5 Questions with Activist Steph Klassen

When I think of Steph Klassen, I think Activist. In fact, when I first asked Steph if I could ask her five questions for Mennotoba, I was particularly enthused by her postscript: “P.S. 16 days of activism starts today!”

Steph Klassen isn’t afraid of difficult conversations and does very important work. She is chairperson for the community group, the South East Coalition Against Trafficking (SECAT); works as Executive Director of Survivor’s Hope Crisis Centre; and leads the Steinbach Feminists. She is an intelligent leader and speaker, articulate, insightful, kind, and fierce.

Here’s how she answered my Five Questions.
1. I joined SECAT for the Grandmother’s Walk that took place here in Steinbach on September 21st. Can you talk a little about how the walk originated, and represented, and why we walked?

I was so glad you joined us, Erin! Grandmother’s Walks in Manitoba started back in 2007. A group of Indigenous grandmothers were horrified by the responses from community members and from official systems in one specific case of child sexual exploitation so they banded together to start a Grandmothers Council – Protecting Our Sacred Children. They wanted to emphasize the love that we all need to have for children and sacred value of those children. The Grandmothers Walk celebrates the root of what we need to save children from sexual exploitation – we need to love and honour them. Manitoba’s Strategy to Combat Sexual Exploitation (which is called Tracia’s Trust) has supported those walks ever since, and the strategy also supports 11 other community groups like ours across the province.
I love the medium of community walks. They are uncomplicated and bold, peaceful and assertive, symbolic and meaningful. Joining with others and making forward motion for a cause is inspiring. I also think it’s a small act of reconciliation to follow in the footsteps of the wise Grandmothers who started the Grandmothers Walks. And it acknowledges the wisdom of our elders, all our elders.
2. Everyone agrees that sexual exploitation is bad and should be stopped. BUT the idea of sexual exploitation, it tends to feel distant, like it happens to other people, in other places — not here, not to anyone we know and care about: that’s the visceral reaction that a lot of people can have. What’s your response to that?

That reaction makes sense because this topic is difficult.  We Mennonites are not too practiced at having conversations about anything related to sex, the good stuff and the bad stuff. Most of us don’t know what sexual exploitation is so we can’t identify it. Sexual exploitation ultimately objectifies a person and is the exploitative exchange of something sexual for something else (money, drugs, gifts, etc). The thing exchanged can be an action as well like a ride somewhere, a promotion, a higher grade, a spot on the top team, etc. Quid pro quo can be sexual exploitation. And even is nothing is exchanged, people with power and authority can take advantage of their status by coercing someone into a sexual encounter. Sexual exploitation looks like a lot of different things and power abuses are at the core. When we acknowledge that, I don’t think any of us can say it doesn’t happen in our communities.
3. A lot of us, maybe Mennonites in general, have an aversion to “getting involved”. Like, we wouldn’t know how to step in. What advice would you have for someone who thinks that maybe they’re seeing a form of sexual exploitation taking place?

That aversion is an okay feeling to have. It’s okay to value our own safety and hesitate every now and then. But we can’t just sit on that. We (all the people of all places, not just Mennonites) need to see knowledge as an active state. If you know about something, you are already an actor in the thing you know. If we thought that way, then perhaps reporting abuse, making an anonymous tip, or asking for help would not seem like a step into new territory. When it comes to sexual exploitation, in Manitoba, we have the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act so if you think dangerous stuff, including drug or human trafficking, is going down in a house down the street, you can file a confidential complaint with Manitoba’s Director of Law Enforcement. Manitoba also has a human trafficking hotline (1-844-333-2211) and a new nation-wide line was just launched (1-833-900-1010) and you are welcome to call and ask any question. Get the advice of someone who works with this stuff. And of course, any time there is a situation where you think a minor (someone under 18) has been abused in any way or is at risk of being hurt, every adult has a duty to report that to Child and Family Services.
4. So, could I ask you to either tell us about your work with Survivor’s Hope?

My involvement with SECAT is as a concerned volunteer community member but I do this kind of work in other communities as part of my job with Survivor’s Hope Crisis Centre. Survivor’s Hope is Manitoba’s only rural sexual violence resource centre. Our office is in Pinawa but we work in many communities north east of Winnipeg. We have a sexual assault crisis intervention program where we have trained volunteers ready to respond to calls from regional ERs and RCMP detachments. We are on-call 24/7 and we send support workers right when someone reports a sexual assault and then we walk with them through the whole process of reporting and seeking medical attention. We also bring workshops into 12 different schools and talk to thousands of students each year about healthy relationships, boundaries, consent, domestic violence, sexual violence, exploitation, and the resources available to help. And we also plan a variety of projects to bring that information to community members and service providers outside of schools. It is a unique and beautiful non-profit and I love working with folks to bring these topics to rural communities.
5. Now it’s time to play the Mennonite Game. I’ve posted about the cairn to “Telephone Klassen”. Are you related to, or descended from, “Telephone Klassen”?

Telephone Klassen should be my grandma’s name for all the hours she clocked on her chunky beige rotary while sitting at her dining room table! So if you mean someone other than my Grandma Betty, no I don’t think I am their descendant. I honestly haven’t done the work to know about those beyond great great grandparents from whom I descend.
Anyone interested in what SECAT is doing can contact secoalitionagainsttrafficking@gmail.com. The next Grandmother’s Walk will be coming up in September 2019.