Amanda Koonjbeharry has long had a passion for fighting the good fight.
Which is why the soft-spoken leader of Hennepin County’s programs for sexually exploited youth now finds herself on the front lines of a statewide effort to crack down on prostitution and sex trafficking heading into next weekend’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
“I’ve gone through my own adversity in my life,” Koonjbeharry said recently. “I will do anything to advocate for what’s right and I don’t want to see people suffer.”
While authorities don’t foresee a dramatic spike in sex trafficking surrounding the big game, they do expect an increase in sex ads and an uptick in activity. That’s where Koonjbeharry comes in.
Along with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Terry Williams of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Koonjbeharry co-chairs a committee of 80 volunteers charged with boosting victim services, outreach and enforcement. Their hope is that by addressing a potential problem well before Sunday’s kickoff, they will not only curb it, but establish a model for tackling the issue that can be used by cities hosting future championship games.
“I’m really excited for Hennepin County being at the forefront of this,” Koonjbeharry said. “People are really looking at us.”
Koonjbeharry’s interest in the work stems, in part, from growing up in the predominantly white Twin Cities suburb of Savage as the daughter of immigrant parents from the South American nation of Guyana. While in school, she said, she sometimes was bullied because of the color of her skin.
“I was the different person,” she said.
Those painful experiences shaped her, she said, and helped determine a career path.
After attending Normandale Community College, Koonjbeharry enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she earned a master’s degree in social work. Testifying at the Legislature later inspired her pursuit of a second master’s in public policy.
She became interested in working with sexually exploited youth after participating in anti-trafficking work when Minneapolis hosted the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Target Field in 2014. She then interned at Hennepin County, which led to a job as a senior planning analyst for children and family services.
No Wrong Door
Currently, she heads up the county’s No Wrong Door response plan. That plan, which provides services to sexually exploited victims, started in 2014 after the state’s 2011 Safe Harbor law established that youth under 18 involved in prostitution be treated as victims, rather than as criminals.
One year into the job, she convinced the County Board to draw money from its rainy day fund for an investigator and prosecutor dedicated to sex trafficking cases.
“She’s been transformational and taken it to the next level,” County Commissioner Marion Greene said.
Colleagues have been impressed and say she’s a natural at taking charge.
Aside from her responsibilities with Hennepin County, she’s helped start a resource group for employees of color at the county, serves on a committee for Women Winning, which promotes the election of women who support abortion rights, is a board director for the Domestic Abuse Project and a co-director of the Twin Cities chapter of the New Leaders Council for progressive young professionals.
Mark Thompson, Hennepin County’s assistant administrator of public safety and her boss, calls her a “5-foot dynamo” who is “exceptionally gifted.” He said Koonjbeharry inspires confidence through her poise and tireless work ethic, often putting in 60 to 90 hours a week.
“She’s able to connect with anybody on any level,” he said.
A $1 million effort
While many organizations are working on sex trafficking prevention ahead of the Super Bowl, the committee’s work, estimated to cost about $1 million, is the only NFL-backed effort.
The group’s plan, 19 months in the works, calls for ramping up efforts to help a growing number of sexually exploited teens and adults by adding shelter beds, increasing street outreach and training bus drivers, hotel workers and all 10,000 Super Bowl volunteers to be able to identify victims. New awareness campaigns are spreading, too.
And, in the coming days, police will conduct stings as part of a statewide effort to crack down on buyers.
While some women may work independently, authorities say that many more women and girls aren’t in the industry voluntarily or are being trafficked by a third party, which makes training employees and volunteers to help them spot sex trafficking so important.
Last week, several dozen flight attendants, concessionaire staff and airport volunteers participated in a training session at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, considered “the most leading edge airport,” in sex trafficking training, said Nancy Rivard, president of Airline Ambassadors International, which put on the session.
American Airlines flight attendant Karla Erding teared up listening to Donna Hubbard of Atlanta, a flight attendant and Airline Ambassadors trainer, describe being raped and sold to a gang by a pimp.
“I was traded for everything from a case of weapons to a kilo of cocaine,” Hubbard said. “It can happen to anyone.”
To raise awareness, the MSP Airport Police last year started its own human trafficking training, which will continue up until a day before the Super Bowl. So far, about 1,200 people — from coffee shop cashiers to valets — have participated.
Earlier this month, 100 hotel staff filed into a downtown Minneapolis hotel to address the role they can play in reporting crime — from terrorism and vandalism to the sale of counterfeit products and sex trafficking. Among the tipoffs that someone might be in trouble: bruises or other visible signs of abuse, or someone checking into a hotel with no luggage, or paying for a room with cash.
“We do know there’s going to be an uptick in sex trafficking just like any major event,” Williams, the committee co-chair, told hotel workers. “It’s just critical, the work you’re doing.”
Said Koonjbeharry of the committee’s work and ongoing fight: “This is something that’s staying on people’s minds more and more. I hope the momentum stays after the Super Bowl.”
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141