For seven years, Mercer University students have raised awareness about sex trafficking and educated Macon-area ninth graders on its warning signs and dangers.
When the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the college students from going into high schools this spring, the Traffick Jam program’s faculty leader decided to use the time to innovate the curriculum. The changes could help other universities adopt the program and roll it out in their own communities.
“I really thought of it as an opportunity rather than a limitation after I literally got teary-eyed thinking about the prospect of not going into the schools,” said Dr. Tammy Crutchfield, associate dean and professor of marketing in the Stetson-Hatcher School of Business.
She created an innovation team consisting of graphic designers, content writers and videographers, as well as students who previously taught the program in schools. Together, they redesigned the Traffick Jam curriculum.
That new curriculum includes a video component that will help maintain consistency in presenting the material, Dr. Crutchfield said. A workbook, which will be given to all ninth graders in the program, will provide guidance and organization. Additional material from Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention program, was also added.
The revamped curriculum will be rolled out in Bibb County schools this spring.
“We’re going to test it and experiment and see what our target market thinks about it and then roll it out more broadly,” said Dr. Crutchfield, who has interest in the program from other universities.
Prevention is key
Traffick Jam is a social brand created, owned, managed and implemented by Mercer students with the mission of preventing young people from being trafficked for sex. It started in 2014 when Dr. Crutchfield’s students connected with another anti-sex trafficking program.
“When they started conducting the research and showing the (other program’s) video to youth and then getting their attitudes, perceptions and opinions as a result, they said, ‘This is necessary but not sufficient,’” Dr. Crutchfield said. “And so, they wanted to build their own brand.”
Traffick Jam is part of three University classes, two of which — MKT 415: Marketing Research and MKT 475: Strategic Marketing Management — are rolled into a yearlong experience. Students take the marketing research class in the fall and then implement their marketing plan during the strategic marketing management class in the spring.
Students also may take CSL 200: Service Learning in Local Communities, which prepares and sends students into high schools in the spring.
Ninth graders participate in Traffick Jam as part of their health and physical education class. Classes are divided into boys and girls, to allow for more open discussion of the sensitive topic. Mercer students meet with the high schoolers twice a week for six weeks.
The Mercer students act as mentors and spend their first couple of sessions with the ninth graders just getting to know the students and building rapport.
“We go in there and play basketball with these kids, throw the football around, just kind of get to know them and focus on building relationships,” said Max Burke, a senior double-majoring in marketing and management. “We don’t even talk about what Traffick Jam is, why we’re there. It’s just really to focus on building relationships with them and getting to know them better.”
After that bond is formed, the Mercer students begin to introduce the material to the freshmen.
“A lot of these kids have experienced (sex-trafficking) firsthand, whether they know someone in their family or friends,” Burke said. “We can be talking to someone that it’s happened to. So, it’s a very serious topic to talk about with them.”
Traffick Jam’s research shows that 11% of high school students in the community know someone who sold themselves for sex, and 8% know someone who was forced into selling themselves for sex.
Because of this, the curriculum focuses not just on awareness but prevention.
“If we don’t educate students (about sex trafficking), how can it be prevented? The only way to really stop it is through prevention,” Dr. Crutchfield said.
Many Mercer students participate in more than one aspect of the class.
Burke also participated in the business side of the project, serving on the marketing team where he focused on merchandising.
Their research showed that many Mercer students didn’t feel comfortable wearing the “in your face” shirts Traffick Jam had been selling, so his team worked on making the brand more simplistic, he said.
“Our goal was to raise awareness but also make a shirt that students feel comfortable wearing anywhere,” he said. “We incorporated a few things into our merchandising. Instead of having these big, graphic logos, we would have these short sayings on it and kind of make the shirts and merchandising more of a conversations starter.”
Merchandise sales, along with events and sponsorships, allow Traffick Jam to be fully funded, Dr. Crutchfield said.
Since its inception, about 500 Mercer students have participated in Traffick Jam, which has reached over 4,000 high school students.
“I really believed in what we were working with, but I also just loved the hands-on experience,” said Sarah Beth Amos Blair, who participated in Traffick Jam as an undergraduate student and now is pursuing a Master of Business Administration at Mercer. “I loved the connections that I built when we were in schools with freshmen.
“But then as a marketing major, I loved the hands-on experience, and it’s something that has served me well. I’ve definitely gained skills and experience that I’ve used beyond the course in my life.”
Carter Borgerson, a Double Bear who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 2020 and completed his Master of Business Administration in 2021, said being part of Traffick Jam’s analytical team helped him discover what he wanted to do for a career.
“I got just real, real deep into more of the analytical side. I loved it,” said Borgerson, who is now an account manager for a technology company. “Being able to pick up on trends and analyze data in a way that can actually produce results, that’s kind of the name of the game for my job right now.
“Just overall, I’d say it was a very well-rounded experience, and if I’ve ever given advice to anyone that I went to school with, it was always that Traffick Jam is a great group to be a part of, especially if you want to make a difference.”