Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
September 12, 2023
Stephanie Olson | The Set Me Free Project
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Stephanie Olson and I’m the CEO and founder of The Set Me Free Project. We do prevention education on human trafficking and social media safety and educate youth about healthy relationships. Our mission is to stop human trafficking before it starts by providing prevention education to all ages.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I always say I got here kicking and screaming. I am a survivor of sexual and domestic violence, and a recovering alcoholic and addict. I worked with women specifically in the areas of domestic and sexual violence, addictions, and homelessness. I’m also a professional speaker working with Cindy Hultine, who is my co-founder. One day she said, “You know, I think we should help sex trafficking victims.” At the time I really didn’t know what that meant. I always had the mindset that trafficking was like the movie, Taken. You get kidnapped, you get shipped overseas, and sold into the sex trade. When I found out that it was happening in my community, I realized it’s not at all what we think it looks like. My kids are the target, being school-aged in the public school system. At that time I was talking to middle schoolers and high schoolers about healthy relationships. In conversations with educators, I asked if trafficking was happening in the schools. They said it wasn’t, and that very month four young women went missing. It was all tied back to human trafficking. That lit a fire under me, and I started to talk to more great educators in a major school district. They realized this was an issue and said if I could get a curriculum to them they would take it from there.
I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but every existing curriculum was very fear-based and none of it was written for youth. So I wrote a curriculum and made it engaging and entertaining with a bit of humor. The primary focus is you have an intrinsic value, worth, and human dignity that nobody can change. That’s just a part of who you are. That’s the foundation of everything we teach. That’s really how we got started, in one school, and grew to more than 400 very quickly in several states.
With COVID, we had to pivot a little bit. We weren’t quite as effective as we had been in the schools and in person. We started to package our curriculum to put it in the hands of social workers and counselors in the schools. We want to get our curriculum in as many schools as we can nationwide. We have a curriculum for adults and different industries, but also survivors and people with lived experiences. We have gone to a curriculum of many different facets.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
It’s important because it is happening. We are a very hyper-sexualized society, so that lends to the demand for human trafficking quite a bit. We stand for the mindset that the commercial sex industry is not really a healthy place for humans of any kind. We really need to protect our community, our youth, and our families. We really stand for the fact that everybody has human dignity, everybody has an intrinsic value that can’t be changed. When we recognize that in ourselves, we really do look at ourselves a little bit differently and treat ourselves a little bit differently. Then when we recognize that in everybody else, we cannot sell them, we cannot buy them. We frankly can’t even bully them. That’s really what it’s all about for us.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
Only 1 to 2% of trafficked individuals are recovered and restored. If that’s the case, then we really need to stop this before it starts. Prevention is critically important. I think we’re a very reactive society as a whole. A study shows that for every dollar you spend on prevention, you spend $34 on restoration and recovery. That is the impact. Prevention is always hard to quantify because you can’t say, “I stopped this person from being trafficked”. But we do know that people’s lives are changed.
During one of our presentations, a boy approached an educator and said that no one had ever told him he had value. Speaking further with the young boy, the educator learned he was being sexually abused by family members. Of course, we reported that situation to trusted individuals to take it from there. Some time later this young boy emailed us to let us know that he’d been removed from his home, and for the first time, he felt like he was safe because of us. That’s why we do what we do.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
Youth inspire me. Incredibly intelligent young people deserve to be amazing, productive, incredible adults. But survivors also really inspire me. The individuals who have lived and overcome this are incredibly inspiring. That’s why I continue to want to protect those youth. Prevention has to be community-wide, with everybody taking a piece of the puzzle. I think the more we do that, the fewer survivors we will have because we can actually prevent it in the first place.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
On a macro level, I would love for our grandkids not to know what human trafficking is. I probably won’t see that in my lifetime, but it is absolutely something we can chip away at in each community. The more we can get our curriculum into the schools and around the nation to educate communities, the more people are empowered. It can’t be about fear, it’s got to be about empowerment. Our big dream is to empower the nation to stop this before it starts. Another big dream is to help people understand what prevention means. We know what it means in areas like healthcare, but when it comes to human trafficking we don’t have a full understanding of what that looks like.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
Our biggest challenge is funding. People have a hard time funding prevention because it’s the unknown. They don’t know if they’re really preventing something. The second biggest challenge we’re facing is people not realizing it happens, it’s a real thing. I think when people understand that when we’re talking about something like human trafficking, this is not something happening over there, or to “those people.” This is happening in our families, to our kiddos, to our grandkids, and it’s in our homes because of social media. We really need to make prevention a priority as a nation and work to stop it. It has to be three-pronged: prevention, restoration, and recovery. However, if we really focused on prevention, what a difference we could make.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
I think the biggest takeaway would be that it is happening in our communities and we can prevent it. it is happening to us and our kiddos and our families. We need to work together as community members to really stop this before it starts. I would say that is the biggest thing. And it’s not what you always think it is. It is not about kidnapping, it’s about relationship building.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
William Wilberforce said, “You can choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”
I think that is an incredible quote because that’s what it’s all about. With this topic, we often have our heads in the sand. But once we know this is happening, we can’t not know. We don’t all have to be advocates in this area, but we all have to be responsible for every human being. If we see something going on, we need to do something, but we also need to know what it looks like. Getting educated is key to all of that.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
My call to action is to help. You can go to our website, SetMeFreeProject.net, to help with funding or you can help as a volunteer. A lot of people want to help those who are victims, but prevention is as important as any other thing that we can do. Getting people to band around prevention and making a difference is huge. Helping us financially is critical, by throwing fundraisers, getting us into your schools, getting us into your communities, and having us educate a group of friends. Those are the things you can do to make a difference.
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