Ever since she was a little girl, Melissa I.M. Torres wanted to save the world. Her mom taught her that there’s enough work for everyone to do. Today, Dr. Torres (MSW, ‘09/PhD ’15), is following her passion for justice and participating in the Argiro Fellowship for the Study of Modern Slavery offered by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.
We got to catch up with Melissa and learn more about her journey and this fellowship.
Name: Melissa I.M.Torres
Graduation from the GCSW: MSW ’09, PhD ’15
Congratulations on being selected as a Argiro Fellow! What do you believe the Argiro Fellowship for the Study of Modern Slavery will provide for you and your research? What was your reaction when you were selected to participate?
They contacted me and asked if I would be interested and available, so we had a discussion. Then they told me that the fellowship meant I had to teach a class and do research here, so they asked what I would propose for both. The Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration was interested in hosting the class, so I proposed to teach what I know – a rights-based public health response to human trafficking. I have been trying for years to get funding to study the difference in international definitions and responses to child soldiers in conflict zones versus forced criminality of children in narco-states, so I took this opportunity to focus on that. They agreed and so that’s what I’m working on here. I have already met with stakeholders doing really important work here in Connecticut and New York. There are different migrant groups here than those I’ve mostly worked with so I like learning from them on the differences and similarities faced by all migrants.
What does participating in the Working Group on Slavery Studies at Yale entail? How is this experience?
It’s an ongoing process, but the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition brings scholars on slavery together to develop and focus on a topic that we feel is missing from the field. We hope to keep pushing the needle forward in terms of what is being prioritized from an interdisciplinary framework. This center is largely historians, but they’ve brought in lawyers, policy experts and, now with me, macro and international social workers. We’re working on what we want to focus on with this group and will hopefully develop a conference, book, and podcast from it to get the discussion going in the field.
You are also a professor at the Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration. What course(s) are you teaching?
The course is called “The Intersection of Rights and Risks: A Public Health Response to Human Trafficking.” It focuses on the human rights violations, systems of oppression, and social determinants of health which create vulnerability and feed the risk of exploitation by those profiting off of suffering communities. It’s a seminar, so it’s 12 students majoring in everything from business, political science, medicine, and theater. They’re a great group and I love facilitating our discussions and working with them through the exercises of having to consider human rights and whether or not healthcare and migration fall under that in theory and practice.
How would you say your education at the GCSW impacted and prepared you for your career?
I wanted to be a social worker, but I wanted to move past direct services. I was always macro without really knowing it. Luckily the program didn’t focus on the micro and gave me the opportunity to develop the larger lens during my Master’s and the opportunity for a study abroad. Then in the PhD program, I had an amazing dissertation chair whom I also worked with as a teaching assistant, graduate research assistant, and he even added me to some of his grants and trainings to learn more about community-based research. He eventually advocated for me to develop and teach the first class at UH on human trafficking. Now that we both have moved on from the GCSW, he’s still a colleague but more like family.
What initially drew you to study and research human trafficking, labor exploitation, and abuse?
When I was 25, I was an HIV tester and counselor. I was working at a strip club in Houston in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood. While offering tests and speaking to dancers, I came across a trafficking ring – both sex and labor. The more I learned about it, the more I understood the cultural contexts and misunderstandings because I grew up seeing a lot of similar exploitation. I started working with immigrant Latinxs in different situations of exploitation to various degrees – cantinas, construction sites, orange orchards, cleaning services, massage parlors, and restaurants. I became committed to better understanding the issue so I could help my community do the same so they can have the tools to fight back or walk away.
Why are social workers critical in better understanding and abolishing all forms of human trafficking, labor exploitation, and abuse?
Social workers are everywhere and involved in all systems – and very often there during crisis responses. We’re in unique positions to interact with some of the most at-risk communities during the time of their exploitation experience or restoration. There are several entry points for social workers to intervene with primary, secondary, and tertiary interventions to either identify trafficking or the vulnerabilities to it and help mitigate those risks.
You occasionally teach a course at the GCSW on human trafficking. You developed the course during your time as a doctoral student. What is one of the biggest misconceptions you think your course dispelled for those who took your class, and why do you think that misconception exists?
That sex trafficking is the most prevalent form of human trafficking. Most students – across the board, not just at the GCSW – will tell me that what really surprised them was how much of a focus I put on labor and why that matters in how we tackle this problem. Labor trafficking is at least 3 times more prevalent than sex trafficking worldwide, but we really don’t know how to talk about labor and who benefits from it – especially in a capitalist society. People forget how massive of a role labor plays in our everyday lives. We interact with someone else’s labor daily even if we never interact with the laborer.
The GCSW has a vision of achieving social justice. How does a better understanding of human trafficking further the achievement of this vision?
I see human trafficking as the ultimate injustice because it’s a culmination of human rights violations. It’s not just violence, or poverty, or suffering, but it’s the fact that someone is exploiting those things and then profiting from it. It’s the exploitation and commodification of human vulnerability and struggles that keeps evolving. And the truth is, we all play a role in it because we all benefit from exploited labor. It’s our responsibility to confront our role in this.
Can you tell us about one of your goals and what impact you hope to make?
I want to see the abolition of carceral responses and systems for migrants. I want to see the abolition of prison systems, especially for-profit, overall, but based on the work I’m doing, that’s what I’d like to contribute to. Exploited communities are already marginalized and need a person-centered response, not one focused on building a case for prosecution. This goes for perpetrators, too.