Rachel Goble: Breaking Ties with Sex Trafficking

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The June/July 2013 issue of Verily features the article “Sex, Money, and Slavery.” Verily culture editor Mary Rose Somarriba describes a national scourge that’s close to home for Americans. Here, Verily profiles Rachel Goble, an advocate for internationally trafficked victims and president of the nonprofit SOLD Project.

Rachel Goble grew up in a globally-minded home in California’s Bay Area, an upbringing she credits for instilling in her a sensitivity for poverty that would later guide her career. Goble is warm and outgoing, with a quick smile and blue eyes that are warm and inviting.

Goble chatted with me over Skype from a mall in Thailand after a long day of work. She had just finished a five-week May-term course for her alma mater, Westmont College in Santa Barbara, bringing her to four months in Thailand so far this year. Despite the demands on her time, Rachel looked refreshed. She’s one of those people whose work regenerates her passion for life rather than drains.

After graduating with a business degree from Westmont, Goble was on track to help run the family business. But she soon realized the family business was not what got her out of bed in the morning.

That’s when she decided to pursue a graduate degree in intercultural studies, with a concentration in children at risk.

“There's no better way I could think of to spend my life than advocating for children,” she said.

All the issues people are passionate about—water, trafficking, HIV/AIDS, poverty—affect people, the most vulnerable of whom are children, especially girls, she explained.

One summer, Rachel traveled to India to work with a nonprofit called Oasis, which provides aftercare for survivors of human trafficking. She was exposed for the first time to the reality of modern slavery, horrified to learn that 27 million people around the world are enslaved around the world. At least 2 million of these are children sold into the $2 billion commercial sex industry.

"I was shocked I didn't know anything about it," she said.

Upon her return to Los Angeles, she felt a growing desire to help in some way, but didn’t know how.

Then one day in 2007, she ran into a contact from her India days at Coffee By the Books, a coffee shop tucked inside the campus bookstore at Fuller Theological Seminary, where Goble was doing her graduate work.

It was Rachel Sparks, the producer of a documentary film called The SOLD Project Thailand on child sex trafficking in Thailand. Sparks was working near the college and had come into the shop for an afternoon pick-me-up.

Goble laughs as she recalls the unexpected meeting that would turn her life upside down. The two women hugged and talked, relieved to share the heaviness of what they had witnessed overseas. It’s a serendipitous moment, but Goble is matter-of-fact as she shares how the two women struck up a friendship over their shared passion for children.

Finally, here was someone she could talk to who understood this largely misunderstood international problem--someone who too had been in the trenches working with trafficking survivors overseas, and couldn’t shake the desire to do something about it. They agreed greater attention needed to be drawn toward prevention of human trafficking.

Sparks told Goble about her plan to make a second trip to Thailand in early 2008, to work on another film. Next thing she knew Goble was on her way to join Sparks and her team in Thailand.

Witnessing the abuses documented in Sparks’ documentary, Goble realized, "poverty is a huge trafficker in Thailand."  "Everywhere you go,” she continued, “there's tons and tons and tons of prostitution.” The sex trade is most prevalent in the cities, which draw poor teenagers looking for work.

Goble made up her mind to do all she could to prevent the horrors of sex trafficking, especially in Thailand. Shortly after the SOLD team turned their documentary project into a nonprofit they called The SOLD Project, Goble joined as the nonprofit’s president.

More than five years later, the SOLD Project now employs 11 employees and provides a resource center in the poor villages of northern Thailand.  Goble splits her time between the two countries, but says the core of her work in both places is relational.

In California, a typical day includes video editing, event planning and building relationships with donors. In Thailand, her focus is on training and encouraging staff, and spending time with Thai students and their families. Her joy in this work is tangible, even over Skype.

What’s unique about the SOLD Project is that it focuses on poverty, one of 11 risk factors for sex trafficking in children. They do this by educating at-risk children, giving them tools to be economically successful. Children in the program are given school scholarships and attend after-school programs at the SOLD resource center.

"Those are the programs that are the life-changing and cycle-breaking programs," she said.

Another focal point Goble works on is strengthening the family relationship.

The SOLD team also helps strengthen relationships with families so teenagers stay at home. It’s common in Thai culture, Goble explained, expressing anger is seen as a sin, so children in conflict with their parents often run away instead.

Despite the awareness and mentorship that help combat sex-trafficking in the community, it proves to be a constant battle. For instance, last year several young girls in the program became pregnant, causing the staff to wonder if they were being exploited. Finally, one girl came forward and revealed that her thirteen-year-old sister was being actively recruited by a woman in Chiang Rai to sell her virginity for thousands of dollars. While many of the young women fell victim to this offer, the 13-year-old girl told Goble's team she had resisted the woman's persistent offers, her resolve strengthened by the SOLD project’s investment in her life.

"Walking that journey with her — and we still are, it's never over— is so much more intense than I think I had ever imagined," Goble said. "We work with people.”

She finds overwhelming joy in the stories of those who escape a life of slavery.

Photo Credits:

Flower photo: Tina Sosna

Girl closeup:

Nima Salimi