Editor’s Note: Brad Riley is the founder and president of iEmpathize, a non-profit that combats crimes against children, with a focus on prevention. Its Empower Youth Program equips young people and adults to recognize issues of exploitation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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iEmpathize runs program to help young people recognize signs of trafficking

It teaches five "disguises" that a person looking to exploit someone may take on to gain trust

"Once trust is gained, exploitation begins," explains Brad Riley

CNN  — 

Across the U.S., there is a movement to prioritize human trafficking prevention in our nation’s communities. Schools, youth service programs, juvenile corrections services, group homes, and other youth-oriented spaces have begun to recognize their great potential to empower youth to stay safe from exploitation.

Brad Riley, founder and president of iEmpathize

Because our youth are experiencing exploitation now, we have to prioritize prevention now. We need to prevent it before it grows. And if you want to eradicate the weed of exploitation entirely, you must go for the roots.

Exploitation and human trafficking are not just criminal problems; they are cultural. If they were only criminal then we could relegate our responses to law enforcement. However, our law enforcement partners say that we will never arrest our way out of this problem. That approach is reactive, but we need to be proactive. These issues will only change when our communities step up to ensure they are prevented.

Seeing through the disguise

Exploitative people, including traffickers, use psychological manipulation as the primary means of control. They come into the lives of vulnerable girls and boys online through social media, in-person at places like school and the mall, and through the established relationships that youth have in their families and communities.

Exploiters get to know a youth’s vulnerabilities in order to become the person that the child desires to have in their life. Once trust is gained, exploitation begins.

Read: Journey of hope for orphan trafficked to sing in choir

iEmpathize is committed to preventing crimes from happening to our youth and giving them an alternative to crime. Our prevention resource, The Empower Youth Program, equips youth and adults to have a conversation that they desperately need to have, right within the spaces they share. We have identified five “disguises” that a person looking to exploit someone may take on to gain trust.

1 - Pretender – Someone who pretends to be something s/he is not, such as a boyfriend, a big sister, a father, etc.

2 - Provider – Someone who offers to take care of an individual’s needs, such as for clothes, food, a place to live, etc or their wants, like cool cell phones, purses, parties, etc.

3 - Promiser – Someone who promises access to great things, like an amazing job, a glamorous lifestyle, travel, etc.

4 - Protector – Someone who uses physical power or intimidation to protect (but also control) an individual.

5 - Punisher – Someone who uses violence and threats to control an individual. When the previous disguises have been exhausted, an exploitative person often becomes a Punisher to maintain control.

The program not only helps youth and adults recognize these disguises but teaches youth how to cultivate authentic and safe relationships that support a successful future for their lives.

The power of empathy

As a musician in my early 20s I was invited to be a mentor in a rap and hip hop outreach to New York gang members and at-risk youth. So many of those young men experienced exploitation in the form of recruitment, and as I learned more about their stories, I wished I had encountered them before they’d been groomed for crime.

Our young people experience push factors that they cannot control and victimizers are there to take advantage of that vulnerability. As we learned about each other’s pushes and pulls, we began an empathy exchange. We became friends, we began to partner together, and we began to attempt to walk in each other’s shoes.

To understand empathy it helps to contrast it with apathy and sympathy. Apathy is indifference towards someone’s suffering. It results in social gridlock making the problems we face as communities nearly impossible to solve. Sympathy is feeling badly for the suffering of others. Sympathy seems like a good response, but feeling badly for someone doesn’t solve the problem because it isn’t active.

Empathy, however, is an active response to the suffering of others. We cannot solve exploitation by looking away. We can only solve exploitation by engaging it.

Both boys and girls need to understand each other’s pushes and pulls. The same pushes that can make a young girl vulnerable to exploitation can also make boys vulnerable. Both can be victimized. Both can become the victimizers. In both cases, leading the conversation with empathy helps both boys and girls understand and empathize with one another.

We can deal with issues of injustice in our communities by sandbagging downstream and reacting to the problem, or we can be intentional about upstream strategies before the issue is so turbulent.

The good news is that when exploitation meets a community of empathy, apathy loses, exploitation loses, and justice wins. Decades from now, we will look back on the problem of child exploitation and we will have to ask, “Did we go for the roots to protect our youth?”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.