Inside Track: Shedding light on hidden problems

Missy Weismann leads Solutions to End Exploitation with a data-driven, cross-sector approach.
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Work with the organization All Nations in her 20s paved the way for Missy Weismann to eventually co-found SEE. Courtesy Cassie Kieda

Missy Weismann’s background as a research and law enforcement intelligence analyst has helped people in Kent County see and address a significant criminal problem that too often stays underground.

That problem is human trafficking.

The federal government defines trafficking in persons as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer or harboring” of individuals with or without consent “by means of threat or use of force, or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of position.”

Weismann is newly appointed executive director of Solutions to End Exploitation (SEE), a Grand Rapids-based organization she co-founded in 2017 with Rachel VerWys. SEE works with about 40 community partners to understand the problem of human trafficking through data and research and to address it through cross-sector collaborations.

SEE is a convening organization, aka the “backbone” nonprofit that runs the SEE Human Trafficking Coalition in Kent County. Weismann works at a high level to gather data on the problem and partners with direct service organizations through five impact groups — labor trafficking; education, training and awareness; victim services; health care; and criminal justice — to shift systems and implement change.

“Our big buckets are data and research and then cross-sector collaboration into strategic change,” she said. “Rachel and I, when we first started this nonprofit, that was a huge part of what I did, is understanding it. … Human trafficking is an underground crime. It’s difficult to measure. It’s difficult to see. The victims are extremely isolated. It’s not something people are talking about, and there isn’t easy access to anyone to understand the problem.”

Weismann’s background, personality and strengths have aligned to give her insights into human trafficking and a solid start on creating solutions.

MISSY WEISMANN
Organization:
Solutions to End Exploitation (SEE)
Position: Co-founder and executive director
Age: 38
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband and two kids, ages 10 and 6
Business/Community Involvement: SEE Human Trafficking Coalition leadership team
Biggest Career Break: When she first got into human trafficking work eight years ago. “A friend invited me into it, and it changed the whole trajectory of my life.”

A native of Grand Rapids, she grew up in a stable home with parents she describes as salt-of-the-earth people who were loving and supportive of whatever she wanted to do. An adventurous type who craved change, Weismann decided to leave Grand Rapids and attend college out of state. She dropped out of her social science program partway through to see the world — eventually finishing the degree later after getting married — and she traveled for a dozen years back and forth between sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, working in grassroots community development for an organization called All Nations.

All Nations’ goal was to identify needs and create support systems underneath them using local resources. Although Weismann said she was young and didn’t always have words to describe what she was witnessing, she now looks back on her work and can identify encounters with human trafficking survivors — some who escaped and built new lives, and others who got pulled back in through coercion and manipulation.

Those experiences, living in economically emerging countries and working with highly vulnerable people, were formative for Weismann.

“That was how I lived my 20s, was literally trying to figure it out and trying to help people,” she said.

After adopting her daughter from Zambia, she and her social worker husband moved back to the states in 2013. A friend reached out with an opportunity to work in human trafficking research at an emerging firm called Heyrick Research, just outside of Washington, D.C.

“This friend of mine was like, ‘I think that you might have the ability to solve problems in ways that most people don’t have experience for.’ Because (at All Nations), we had to navigate systems, huge systems, that were nothing like the systems here, to create better outcomes, and it was very difficult and very exhausting, but that shaped who I am and how I see the world and what I wanted to do with my life,” Weismann said.

She jumped at the chance and took on the role of research and intelligence analyst and law enforcement specialist at Heyrick. She said that job shifted the trajectory of her life and provided a focus for her passions.

Six-and-a-half years ago, while living in Arkansas and working remotely for Heyrick, Weismann and her husband and daughter came to Michigan to visit her family, and she suddenly went into pre-term labor and delivered her son at 25 weeks. The crisis kept the family in Grand Rapids, and they never went back to Arkansas.

While living in West Michigan and still working for Heyrick, she was recruited to create a study measuring the prevalence of human trafficking in Grand Rapids, which ultimately laid the foundation of SEE.

“Research opens doors. When you start to shed light on something that no one else can see, all of a sudden, you’re proving it’s a problem,” Weismann said.

VerWys and Weismann co-founded SEE using the collective impact theory, a model for systems change centered on bringing people from different sectors together in a structured way to solve a specific social problem. Weismann said this was needed in Grand Rapids, because although the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force existed at the time, it didn’t have a backbone organization behind the scenes, driving its strategy and coordinating its movements.

She said it can be difficult to get sectors to communicate that historically have not worked together — but SEE is proving it’s possible.

“We hold this tension in this space of working to bring people together to have fruitful conversations who may not have in the past, because we all need each other. (Human trafficking) is a crime; it is inherently a crime. You cannot take out that criminal aspect of it. And law enforcement needs service providers; they need people to help them shape how they’re doing things, how they’re interacting with victims and survivors, and how they’re operating, whether it’s on the ground or in an investigation,” she said.

“What I have seen largely in this community is that people are willing to come to the table. That’s great. In my mind, that’s a win. We are having those conversations. We are bringing people together in a way that is difficult and slow and there are barriers, but we are constantly working to overcome them in creative ways.”

Weismann is just days away from finishing her master’s degree in law enforcement intelligence analysis from Michigan State University while continuing to shape the future of SEE. 

As the Business Journal reported last year, SEE and Wedgwood’s Manasseh Project are sub-grantees on the $1.5 million Human Trafficking Youth Prevention Education (HTYPE) Demonstration Program grant Kent Intermediate School District received in October from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Trafficking in Persons. The grant is allowing SEE, Wedgwood and the SEE Human Trafficking Coalition to work toward creating a safer community through prevention education in schools to stop exploitation. The three-year initiative is giving SEE and the coalition the opportunity to bring together law enforcement and social service providers to facilitate the design of culturally responsive and trauma-informed prevention protocols.

Although the HTYPE grant project is still in its nascent stage — as are the strategies of the other four impact groups besides the education group — Weismann said it’s looking promising.

Weismann is undeniably passionate about this work, and she said she doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“What I thrive in is that I get to create, and I’m an idea person, and I love to innovate and see things move forward. It gets exhausting when you feel like you hit lots of roadblocks; that’s the hardest part. But small wins are imperative.

“… I think one of the biggest accomplishments we’ve had is getting people from varying industries at the table, from sectors who don’t traditionally communicate, getting them to communicate to create the best outcomes. I think getting some community protocols in place is a big deal. And although I’m not sure if we’ve achieved this yet, I hope that we’re shifting the community narrative around not just awareness of the problem, but engagement with the problem.”

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