BRISTOL, Tenn. — At around 8:30 Thursday morning, before the day’s heat had really set in, Audrey Holley crouched outside the entrance to the Interstate 81 S Welcome Center in Bristol to do something curious. The plastic cup she held was full of bright red sand, which she slowly, carefully poured into a sidewalk crack. Several people around her did the same, until the sidewalk appeared to be bleeding a little along various cracks.
They were participating in the Red Sand Project, a campaign that uses art to raise awareness about victims of human trafficking.
Holley, a health educator with the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, said the grains of sand represent victims of human trafficking. They’re often people who fall through society’s metaphorical cracks, she said.
“It may happen to individuals that have been lost in the system,” she said. “They’re in foster care, or in juvenile detention. It tends to happen to people who are very vulnerable.”
Around the world, an estimated 40.3 million people are currently enslaved — often after being trafficked — according to the Red Sand Project’s website. Started in Miami in 2014 to draw attention to their plight, the project has since had events in all 50 states and 70 countries.
The Tennessee Department of Health adopted the campaign in 2019 in partnership with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said Chastyn Webster, another health educator from the county Health Department.
“Because of [Tennessee’s] interstate system, it’s very easy to traffic individuals by vehicle,” Webster said outside the Welcome Center. “It’s interconnected. It’s easy to get to other states.”
Webster said that 180 trafficking cases were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in Tennessee in 2019. She added that there isn’t good data yet for how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting human trafficking, but stressed that “human trafficking is very prevalent” and shouldn’t be forgotten right now.
For Thursday’s event, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development joined the Tennessee Health Department and TBI to host it at a slew of locations around the state. Webster said adding the tourism department to the mix is an attempt to “engage more truckers and travelers” on the topic of human trafficking.
“When you’re traveling, you’re more inclined to go to a lot more places, and so you’re more likely to be in contact with a potential human trafficking situation,” Webster said.
Pete Rosenboro, assistant commissioner for the Department of Tourist Development and a participant at the event, said that Tennessee’s welcome centers see up to 15 million travelers a year.
“It’s important to the state to bring awareness to travelers coming [in],” Rosenboro said. “Tennessee takes this seriously.”
Staff from the Branch House Family Justice Center and the YWCA of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia — groups that both have experience with helping victims of trafficking — also participated.
Webster said that because of COVID-19, Thursday’s event wasn’t engaging with any large groups of people. Instead, she said, anyone who wants to participate can get a kit from the I-81 S Welcome Center in Bristol, the I-26 Welcome Center in Kingsport, the YWCA in Bristol and the Sullivan County Regional Health Department in Blountville. The kits are available until Saturday or until they run out, Webster said.
Each kit contains the project’s signature red sand, which participants can put in sidewalk cracks around those pickup sites or anywhere else they want to raise awareness. The kits also contain educational resources and keychains with a crisis hotline number that people can call to report cases of human trafficking, Webster said.
“The goal is really to have this [event] to start a conversation,” she said.