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From Capstone to Kolkata: A Grad Student’s Project Comes to Life

Becky Amlaw GS’16 offers a blanket to a woman in Marufpur, India, where she volunteered at a hospital before attending Freedom Encounter—a three-week course on using business to fight sex trafficking—in Kolkata.

Darkness sweeps over the weathered roads in Kolkata, India, where Becky Amlaw GS’16 and a local woman named Mina walk by the light of scattered street lamps. Men approach them, but Mina grasps Amlaw’s hand and forcefully tells the men to go away.

It’s a far cry from Mina’s former life as a sex worker, a fate she was only able to overcome when she found Freeset, a fair trade business that offers employment to women trapped in prostitution. Based in Kolkata just outside of Sonagachi—India’s largest red-light district—Freeset was at the center of Amlaw’s work as a graduate student in Bethel’s M.A. in Strategic Leadership program.

At the suggestion of adjunct professor Judy Jones, who teaches business management in the College of Adult & Professional Studies and works closely with Freeset, Amlaw and four other students fulfilled their capstone project by creating a recruitment, marketing, training, and retention plan to help manage the growing nonprofit.

“This was the biggest project I have ever taken on,” Amlaw says. “Bethel did an excellent job of preparing me and my team members to think beyond a standard organizational leadership plan and create something tailored to [Freeset].”

For three months, Amlaw and her peers immersed themselves in the project—Skyping with Freeset leaders in India, exchanging weekly phone calls and emails, and collaborating via Google documents—until their work culminated in an 80-page leadership manual.

It was a rewarding experience for Amlaw, who recently left her job as a preschool teacher to pursue work in the nonprofit sector. But she never dreamed she’d go to India and meet the women for whom her group had worked so diligently. In fact, she hardly batted an eyelash when someone mentioned that Freeset would offer Freedom Encounter—a three-week course in Kolkata on using business as a path to freedom from human trafficking—in January. Amlaw needed to find a job, and besides, she had a family vacation to New Zealand planned right after Christmas.

But for every excuse Amlaw made, a reason to attend Freedom Encounter appeared. Freedom Initiatives, a longtime partner of Freeset, offered to help sponsor the trip. Her mom, who had spent months planning their trip to New Zealand, said she would cancel it and travel through India instead. “Every time I tried to do the logical thing, God showed me a better way,” Amlaw says. “Now, I can’t imagine having done anything else.”

While prostitution is illegal in India, Amlaw says business in Sonagachi is structured and pervasive. An estimated 10,000 women work in Sonagachi’s one square kilometer, forced to sell their bodies because they were trafficked, abandoned, or unable to feed their children. Some days, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, Amlaw retreated to her dorm-style living quarters and cried.

Freedom Encounter brought Amlaw face to face with injustice, but it also helped her see the slow progress of justice work. She visited established freedom businesses in Kolkata, met women who had left the sex industry, and developed ideas for new freedom businesses. She also had the unique opportunity to set her capstone project in motion, strategizing with Freeset leaders about how to effectively apply the manual she and her classmates had completed hardly a month earlier.

“This experience changed me,” Amlaw says. “As students, we’re given a lot of theoretical case studies and projects that won’t go anywhere. But when I met those people, it was so clear to me that everything I learned—all that work at Bethel—this is what it was for.”

Before she left Kolkata, Amlaw asked Mina and another Freeset employee what they most wanted from the Westerners who attended Freedom Encounter. “Get to know us,” they said, “and help us overcome.”  

For Amlaw, Mina is a glimmer of hope, proof that happy endings do exist in Sonagachi. Once among the thousands of women forced into prostitution, Mina now dreams of planting a freedom garden among the narrow streets and crumbling buildings—a powerful symbol of life born anew.

“There are stories of triumph,” Amlaw says. She takes a deep, steadying breath before adding, “It’s just hard to leave knowing that so many women are still there.”

Learn more about Freeset and how you can get involved in the fight to end sex trafficking. 

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