March 29, 2022 News & Features » Cover Story

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Joell Denison, 31 

Former senior director of programs and training, Richmond Justice Initiative

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Scott Elmquist

After joining the Richmond Justice Initiative as an intern in 2012, Joell Denison became an official employee of the Richmond-based nonprofit dedicated to helping prevent human trafficking, three years later.

Her position put her on the front lines in the effort to teach young people about prevention strategies. The Prevention Project she spearheaded also provided in-depth curriculum and training for school personnel, counselors, and social workers to recognize at-risk youth. That is, until the pandemic challenged their ability to reach them. “It was a huge accomplishment to convert our program to a virtual format,” Denison says. “Because we had to still reach vulnerable youth, especially while they were spending so much time online during the pandemic.”

At this point, she’s trained over 1,000 educators and others who work with young people and has traveled as far as Alaska to do the training. Her pride in what she’s accomplished is evident. “Through education, we’re making it harder for predators to reach kids,” she says. “By teaching kids, we’re also creating a community where human trafficking can’t thrive, which acts as a shield to people who’d exploit them.”

Part of the challenge is teaching them how to contact their “safe” adult, whether that information can be posted online or whether it still needs to happen in person. Through her frequent speaking engagements, Denison has learned to recognize the moment when someone’s lightbulb goes off as they realize they have a role to play in helping push back against trafficking.

The Richmond Justice Initiative recently merged with Freekind, another nonprofit doing similar work but also offering human trafficking survivor care. Meanwhile Denison has transitioned away from her position to have her first child, but only after training her replacement. Her passion remains just as strong.

“Traffickers rely on ignorance, gaining trust and then morphing it into exploitation,” she says. “Everyone needs to know what to look for as signs of human trafficking. That’s how we all make a difference.”

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