“I need to do this kind of work the rest of my life.”

Lauren Peffley ’09 is dedicating her life to social justice, working in many roles to prevent human trafficking and assist survivors.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

May 16, 2019 | 1 p.m.

Lauren Peffley ’09

Lauren Peffley ’09 is dedicating her life to social justice efforts. After being inspired as a Bethel student to work with International Justice Mission, her work today focuses on preventing human trafficking and supporting survivors.

“This is not what my life looks like,” Lauren Peffley ’09 recalls thinking when she traveled on a church trip to Ukraine as a child.

Just years after the end of Soviet occupation, she witnessed Ukrainian children living without electricity or running water and generations of families living in one apartment. She found it unfair that she had so much while Ukrainian children lived with so little. “I remember saying to my mom and dad, ‘I need to do this kind of work the rest of my life,’” Peffley says. “I said that as a 9-year-old kid and it’s kind of been a theme ever since.”

True to her word, Peffley is dedicating her life to helping others through work at anti-human trafficking agencies and as an advocate for survivors. And while Bethel helped propel her passion for social justice, it nearly wasn’t a part of her journey.

‘The Different Peffley’

Peffley initially nixed Bethel from her college search. “I was determined to be the different Peffley and not go to Bethel,” she says.

Peffley, a native of Mansfield, Ohio, set out to break from her family’s deep Bethel roots. More than 20 of Peffley’s relatives have attended Bethel, and several have worked or still work at Bethel, including her sister, Professor of Philosophy Carrie Peffley; her late brother-in-law, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology Adam Johnson, and her cousin, Professor of Biology Jeff Port.

Peffley followed a dream to attend college in Southern California. But when she visited Minnesota for a wedding and her family dropped her brother off at Bethel, Peffley felt a strong sense that she, too, should be returning home to a dorm at Bethel. “It ended up being a really good choice,” she says.

After watching an International Justice Mission (IJM) documentary on human trafficking, her interest intensified. “Learning about human trafficking just knocked me off of my feet,” she says. “It really gutted me for a little bit. And I felt almost paralyzed at how upset I was about it and mad and sad and just overwhelmed by it.” Peffley decided that if she felt that upset, she better take action.

And her pursuit of social justice came alive while majoring in history at Bethel, where she also minored in media communications. She incorporated elements of social justice issues in her history courses, including several on the European colonization of Africa. When she studied abroad in Uganda, she researched colonization and the effects of missionaries as colonizers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor of History AnneMarie Kooistra says the history department gives students the freedom to explore while taking courses on the cores of American history, European history, and global history. But within those areas, students can choose courses from a variety of subjects and interests. “We really do encourage independent thought, all of us, in our different courses,” she says.

Learning about human trafficking just knocked me off of my feet. It really gutted me for a little bit. And I felt almost paralyzed at how upset I was about it and mad and sad and just overwhelmed by it.

— Lauren Peffley ’09

When Peffley took a senior seminar course, Kooistra could tell her student had found a cause in social justice. “That is a passionate woman,” Kooistra says. “That has not diminished since leaving Bethel.” For her senior paper, Kooistra helped Peffly root that passion in history. Peffley wrote her senior thesis on the “comfort women”—women who were systematically sexually trafficked by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII and several years after. “That really started my anti-trafficking research in a bigger way,” Peffley says.

After graduating, Peffley worked a year-long IJM internship in Chennai, India, where IJM works to quell labor trafficking and help people who’ve been duped into debt slavery and often years of labor to pay off small debts that accrue to huge sums. She assisted several parts of IJM’s work there and even participate in a few rescue operations and after-care weekend events, while also writing a few communications pieces.

After, Peffley returned to the Twin Cities to join AmeriCorps and work with College Possible, a college access program for low-income students. At Coon Rapids High School, she helped 34 students prepare for college, helping with things like ACT preps, college visits, applications, financial aid, and loan assistance. “The relationships with the students were everything to me,” she says. “Those kids were hugely, hugely inspirational and really put into perspective my own journey in college.”

This experience inspired Peffley to become a social worker. She attended the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, where she individualized a concentration on advocacy and empowerment for survivors of sexual exploitation. Through two research practicums, she connected with anti-trafficking service providers throughout St. Louis.

After working with Healing Action and then at Eden’s Glory, a two-year restorative home for adult female human trafficking survivors, Peffley is now the human trafficking social worker at the International Institute in St. Louis, and she’s taken a new role as a research assistant for a statewide manual of anti-trafficking resources in Missouri.

Guided By Faith and Education

Peffley’s faith has played a key role in the work she’s done, and she’s pleased that churches often lead efforts in the anti-trafficking movement. But Peffley cautions that some moralistic language and attitudes common in the church often pose challenges for survivors. For example, talk around purity and virginity can be tough for survivors of abuse. She says the “damaged goods narrative” often makes it difficult for some people to open up about their experiences.

While she’s seen public interest around advocacy efforts grow, Peffley still stresses education to overcome misconceptions. She urges people to follow the lead of survivors. “We spent too long as a movement silencing the voices of people we were actually trying got raise up,” she says.

Peffley says the mainstream trafficking narrative often tells stories of young white women kidnapped from their bedroom and forced to live in a basement, shed, or cage. While such stories exist, Peffley notes they’re rare and do not represent the majority narrative. Much more often, vulnerabilities play a key role in trafficking, and people from a lower socio-economic status or households with abuse or substance abuse are more likely to be affected. LGBTQ youth have an abnormally high rate of trafficking, she notes. “It really is something that just preys upon vulnerability in a really sick way,” she says. “So the more vulnerabilities a person’s identity has, the more likely they are to be exploited.”

Familial trafficking often happens and isn’t heard about often in the mainstream news, but at one point, Eden’s Glory was serving three women trafficked by biological or adoptive relatives. For a few, it was even a generational issue that became normalized.

Lauren Peffley ’09

Lauren Peffley ’09 poses for a photo on a trip working with the Invisible Girl Project, which was run by a former International Justice Mission coworker. Peffley, who majored in history at Bethel, is dedicating her life to social justice issues. She is currently working in multiple roles in St. Loius to prevent human trafficking and assist survivors.

A Life-Long Advocate

Peffley remains an outspoken advocate for survivors and the less fortunate. She co-wrote “Challenges to Sensational Imagery Used in the Anti-trafficking Movement and Implications for Practice," a paper on misguided imagery and language tied to human trafficking. It argues to follow the language used by survivor-led organizations. The paper was published in the book, "Social Work Practice with Survivors of Sex Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation.”

She’s also served as a public speaker for groups like Not For Sale and taught Responding to Human Trafficking, an online course for Bethany Global University in Bloomington, Minnesota. She recently took a part-time role as the teaching assistant for the Sex Trafficking Course at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

While she acknowledges the social justice field is taxing and emotional work, she wants to work in a sustainable way. It’s transformative to her to be able to sit and be there with someone, even if she doesn’t always know what to say to them in their time of need. But it’s beneficial to be a support.

“I feel in some ways like I was created to do this work, and so I want to honor that calling as well as I can,” she says.

Read more in Bethel Magazine.

The story "Seeking Justice by Seeking Jesus" in the summer 2019 edition of Bethel Magazine highlights the efforts of the Bethel community—including Lauren Peffley—to use truth to fight for freedom and prevent human trafficking.

Learn more