Featured SHE : Derri Smith & the Truth on Trafficking

Derri Smith. End Slavery Tennessee. Human trafficking Nashville. Sex trafficking Nashville.

Derri Smith
End Slavery Tennessee, CEO

Where is SHE now?

Twelve to fifteen years ago, the light on human trafficking was not just dim among the public, it was nearly extinguished in judicial offices. A snuffed wick amid the flames of other societal injustices, trafficking was a harrowing reality from which nearly all of us were blinded. Derri Smith changed that for Tennessee.

After many decades of serving the enslaved and oppressed both overseas and in inner city ministries in Nashville, Derri founded End Slavery in 2012, a pioneer in the treatment, care, and rehabilitation of trafficked women and children in and around our community. As much as we don’t like to admit it, human trafficking in Nashville is not only a reality, it’s rampant. As is with any “business,” traffickers follow the headlines. Where the buyers go, business goes. And with Nashville booming on all fronts, traffickers take advantage of both locals as well as tourists who, as Derri puts it, “are more willing to leave their morals at home.”

Much of the vicious cycle to break with trafficking is in its advancement technologically. How so? I wondered too. Online attacks on victims come from two directions, the suppliers and the shoppers. Our assumption that foreign women are Taken from overseas or high-schoolers kidnapped from street corners is largely inaccurate. Around 73% on traffickers’ initial contact with victims is online. What’s more is the trafficking business relies heavily on e-commerce to sell, making buying sex as accessible as buying on Amazon. “When you can go online and there’s a whole website for ‘hobbiests’ to compare notes on the women…that whole climate makes people feel like it’s a normal thing,” Derri shared with us. Anonymity and normalization makes what was shameful now ordinary, as easy as ordering a pizza.

While this accessibility certainly feeds the prevalence of the issue today, Derri and many like her have fought a greater nemesis for decades: public and judicial ignorance. The growth of human trafficking has been a compounding consequence of us refusing to recognize it in the first place. By the mid-late 2000s, Derri began meeting relentlessly with DCS, legislators, and law enforcement to lobby for the victims, all to often to be met with remarks like, “Oh, we don’t have that problem here.” There was a staunch disconnect with victimhood, and it’s been until the last decade that we’ve seen any culture mind shift. Thank God she stepped up.

Where was SHE then?

The legal definition of human trafficking reads as this:

“An act or attempted act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person by means of force, abduction, fraud, coercion, purchase, sale, threats, abuse of power for the purpose of exploitation.”

Essentially for adults, force, fraud, or coercion. For minors, ALL exploited to commercial sex are considered trafficked. 

Much of Derri’s conviction for cause lies within the suffering of her own story. Abused by her father from age 11-16, when she left home, Derri stumbled through years of shame, trauma, and, ultimately, healing herself. It took seven years, she claims, of her own “unprofessional healing process” to know her past didn’t have to be her future. In an era that stigmatized therapy, her return to faith in an all-merciful and healing Christ and the openness and acceptance of a few close friends, brought salve to the wounds and purpose through the pain. Her fear of never healing and growing into bitterness led her back to faith and back to peace. “In His own design, God bought me to a place of forgiveness,” she smiles, “and I’ve gotten old enough now to see all my painful dots connect.”

From there Derri set out on an untraveled path of speaking on child abuse in different churches. She knew very little besides her own experience, but “it was burning a hole in my soul,” she said. “It was one of those callings I couldn’t deny, and not because I was anything. I was so ordinary.” So ordinary. No, so strong.

After decades of work, research, and vulnerability, Derri has blazed legislative and social trails for an issue that, for so long, had flourished in the dark corners of our own neighborhoods. A light on a hill, indeed.


Who is SHE now?

After years of such selfless and taxing work, Derri has grown into a place of emphasis on self-care, both for herself and with her staff. “In the early years, I didn’t take care of myself,” she admits. “Over time you realize that isn’t sustainable.” She now requires physical and emotional recharges for her employees though movie days, painting classes, outdoor walks and hikes – those in conjunction with chai tea and her sweet golden retriever keep this superwoman sane.

Derri has walked with the endless numbers of survivors and finds her greatest reward in seeing the trajectory of who these women can become. End Slavery labors to keep trafficking from defining who they are or from defacing the rest of their stories. “They fall down, and they get back up, just like all of us,” she smiles.  She simply loves them in their mess and leans with them into their futures.

So how can we help and give back? Interest, honesty, education, and acknowledgment, Derri says. How so?

1.     Offer genuine, vulnerable interest in learning more about the paths victims and survivors are walking. We cannot empathize with their pain, and they know it. Sit down, shut up, and just hear their stories.

2.     Be teachable, open, and don’t ignore the parts that feel uncomfortable. Exposure was the first step to successfully planting End Slavery. Tell the truth about the issue, even if just on a Facebook status.

3.     And finally, love. “The best way to prevent trafficking is to look for the messy kids in the room. They’re the ones who could be saved with just a little interest and acknowledgement.” It was in fact God’s grace and one single individual who saw Derri and stuck in there with her through the dark days that she believes kept her from being a victim.

 One SHE can change so many lives. Thank you, Derri, for living that out in such remarkable ways.

Her SHEro’s.

Linda Leathers The Next Door

Cary Rayson Former CEO, Thistle Farms/Magdalene House

Her NaSHEville.

 Anyway that serves Firepot Chai tea

 The Frist Museum

My home!