About one million people have poured red sand in public spaces all over world. It is an international movement of “activism through art” to draw attention to human trafficking. About 150 people attended a Red Sand Project in Nashville last week.

NASHVILLE, TN – The Office of the District Attorney, Family Safety, Juvenile Court, several vendors and non-profits gathered in Public Square last week to pour red sand in the cracks of the paving stones in front the historic Metro Courthouse.

The event was the latest Red Sand Project action which have been done in all 50 states and 70 countries. Artist Molly Gochman started the project in 2014 to bring awareness to a very old  problem. Globally, an estimated 40.3 million individuals live in slavery, whether in forced marriages, forced labor, or for sexual exploitation. About one million have participated in Red Sand Project actions around the world. It is an international movement of “activism through art”.

The pouring of the sand is symbolic and the grains of sand represent individuals who are exploited, then fall through the cracks in cities and towns everywhere, and become invisible. The bright red sand is meant to raise awareness of the problem. Since 2011, 41 laws have been passed in TN to protect victims. But officials say it’s still the second fastest growing crime in Tennessee.

According to End Slavery Tennessee (ESTN), 65-110 minors are trafficked in Tennessee every month. Their average age is 15 and 83% are U.S. citizens. Once a young woman enters the sex trade she is likely to live just 7 years.

Sheila Simpkins beat those odds. From an early age, she was groomed for sex and started turning tricks as a teenager.

“Back when I was being victimized we were treated as criminals. I think it’s really really important that people use a victim-centered approach,” Simpkins said.

For years, she was a sex worker and smoked a lot of crack. Then she got off Murfreesboro Rd. and into Nashville’s Magdalene recovery program. Founded in 1997, the two-year residential program gives women who have survived trafficking, prostitution, and addiction a second chance at life.

Simpkins took it. Now, fifteen years later, she is married with children and is the Education and Outreach Director at Thistle Farms on Charlotte Ave. They own the building. The café and store are on the first floor.

“I never met a victim whose dream for themselves as a child was to grow up to be a prostitute or to be trafficked. You have to ask yourself what happened to them,” Simpkins said.

Metro police, the District Attorney, and Judge Ana Escobar have started asking those questions.

“I have the privilege of running “Cherished Hearts” which is a court designed for victims of human trafficking,” said Escobar. “I proudly serve there and the women do remarkable work every day and I can tell them that this community supports them,” she said.

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