Four Law Schools Launch Collaboration to Support Human Trafficking Survivors
University of Arizona, University of San Diego, Duke University and Harvard Law School’s Systemic Justice Project team up to map the needs of human trafficking survivors and explore innovative solutions.

By Tracy Mueller, James E. Rogers College of Law
Aug. 14, 2019


Innovation for Justice program students use design and systems thinking to create new models of legal empowerment.
Innovation for Justice program students use design and systems thinking to create new models of legal empowerment. (Photo: James E. Rogers College of Law)

Four universities announced today that they will collaborate in the 2019–20 school year using design thinking methodologies to explore new ways to meet the needs of human trafficking survivors.

Students and faculty from the law schools at the University of Arizona, University of San Diego, Duke University and Harvard University are partnering to explore new legal solutions, conduct in-depth research and develop community resources and possible policy changes to support human trafficking survivors.

Human trafficking is the business of stealing freedom for profit by means of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. The second largest criminal industry in the world, human trafficking has been reported in all 50 states in the U.S. Victims of human trafficking include foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, adults and minors, and all genders and identities. This collaboration will engage students from multiple disciplines across the country in understanding the needs of the human trafficking survivors in their communities and applying innovative problem-solving skills to meeting those needs.

The programs and initiatives participating in this project are located in states with high rates of human trafficking. According to statistics provided by the National Trafficking Hotline, in 2017 North Carolina was sixth in the nation for reported cases, Arizona was 10th, and Massachusetts was in the top half. Research conducted in San Diego in 2016 estimated the number of commercially sexually exploited persons in San Diego County ranges from 3,417–8,108 per year, and that law enforcement only arrests 15–20% of the persons committing trafficking offenses. 

Each organization participating in this unique, multi-jurisdictional collaboration brings specialized expertise to this project. 

  • The Innovation for Justice Program (i4J) at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law launched in 2018 to provide project-based, community-engaged learning opportunities to interdisciplinary teams of graduate and undergraduate students. i4J applies a design- and systems-thinking framework to social justice challenges, and teams of students produce deliverables created with and for the community. In 2018–19, i4J tackled the issue of eviction, and students created, a bilingual, jurisdiction-agnostic, web-based tool designed to facilitate communication between tenants and landlords. 
  • The University of San Diego (USD) has an established track record of achieving systemic change through policy advocacy for nearly 40 years. With respect to human trafficking research and advocacy, USD School of Law faculty utilized research developed by USD’s Kroc School of Peace Studies estimating sex trafficking victimization in San Diego to support a series of legislative reforms in California. Specifically, USD's advocacy in this area has led to new laws mandating enhanced training to all levels of the school community; changing the mandatory reporting laws for teachers, nurses, and social workers; and developing programs such as the RISE Court, a special juvenile court created specifically to work with child victims of sex trafficking and address the unique issues they face.
  • Duke Law By Design is an initiative of the Duke Center on Law & Technology which aims to infuse design thinking into law school curriculum. Past courses and workshops led by faculty and staff trained in design thinking facilitation have covered topics such as eviction, beyond the billable hour, access to justice, mass incarceration, forensic reports, and open access to legal information. 
  • The Systemic Justice Project (“SJP”) at Harvard Law School is a policy innovation collaboration, organized and catalyzed by HLS students devoted to identifying injustice, designing solutions, promoting awareness, and advocating reforms to policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public. While targeting specific policy challenges, SJP is devoted to understanding common and systemic sources of injustice by analyzing the historical, cultural, political, economic, and psychological context of particular problems. Toward that end, SJP is committed to collaborating with scholars, lawyers, lawmakers, and citizens and to working with existing institutions in promoting attainable, pragmatic, and lasting policy solutions.

Jamie Beck, president and managing attorney of Free to Thrive, will join the collaboration as a community partner. Free to Thrive is a San Diego based nonprofit organization that provides legal services and connections to other support to human trafficking survivors.

Students in the USD and University of Arizona classes will apply a design- and systems-thinking approach to understanding the challenges that human trafficking survivors experience by engaging with a diverse array of stakeholders this fall. They will work with fellow students via video conference and use collaboration tools such as Google Docs and Slack to share research insights between classrooms. Students at Duke will highlight the needs of human trafficking survivors at a community workshop that builds upon the work of USD and Arizona and contributes additional community-based research to the collaboration. In spring 2020, the work accomplished by the students at USD, Arizona and Duke in the fall will be shared with Justice Lab students at Harvard Law School’s Systemic Justice Project, where students can consider policy-level changes targeting the needs of human trafficking survivors.

“We selected this challenge because human trafficking is a deeply inhumane problem that reaches across so many different systems in our society,” said Stacy Butler, director of Arizona’s Innovation for Justice Program. “While much is being done to prevent human trafficking, as long as it exists, we have survivors trying to navigate numerous barriers: overcome trauma, obtain housing and employment, locate and receive medical care and education, and navigate criminal and civil legal issues. We have an opportunity to engage a team of talented graduate students and four excellent institutions in thinking creatively about how those barriers could be alleviated.”

“We are thrilled to partner not only with the other universities but also local community-based coalitions who currently lead efforts against trafficking in North Carolina,” said Kelli Raker, program coordinator at the Duke Center on Law & Technology. “Through a design-thinking process where we center survivors of human trafficking, we aim to connect community leaders with an innovative, interdisciplinary group of students in law, social work, public policy and public health.” 

“The Center for Public Interest Law and the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law use dynamic clinical experiences to engage students in using the law to create social change,” said Jessica Heldman, professor in residence in child rights at the USD School of Law. “The human trafficking challenge provides these students a meaningful opportunity to develop a deep understanding of and empathy for those who have experienced human trafficking and those who work to meet the needs of victims and survivors. We are pleased to join with academic and community partners in taking on the challenge of turning understanding and empathy into action, positively impacting individuals within our communities.” 

In Tucson, i4J will launch the human trafficking challenge with a community-led workshop on Aug. 23. The University of San Diego will build upon the substantial anti-human trafficking  efforts already established in San Diego County, sharing the outcomes of the fall class with both the San Diego community as well as a campus-wide summit to be held at USD in January of 2020.

A version of this article originally appeared on the James E. Rogers College of Law website:


Resources for the media

Researcher contact:

Stacy Butler

Innovation For Justice


Media contact:

Tracy Mueller

James E. Rogers College of Law