Art exhibit raises awareness of human trafficking

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Soroptimist International of Whitefish, in conjunction with the office of Attorney General Tim Fox, is taking a unique art exhibit on a four-city tour of Montana to raise awareness of human trafficking.

The 14-piece exhibit, “Faces of Freedom: Voices Calling for the End of Modern Day Slavery,” is the work of the Freedom 58 Project and features portraits of victims “rescued and restored” from human trafficking. The show’s first stop is Jan. 11 at the State Capitol in Helena, and Flathead Valley residents can view the artwork Saturday, Jan. 14 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Kalispell Brewing Co. There is no cost to attend.

“All of this, it’s a way to humanize,” said Diane Yarus, chair of the Soroptimist’s human trafficking committee. “These are real people being affected, and the hope is that given the right resources we can rescue and restore people back into the community.

“That’s the power of the gallery, to make this more human and not in the abstract.”

Yarus and the Soroptimists have worked since 2007 to highlight human trafficking and its frequent consequence, the underage prostitution of young girls. The group has been involved in advocate work for victims and pushed for tougher laws and penalties for traffickers. Yarus even testified at the State Capitol on behalf of House Bill 89, which was signed into law in 2015.

While frequently difficult to see, Fox’s office estimated that nearly 21 million people are enslaved throughout the world. Yarus added that the Flathead Valley is not immune to the problem.

“We’re keeping an eye on what’s happening with underage prostitution and how prostitution and the meth world collide in the community,” Yarus said. “We see people that have been involved in sex trafficking … prostituting an individual in exchange for meth.”

The event at Kalispell Brewing Co. will feature a handful of speakers discussing legislative efforts and educating about warning signs, but Yarus said the focus of the tour — which includes stops in Billings and Missoula — is to educate the public about an uncomfortable subject in a relaxed environment.

“There will be an opportunity to look at the portraits and talk to us in an informal way,” Yarus said. “We want to create community conversations about this, and it’s an opportunity to learn more an talk about it.”

The Soroptimists are financing the art show through a grant provided by the Altria Group. The “Faces of Freedom” exhibit is curated by the Freedom 58 Project, a “collaborative movement to end modern-day slavery and violent oppression throughout the world,” according to its website. The exhibit has made stops in Colorado, Missouri, Kansas, California and Arkansas in the last 18 months.

For more information, visit www.soroptimistwhitefish.org.

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