Human Rights at Home
How two alums are confronting slavery in their backyard.
By Diana Aguilera
After four years studying human trafficking and interviewing its survivors, Laura Hackney felt troubled, to say the least.
It wasn’t just the problem itself that bothered her. Hackney had also become concerned about the limited help she saw survivors receiving, and by what seemed to be a myopic overemphasis among aid workers on the moment of rescue.
“I was hearing over and over again this framing of the anti-trafficking movement as, ‘You should join this movement because now we can rescue people and then they’ll be free,’” says Hackney, MA ’14, who was a project manager for the human rights program at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law from 2014 to 2015. Hackney came to believe that the aid community failed to grasp the type of support survivors needed to break away from their captors permanently. “It kept me up at night.”
Hackney shared her frustration with Jessica Hubley, JD ’08, a historian turned tech lawyer who was studying the factors that contribute to modern-day slavery. Together they pondered how they could make a more lasting impact on Bay Area survivors’ lives.
“They really just need economic opportunities, and the vulnerabilities would be completely mitigated,’” Hubley says. “They just need to have a skill valuable to society.”
The two Stanford alumni joined forces in 2014 to create AnnieCannons, an Oakland-based nonprofit that trains survivors of human trafficking in computer skills. The organization offers instruction in subjects such as software development, web design and computer programming. Participants sign on for six months of courses, a commitment of four hours a day, four days a week. Most students are women of color who have been exploited either for labor or sex.
The program has steadily grown. So far, 34 people have participated, including this year’s cohort of 12 women. They come to to AnnieCannons through Bay Area shelters and aid centers. AnnieCannons works with the Alameda County Family Justice Center to assess the aptitude and interest of each survivor. Candidates then take a reading comprehension test and receive computer literacy training, which introduces them to the fundamentals of using a computer and working in the technology industry. Graduates go on to perform a wide range of work, including data entry, software testing, and web or mobile development.
“The majority come into the class having been conditioned to believe that this is not for them and it’s not something they’ll be good at,” Hubley says. “The best moment is always the first time someone is like, ‘I could totally do this; this is fun.’”
Each cohort identifies a problem related to human trafficking that its members have seen or experienced. At that point, they practice their skills by designing and building anti-trafficking technologies. The inaugural class of 2015 built Survivors.io, a website that addresses the dearth of data on sexual assaults due to lack of reporting. The site crowdsources the collection of anonymous sexual assault reports and enables users to better understand victims’ demographics.
At the end of the training program, qualified students can work as contractors for AnnieCannons’ clients while they build a portfolio, or they can venture out on their own. Currently, the nonprofit receives most of its funding from charitable gifts. Its goal in the next three years is to become a for-profit business with revenue from client projects.
AnnieCannons’ students are “building something they care about,” Hackney says. “The hope is that, over the lifetime of AnnieCannons, the percentage of its staff that are survivors continually increases.”
The nonprofit’s name draws from early 20th-century history, when Annie Jump Cannon worked at the Harvard Observatory with a team of women to devise a system for classifying stars — a system that is still used today. The work of Cannon and her team revolutionized astronomy, paving the way for women in science.
“That was the kind of thing we wanted to recreate — women supporting each other,” Hubley says. “We didn’t want to name it about freedom or slavery; that’s all about the past. We want it to be about the future of what they can become.” •