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Rooting Out Human Trafficking in San Diego, One Student at a Time 

Published 01/06/2020 by Global Communities

Bernadete Leal begins every Project ROOTS session in a darkened classroom with one question: “Where do you want to bring light?”  

While the exercise is a small component of the after-school program, Leal said its power lies in teaching students they can be a force for positive or negative change in the world. And it’s their choice to decide.  

“What I see a lot with the girls here starts with self-esteem,” said Leal, who has served as a Project ROOTS facilitator for three years and a teacher in San Diego for more than five. “They are 9 and 10 years old and already depressed and talking about suicide, violence at home, gangs and lack of self-respect. … [Project ROOTS] makes them feel so important and that they matter.” 

PCI implements Project ROOTS in partnership with the San Diego Unified School District, Boys and Girls Clubs and the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. The purpose of the program is to address the root causes of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and unhealthy relationships through group mentoring and social emotional learning. Girls and boys ages 8-13 learn how to be safe and resilient by exploring issues through the lenses of empathy, equality and empowerment.  

A Project ROOTS girls’ group meets after school at a participating site in San Diego County. In 2019, a total of 342 youth completed PCI’s Project ROOTS program. // Photo by Steven Wade Adams

“I believe that investing in early prevention and intervention can build a new generation with strong roots of humanity and dignity based in genuine respect for the different sexes, races and cultural backgrounds,” said Summer Stephan, San Diego County District Attorney. “This program is a pathway to a healthier community with less domestic violence, sexual abuse and gang violence.” 

Project ROOTS facilitators, typically school teachers and counselors, educate groups of 15-20 kids about inclusivity, emotional freedom and mutual respect during their 60- to 90-minute group sessions. Topics include everything from Internet safety and communication to hygiene, health and human trafficking. 

Leal said the group is also a place for participants to vent, bond and strengthen their voices in a supportive environment. Students who once frequented the principal’s office for behavioral issues now informally serve as ambassadors of peace in the school. 

“This program is so important – the transformation, the awareness, the education. We are spreading good,” she said. “I am grateful for the opportunity, and I see the change.” 

Amanda Cutler is a counselor at Walker Elementary School and facilitated a boys’ group for Project ROOTS in 2019. Although she was aware that human trafficking is a serious and pervasive issue in San Diego, she said this program is one of the first to address the problem with a focus on youth and primary prevention, which aims to prevent (or stop) violence and exploitation before it occurs. 

“I think this is something that isn’t taught at home. I think this is something that isn’t taught in the classroom. It really is a specialty,” Cutler said. “More kids need to learn about these skills. They need to learn about consent. They need to know about their own empowerment. I only had six boys, but I would have loved to work with everyone at my school. I think this is an amazing program.” 

In 2019, a total of 342 youth, including 189 girls and 120 boys, completed PCI’s Project ROOTS program across 17 unique sites in San Diego County. Learn more about Project ROOTS through the lens of one of our facilitators.