Fourteen years ago, Dana World-Patterson asked a group of high school girls she was working with if they had ever been touched inappropriately. Fourteen of the 15 girls raised their hands. “Inside, I was cracking,” World-Patterson says. “I was in shock. I was hurting.” The girls, who were all enrolled in an etiquette class that World-Patterson was teaching, shared stories of abuse by family members, by mothers’ boyfriends. One of the girls who’d been abused had been misbehaving in school, World-Patterson learned. “She was basically saying, ‘Who can I tell?’ ‘Who cares?’” World-Patterson says. “‘Let me slam some doors. Let me cuss you out. Let me do whatever is needed so that you will ask me what is going on.’ I’ll never forget her. … When a person is ‘acting out,’ I often will pause and think, ‘They have a story.’ They want someone to connect with them, so they can share what’s going on in their lives.”
World-Patterson was prompted to ask the girls that question because she had recently joined the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee (then known as the Milwaukee County Human Trafficking Task Force). She had been invited by Martha Love, a prominent Milwaukee activist, who knew that World-Patterson had extensive experience working closely with women and girls as the founder of Visions Etiquette Training. As she learned more about human trafficking, World-Patterson realized that combating it – and helping the women affected by it – was her calling.
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World-Patterson was later named, and now remains, the chair of the task force, where she leads monthly public meetings with police, health care officials, citizens, trafficking survivors and more to develop ways to combat trafficking in Milwaukee. In 2014, she founded a nonprofit, Foundations for Freedom, that works to achieve the same end through education, awareness, advocacy and support for survivors. Most recently, the foundation acquired an eight-unit apartment building to house victims of human trafficking.
Facing such a widespread and tragic issue, World-Patterson finds that the small victories motivate her to keep up the fight. For instance, one trafficked woman called her every day for a year-and-a-half and told her how she was rebuilding her life. Each call was another small victory: a job found, money saved, a new outlook forming. “Our mantra is one less,” World-Patterson says. “One less victim in Milwaukee is one less victim in the world.”