Racial Justice and Human Trafficking: A Conversation with Maranda Harris, LMSW

Maranda Harris 6.2020


A 2nd Cup Development Director, Kathryn Rogers, speaks with Maranda Harris, LMSW, about Juneteenth and the importance of racial justice and its impact on human trafficking.

Maranda Harris is a Houston-based social worker and advocate currently using her skills and experience to empower young girls of color across Houston in her work as Program Director at Melanin Minds Matter.

Interview Transcript:

Kathryn: Hi there, my name’s Kathryn. I work as Director of Development for A 2nd Cup. In light of all of the changes that we’re seeing within our communities the last few months, we thought it was really important that we highlight some of those issues, and so I’m really excited today to be here with Maranda Harris, who is a social worker here in Houston. She is an amazing, black woman who has done a lot of great work in our community, and in especially within the realm of social justice. So she’s here to talk to us and give us her input and insight, and tell us things that we should know as we are seeking to ally ourselves and work hand in hand in ensuring racial and social justice for everybody.

So Maranda graduated from the University of Houston with her Masters in Social Work in 2016. While at University of Houston, she planned a series on racial justice called the Legacy Racial Justice Solutions. She currently works as the Director of Programming for Melanin Minds Matter, and is a freelance social work community activist and child advocate. So Maranda, I am so excited to be talking to you today, thank you so much. Why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit more about you and the work that you’ve done in racial justice.

Maranda: All right, thank you so much Kathryn, I really appreciate you taking the time to highlight so many of these important issues, and A 2nd Cup for allowing the opportunity to actually be a sponsor in wanting to advocate and be an ally for racial justice, so I just want to thank you guys for that opportunity to have this conversation.

As you said before, when I was a graduate student at the University of Houston, in July 6, 2016 we actually had two instances back to back with Philando Castile and Alton Sterling that went nationwide, which were instances where these were two black men who were actually murdered, as some would look at it, but most, mostly in the way that it is they were murdered by these officers. When it came time to actually have justice for them, it was like so many other instances, there was no justice given. They were given a slap on the wrist, they were given administrative leave, they were you know, not even fired – some of them were fired from their forces – but they were able to obtain employment somewhere else. So, like many of the other instances that we’ve seen before, that was something that kind of set fire to me as a social worker to say – and also as a black woman – how can we stop this in my community, how can we advocate for the same justice that we would want for anybody to happen in our community and not be overlooked. So I went to the Dean, and he was so kind, Dean Dettlaff, Alan Dettlaff who is still the Dean there today of the Graduate College of Social Work at University of Houston, and they have continued this series of Racial and Social justice solutions which is a conversation, a constant conversation on how it intersects with all the different entities of government and just our everyday infrastructure of how do we tackle these issues.

So, he allowed me to do that, and it was the first time that it had ever been led by a student and it actually is a legacy program that they are continuing to do to help the students actually gain their voice and talk about the things that are important to them, especially being social workers and having to go out and be out in this world and advocate for those who don’t have a voice. 

Kathryn: Yeah, that’s amazing. So we are going to be sharing this conversation actually, on June 19th, which many of us know, is referred to as Juneteenth. So I was wondering if you could tell us some of the history of that, what it means to you, and what it should mean to those of us that are interested in doing social justice work.

Maranda: So Juneteenth is so relevant today specifically where we live here in Texas, because in Texas, back in 1865 that was when African-Americans realized that they, and I use the word realized, because that’s really what it was, it was brought to their attention and they realized they were no longer enslaved as slaves. They were not the property of someone else, because they had already been emancipated two and a half years before then. So why it’s so relevant for me, and probably many other people beyond Texas and should be recognized as a national holiday is because, for us to be in 2020, and to have still issues in people advocating for black lives to matter, just goes to show how a system of being enslaved for two, three, four hundred years tells us that you become brainwashed. You know, even when you are freed, you don’t even recognize that you’re free because the system is still put in place for people of power to enslave you to some degree.

So, these people had been walking around Texas, these African-American people all these years still believing that they were enslaved and they were the property of someone and they needed to listen to someone who was white and there was a race that was superior to them – they did not even really understand that. So that’s why it’s so relevant and it should be, because even today we are standing to still try to advocate in the courtroom, advocate in foster care, advocate all over the world in different sectors of how we can be created in an equal level – how we can have the same kind of equity in areas of home ownership, jobs, self-employment, business loans, those kinds of things. We’re still advocating and fighting to be free. Free in the sense where we are equal. So, that’s why I think companies like Nike who have just implemented policies to allow that to be counted as a holiday, as a paid holiday, I think that’s very important.

I mean, we have so many other holidays that are paid, that quite frankly, could be argued on so many levels as to why it shouldn’t be celebrated, but THAT’S something that should be celebrated, and celebrated on a national level.

Kathryn: Thank you so much for speaking to that, and so honestly as well. So, I’ll be honest, since this is an audio conversation, I am here speaking as a white woman and so I cannot, ever 100% understand or relate to the experiences that black people in our country are facing. So while it’s not your responsibility as a black person, to educate us, that responsibility is absolutely on us, I would love to know what your insight is and what recommendations you have and what things you’d like to see from the people who are taking that step of responsibility to learn about what we need to be doing as allies with the black people in our country. Do you mind speaking to that?

Maranda: Absolutely. I think you used a word that is so simple, but yet so important, is taking the responsibility. Being responsible enough to want to know. That’s where it all starts. It starts from being able to recognize and say hey – whether you believe it or you don’t believe it – whether you believe racial injustice is real or if you don’t really see it in that light. It’s taking enough responsibility to say ‘let me find out more’ about either way – you know you have to look at it from a perspective of if you were part of a debate team. You have to be able to argue both points, and the best way to argue both points of whatever the conversation is, is to be able to know exactly what it is and understand it from an educational level, even if you can’t understand it from an experience, where you actually experience it. You have to be able to know the history, understand what it is, you know, why we have some of the colloquialisms that we use and why it’s important for us to be able to have our natural hair and not have that be put in policy and structure by someone who doesn’t even have that hair texture.

One of the policies that I always think of when I think about something being so simple, in the workplace how people having dreadlocks – or locks as we call them – because dreads was always a negative term when you talked about hairstyles. They talked about them and called them dreadlocks because the word dread means awful, so they said dreadlocks looked bad. That was what white people actually thought about that look for people coming from the Caribbean or islands, who had hair that was matted or tangled to some degree, they made it so it couldn’t be nice or something that was appealing to the eye. And that’s just the texture of our hair, that’s the way it is, and if we choose to wear it that way I don’t see why that would be something that you would need to have a policy about. 

So some of the biggest things I think I can suggest for others to take responsibility in understanding how racial justice can be achieved is one: wanting and having a genuine desire to really understand and learn and research the issues that involve people of color, simply because we don’t live in this world alone. We live amongst many, that’s the great part of being of America, is that there is a diverse culture within our country but being able to truly be diverse in how we live is probably going to be more important. So for me, actually taking a genuine desire to research, understand, and learn, because we all live here.

And two: support black owned businesses, without the intent to gain something. You see a lot of companies now who are speaking out, which is always a good thing. But do it in a way where you’re not trying to gain from it. You know, a lot of companies are trying to maintain their business, keep people of color buying their products, and not just shift to supporting black-owned businesses. Let those companies, like Netflix just donated tons of money to black universities and colleges, and I think that’s important that you provide sponsorship and advocate. Create partnership and marketing opportunities for small, black-owned businesses to be able to build and grow, where you’re not just gaining something from it.

And then donate, of course, there’s always that gap in the financial aspect, so it’s important that you donate money to help those small, black-owned businesses.

Then finally, probably, in terms of just being able to immerse yourself in the culture and that way you’re not as afraid of it. So attend events like the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Those are places where you see huge opportunities for black-owned businesses, sponsorship, the black culture, how it’s celebrated, and acknowledged and honored. That would be something that you could come, I mean people would actually be able to take the opportunity to see how we feel every day in corporate America being the minority, and how people are looking to see how you are engaging and interacting with us. And, try your best to not feel so uncomfortable, and be judged, and enjoy, you know, don’t just feel like everything has to be about a fight, we have fun too. (laughs) You know immerse yourself in the culture and I think those would all be great ways to start opening and keeping the conversation going.

Kathryn: Yeah, and one thing that I heard you say that I want to highlight is you mentioned that there are some people who may not recognize or necessarily believe that racial inequity or injustice is even a thing, which I think is important for anyone to recognize for themselves, but the biggest takeaway that I’m hearing from you and your experience is even if that’s the case, even if you’re feeling uncomfortable or uncertain, the most important thing that we can be doing is just listening. And listening with an intention to try to understand, not to respond or debate you.

Maranda: Correct, and in terms of what I talked about in supporting the black businesses and partnership, creating those opportunities of equality and equity for black people. That’s what I mean by partnership. You know when you think about equity, you think about how in order for you to make something equal, everybody has to be standing on the same platform, in the same place, have the same tools, and have those things. But even when you give a person the same amount of tools, if the gap is big enough or if it’s the same type of tools, it doesn’t create an equitable situation. An equitable situation allows for that company or that business or that person to be able to meet exactly where you are, in the whole scheme of it, if it’s business, healthcare, if it’s mental health. It’s having not only the same tools, but also pushing you up into a place where you’re all at the same level now. You know, you all can see from the same place, and because we know that history has shown, which we’re talking about Juneteenth, that we didn’t start that way. It’s going to take more effort, more energy, more tools, more money to get people of color back to an equitable situation.

Kathryn: Yeah. Thank you so much for breaking down that difference between equity and equality because I think so many people are approaching this with a sense of we all should be given the same thing, but that’s making the assumption that we’re all starting from the same place.

Maranda: Correct.

Kathryn: And like you’ve shown, that’s just not the case here. So, one thing I want to also acknowledge is a lot of people might be wondering why we’re having this conversation, besides the fact that so many people are having these conversations right now anyway, but specifically because for us as an organization, A 2nd Cup, we work in human trafficking and so I want to kind of give some context as to why we’re doing this. Because so often we see the issue of human trafficking visualized more as like a crime of opportunity, where maybe there’s a person with a van and they’re stalking women or children, but unfortunately the issue is much more complex than that and, for those who work in the human trafficking field, we have to recognize and we have to affirm that there is a whole bunch of issues that contribute to and intersect with trafficking, including racial justice. So could you just speak a little bit to your understanding of the intersection between race and trafficking?

Maranda: Absolutely, so, human trafficking is just what you said, it’s so much more than just the man in the van. When you look at those who are most vulnerable, you see people of color attached to the entities that hold the gap, and those gaps fall in foster care, homelessness, mental health, immigration, they all have gaps in their policies that don’t protect the victims and being a person of color is not a coincidence in those circumstances, for me. It is a built-in factor in how that policy is actually enforced. So, when you look across the board and you see those policies that are supposed to be there as protecting factors, there are gaps that allow them to really be targeted in those circumstances. Again if you look at the numbers, probably at the top, and I don’t have them here, that would be something to research, but of the research I’ve looked over you do see minorities falling in that, and most minorities are people of color. So, I think that is a huge thing that needs to be addressed from the top, versus from the bottom, to actually work on those things and how you get more policies in place that are addressing the needs of people of color.

Kathryn: Yeah, and one thing that I will say, is from my own research, human trafficking statistics are so hard to come by just by the nature of the issue. Not everyone is counted or is collecting that kind of information, but I have seen numbers that indicate that potentially as many as 70% of victims and survivors of trafficking are people of color. So, you’re absolutely right, this is a huge huge intersection here, and one of the things that we also acknowledge is that human traffickers thrive on exploiting these vulnerabilities that we’re talking about. So when we continue to perpetuate or live with these systems and practices that are unbalanced and inequitable, we’re actually contributing to that, whether we mean to or not. So for us, as an organization, we think it’s so important to be having these conversations about race, so that we can also care about human trafficking and all of the other things that intersect.

So Maranda, you have shared some really wonderful things and I’m so thankful for your input and your experience. Is there anything else that you’d like to speak to, or any organizations that you’d like to point us to, to further our learning?

Maranda: Well as I mentioned earlier, I am the Director of Programming for an organization called Melanin Minds Matter, and that organization works in the HISD school district with young ladies from the age groups from elementary school all the way to high school. They go in and we have a curriculum that we talk to them about self-esteem, and talk about how their feelings are impacted living in a world where it appears that people of color and black lives don’t matter. And, how that impacts the things that they feel comfortable actually being able, like goals and dreams they have to achieve, all of those things we address in that. So that organization is very near and dear to my heart, so that’s one that if you want to donate to them, you can.

Just as an example of how important it is to support black-owned businesses, the programming company that actually created our website that allows you to make donations was a small, black-owned business that because of Covid they have had to close their doors, so the way that you can donate is through Cash App, and it is $MelaninMindsMatter. So, please donate to them, and if that’s not somewhere that you want to donate, then find a black-owned business and actually donate to them, two or three throughout the year, just to show your support. I also want to thank A 2nd Cup for having these conversations, to continue these conversations, and be a part of the solution. I really appreciate that you guys are taking something that’s near and dear to your heart, which is human trafficking, and pulling out the component of race and dissecting that to find out how you can actually create solutions to these issues. So thank you so much for having me, to be a part of this conversation with you.

Kathryn: Well no, Maranda, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us and share your experience, we appreciate you so much, thank you.

End of Transcript


We are so appreciative to Maranda for taking the time to speak with us. Visit Melanin Minds Matter to find out more or donate via Cash App to $MelaninMindsMatter to support the work Maranda is doing to empower young girls of color across the city.

To learn more and celebrate Juneteenth, register for this Juneteenth Book Festival, celebrating black stories, written by black writers and published and marketed by black publishing professionals. Or spend the day reading on your own with any of these books from the Juneteenth reading list. Or find an event near you or online to celebrate this day when freedom was realized for many.


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