By Sister Janet M. Peterworth, OSU

“And they’re off!” These are important words in horse racing. But nowhere are they more important than on the first Saturday of May in Louisville, Kentucky, because these words start the Kentucky Derby, the fastest two minutes in sports and the race that begins the journey toward the coveted Triple Crown.

“And they’re off” are words that also echo in the world of human trafficking around Derby, because the Derby, as well as other sporting events, tends to draw those who are trafficking others into sex trade. And they are off on the roads to Louisville. It is known that ads for “companions” are multiplied in local papers and on digital platforms when the Derby comes to town. Of course, not all ads are from trafficking situations. Some come from those sex workers who are native to the area. And not all trafficking is in the sex trade. Sometime young people are trafficked in service industries because service is needed in many areas in Derby town. Young people are used as waiters, dishwashers, and hotel cleaners.

“And they’re off” echoes in another place in Louisville and that is in the ears of those who work against the trafficking of humans in the Kentucky area. Serious and organized work began in 2012 when the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) sub-region VI called themselves to address this form of human indignity not just at Derby time, but year-round. Good leaders that they were, these elected LCWR members delegated the specifics of this topic to the different justice promoters in their respective congregations. And as one might imagine, the justice promoters pulled together sisters in different congregations who were interested in working on this ministry and a committee was formed. There were Ursulines of Louisville, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Dominicans Sisters of Peace, and Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

One of the first actions of this group was to compose a letter for the leadership groups to sign and send to hotels in their respective cities asking hotels to be on the alert for signs of human trafficking. For those in Louisville, it was clear that hotels are busier during the Derby season. Some Sisters went to hotels and quick stop places near expressway interchanges and asked managers to put soap marked with the trafficking hot line in restrooms and bathrooms. Others spoke directly with managers and gave them trafficking signs to look for and suggestions for training their staff.

Recently the committee that has been working against trafficking started a nonprofit called PATH Coalition of Kentucky (People Against the Trafficking of Humans). Some religious congregations have helped with funding the organization. PATH is now a legal entity and plans to move forward with a strategic planning process.

In January 2019, the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville’s Social Concerns Committee collaborated with PATH to sponsor a workshop that explored the following questions: “What is human trafficking and what is its impact on our world, including the citizens of Kentucky?” “How are women religious responding both globally, locally and within Kentucky?” This workshop allowed participants to examine not just these topics, but to reflect on practical opportunities for addressing human trafficking as a global concern and to be in solidarity with People Against Trafficking Humans Coalition of Kentucky.