Growing up in Luling, Louisiana, Laura T. Murphy says she always felt surrounded by the issue of slavery.

“It’s so much a part of the fabric of our history and culture here,” she says, noting that, for her, it instilled a call to action to devote her life to its study, ultimately leading to a Ph.D. in African-American studies from Harvard.

“I was working on my thesis in 2004 on historical slavery, specifically the way people remembered it, when I picked up this newspaper article whose title was something about modern slavery. I remember my first reaction was horror – I was so offended that someone would use that word to reference something in modern day. But then I kept reading about human trafficking, people being used for profit, held captive against their will under the threat of violence.”

Murphy says it was a life changing moment for her. “I had this realization: ‘How could I spend my life studying slavery as if it’s not happening anymore?’ I had to do something to help.”

Commonly recognized more as an overseas problem, human trafficking knows no borders. “In the world there are currently an estimated 36 million people living enslaved,” she says. “Fifty-five thousand of those are living in the U.S.”

Since coming to teach at Loyola University in 2010, where she serves as director of African American Studies, Murphy has founded the Survivors of Slavery speakers project, which has since spread nationwide. She also founded the Modern Slavery Research Project, which includes the New Orleans Human Trafficking Working Group, a group dedicated to addressing the issue locally.

The group recently conducted a study with New Orleans nonprofit Covenant House, an organization devoted to children in crisis, including many that end up living on the streets.

“We found that 14 percent of the kids we talked to met the government definition of being victims of human trafficking – forced to sell sex or drugs,” she says. “That means about 86 kids (at Covenant House) every year are being victimized.”

A big part of the problem, she says, is education. “We’ve been going into schools and helping students make that connection between what’s going on now and historical slavery,” she says. “We’re giving them the knowledge to protect themselves from exploitation. They may not realize there are ways out.”

Mentor: I would have to say one has been Kevin Bales, a sociologist who co-founded the organization Free the Slaves. He’s dedicated his life to this issue and in general just has unending concern for humans all over the world. I strive to be more like him.

Defining moment: Reading that article (see above) changed everything. I felt this responsibility to do something.

Advice for young women: Apply for everything. See what happens. There are so many opportunities that we assume we won’t get so we don’t even try.

Goals: Every five years I do what I call a radical self-assessment, in terms of where I want to be 10 years from now career-wise. But this year I’m looking a lot to the other things in life. I want to be on the water more. Just be a nicer person in general, spend more time with the people I love.

Favorite thing about what I do: That has to be working with survivor activists. They’ve lived through such horror and come out of it so empowered
and engaged.