU; she was the school’s first-ever diversity lecturer in residence. In a 2014 partnership with VCU’s Division of Health Sciences Diversity, one of her programs, R.I.S.E. (Restoring Inspiration through Science and Artistic Expression), used music and the arts to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-based lessons to Richmond Public Schools students. Austin’s VCU students put her diversity training into practice, acting as mentors to the teens. Austin notes that in less than two weeks, R.I.S.E. students’ average math and science scores (on quantitative evaluations conducted as part of the program) increased by 40 and 30 percent, respectively. Thirty percent of the students reported a desire to change their career path to health sciences.
It’s our city’s past, present and people that hold Austin here and inspire her work. Just as the trans-Atlantic slave trade connected Africa to Richmond four centuries ago, so, too, does the modern-day slavery of human trafficking. In the midst of her teaching and other projects, Austin intends to keep shining a light on a problem many Richmonders don’t know exists.
“Do I think human trafficking can be completely stopped?” she asks, eyebrows raised. “No. Slavery has been happening since the start of time,” she says, noting that Richmond was one of America’s major slave-trading hubs. “What I do believe, with my whole heart, is that I can reduce the number of people affected by it. One by one.”
Tatiana picks at a slice of cheese pizza as we wrap the interview. Austin, now the girl's mentor, turns to her and with a smile asks, “Do you want to tell Ms. Samantha your dreams?” I struggle to keep my composure in front of this child who has already overcome more obstacles than I could ever imagine and yet is still smiling.
In a tiny voice that I strain to hear, Tatiana says, “I want to build an elevator with a bed and food and presents in it. I want everybody to have fun. I want to write my life over again. And I want to hug the whole world.”
“Amazing Grace: Freedom’s Song” is set for release in 2017. View a sneak peek of the film below.
For more information on how to help local victims of human trafficking, contact the Richmond Justice Initiative at 781-4567 or call the Polaris National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 888-373-7888.