On Wednesday, youth and teens from around the country will tune in to World Without Exploitation’s third annual Youth Summit on sexual exploitation and human trafficking. The summit, usually held in Brooklyn, will be conducted virtually in a webinar format for the first time ever, widening its participant-base and bringing its message to the national stage.
But for native Islander and activist Kaela Vecchia-Zeitz, who has been actively involved in planning the event, the focus is here on the Island.
The two-day webinar — July 15 and July 22 — is open to high school and college-aged students, free of charge. The event has been planned in large part by students and youth activists.
Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz, a recent graduate of NYU, has been hard at work planning the event for quite some time. She and her sub-committee have focused on collecting and distributing reading material for participants as well as developing action toolkits for students to implement when they return to their high school and college campuses.
But the youth summit is only the most recent chapter in Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz’s advocacy work. In high school, she worked at CONNECT to End Violence, a division of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services which includes domestic and sexual violence counseling and advocacy work. While attending NYU, she interned at Sanctuary for Families, a gender violence support and advocacy nonprofit.
It was there that her passion for the work came into sharper focus.
“Before I started working at Sanctuary for Families, I definitely held a lot of myths and stereotypes about the sex trade, even though I did domestic violence work on the Island,” she said. “[Exploitation] definitely occurs here, but it’s just not talked about.”
The summit’s new virtual format will give Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz the chance to bring the conversation home to the Vineyard. With the help of Alexi Ashe Meyers and Rebecca Dince Zipkin—human trafficking lawyers and longtime Vineyard summer residents—Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz is hoping to educate the Island youth community on the dangers of the commercial sex trade.
“I think there’s this idea here that everyone lives this beautiful life because we live in such a beautiful place, [but] there still is a need for people to get resources and be educated, especially in small towns where there’s so much stigma around survivors,” said Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz.
For both Ms. Meyers and Ms. Zipkin, bringing the summit’s message to the Island was a priority. The two women have been actively engaged in initiating conversations about human trafficking on the Vineyard since 2017, when they brought the documentary I am Jane Doe about the sex trafficking industry to the Island as part of the Film Center’s Documentary Week.
“So many people with disposable income and wealth come here in the summer, but it’s important to think about the issue,” said Ms. Zipkin. “[Exploitation] is likely going on in Martha’s Vineyard, just like it’s going on everywhere in the world. No place is immune to these realities.”
The summit will feature speakers from every corner of the field—from activists and lawyers to survivors. The talks will cover current topics from the dangers of sugar-dating to the influence of pornography on the sex trade.
This year, the program will also place special emphasis on issue of intersectionality, paying close attention to the ways that discrimination play a role in sexual exploitation.
“The sex trade thrives off of classism and racism and sexism,” explained Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz. “It wouldn’t really survive if it wasn’t for those oppressions and you can’t talk about one without all the others.”
In light of the recent surge in youth activism across the country, summit organizers are optimistic that the programming will reach a large audience and inspire change.
“This is an area that really does affect youth,” said Ms. Meyers. “It’s really important to do this kind of work with young people and to nip any misconceptions [about the sex trade] before they become ingrained.”
World Without Exploitation will also host other services, like weekly webinars, to keep participants engaged after the event concludes.
For her part, Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz hopes that the summit will broaden the conversation, demystifying issues of sexual exploitation and adding nuance to the narratives surrounding sex work she has encountered on college campuses.
Thinking of her hometown, she especially hopes to reach a wide range of youth.
“There still are so many youth on the Island that are at risk to exploitation and I just think that they should have those messages when they move off the Island,” she said.
For more information and to register for the youth summit, visit worldwithoutexploitation.org.