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The John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy Announces: The 2024 Gillen-Massey Award

By February 16, 2024Featured
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On February 8, 2024, at St. Thomas University, the 2024 Gillen-Massey Award was presented to Ms. Jessica Kahn Obenauf, Esq. Assistant United States Attorney and Deputy Chief in the Special Prosecutions Section in the United States Attorney’s Office, Miami, and to the Marcela Loaiza Foundation, a foundation with branches in the United States and Colombia. Numerous nominations for the Award were received from around the globe. The award ceremony was widely attended by academics, attorneys, journalists, students, nonprofit and faith-based advocates, survivors of human trafficking, and the community at large.

The Gillen-Massey Award program began with a welcome from David A. Armstrong, J.D., President of St. Thomas University. He recognized the community leaders and the human trafficking experts present from various parts of Florida and the country. “Throughout the year we welcome you to STU as we offer trainings and education to empower private and public sector stakeholders to combat human trafficking: this $150 billion illicit industry that exploits an estimated 50 million people globally in forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. But, today, we gather to celebrate you — the true missionaries in every profession that have committed yourselves to put an end to human trafficking and restore human dignity to survivors,” said President Armstrong. He then read a letter from Senator Marco Rubio, who inter alia welcomed the Gillen-Massey Award participants by noting: “Through the hard work and passion for combating this horror, each of you attending today’s training and luncheon is helping to make our communities a safer and more humane place…On behalf of the people of Florida, I extend my deepest appreciation for all the good work The John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy has done over the years.”

Tarlika Nunez-Navarro, Dean of Benjamin L. Crump College of Law, gave the Opening Remarks. “Today we celebrate all those who work in the trenches to put an end to modern-day slavery, this scourge upon human dignity. We are all called to raise awareness, to educate, to assist victims, to hold traffickers accountable, and to promote solutions that end vulnerability to trafficking and help uphold the human rights and fundamental freedoms of every person. Here at St. Thomas Law, our education mission, in the Catholic intellectual tradition of higher education, thoroughly focuses on both issues: combatting human trafficking and defending human rights, through two world-renowned programs: The LL.M./ J.S.D. Program in Intercultural Human Rights and The John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy,” said Dean Navarro, who also thanked Dr. Roza Pati, St. John Paul II Distinguished Professor of Law for leading these two prominent programs with utmost commitment and excellence.

Ms. Ramona D. Miller, Founder and Director of A Voice in the Wilderness Community Empowerment Center, the co-sponsor organization of the Gillen–Massey Award, recounted her journey alongside the late Michele Gillen and Kyla Massey as they shed a light on the complex issue of human trafficking.  She also introduced a screening of the documentary Trapped, which featured the efforts of journalist Gillen, victim Massey, and their cooperation with the John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy.

Dean Tarlika Nunez-Navarro then introduced the first awardee:

Jessica K. Obenauf, Assistant United States Attorney, is Deputy Chief in the Special Prosecutions Section in the United States Attorney’s Office in Miami. She also serves as the district-wide Human Trafficking Coordinator, Project Safe Childhood Coordinator, and lead Victims’ Rights Coordinator for the office. AUSA Obenauf has worked for the United States Attorney’s Office since 2016. Prior to joining the office, she worked as an Assistant State Attorney in the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office for eight years. During the last five years of her career as a state prosecutor, she worked in the Special Victim’s Unit, prosecuting child exploitation and sex crimes. Mr. Ignacio J. Vázquez, Jr., Chief of Special Prosecutions Section and Violent Crime Coordinator at The United States Attorney’s Office had stated that AUSA Obenauf has constantly shown “her exemplary service leading the Southern District of Florida’s efforts to combat human trafficking, demonstrating excellence as a program coordinator, prosecutorial supervisor, and trial attorney. AUSA Obenauf’s leadership has guided the District’s Human Trafficking and Counter Child Exploitation programs to national prominence.” In her remarks, AUSA Obenauf delivered a most insightful presentation on her work and that of the Special Prosecutions Section at The United States Attorney’s Office. She talked about the many successful human trafficking investigations, prosecutions and convictions that she and her team have been working on to end impunity for this horrendous crime and to bring justice to survivors.

Ms. Ana Vallejo, Esq., Assistant Dean of Experiential Learning and Administration, introduced the second awardee:

The Marcela Loaiza Foundation was created in December 2011 in Colombia, by survivor Marcela Loaiza and journalist Andrea Bravo. Its United States branch was established in 2013. The organization focuses on awareness and prevention of human trafficking of children, teenagers, and adults, and it has also formed an alliance with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to bring about awareness through Marcela’s testimonial to the global community. The Foundation has helped and continues to assist victims heal and reintegrate back into the society by becoming the authentic voices that spread the message of what human trafficking is about. The Foundation offers care and support for survivors of trafficking, to help them overcome their personal and psychological problems, gain access to education and the job market, rebuild their dreams, and recover their dignity. Marcela Loaiza, the namesake, and Founder of the Foundation is a survivor leader. Assistant Dean Vallejo emphasized how the Marcela Loaiza Foundation “works tirelessly so that survivors of trafficking are recognized in different “contexts” or “industries” beyond that of sexual exploitation. “Journalist Andrea Bravo and survivor leader Marcela Loaiza thoroughly embody and exemplify the spirit of the Guillen-Massey Award and the individual women the award represents,” said Vallejo. Ms. Marcela Loaiza shared her lived experience of being trafficked by the Japanese Mafia as a young adult. She spoke about the hardships, the trauma she had to endure, and the long process of healing after being able to escape. She talked about her faith in God, her journey of healing and of integrating back into the society, and also shed light and offered her insight into the gaps of services for survivors.

The day’s activities began with a training session on The Evolution of Anti-Trafficking Law in the United States by Dr. Regina Bernadin, Director of Protection in the Safety, Health, and Education Technical Unit at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Mr. Cristobal Perez, Director, Law Student Support Services at Benjamin L. Crump College of Law. The training explored the evolution of the key law to address trafficking in persons in the United States, its impact on state legislation, and gaps that remain in this tool to combat human trafficking.

February 8 also marks the Catholic Church’s International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking. A Mass at the Chapel of St. Anthony was celebrated by Father Hilary Nwainya, Ph.D., Director of Theology Programs to pray for victims and survivors of human trafficking.  Father Nwainya delivered the homily drawing from the day’s scripture and the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, a former child slave from Sudan and the patron saint of victims of slavery and human trafficking.

At the event, students were also honored with the Gillen-Massey Intercultural Human Rights Scholarship. This year, Ms. Adriana Montoya and Mr. Makenson Lamour were the recipients of the scholarship. The scholarship was established in memory of Michele Gillen and Kyla Massey with contributions from their loved ones and other supporters of the LL.M./J.S.D. Program in Intercultural Human Rights of St. Thomas University Benjamin L. Crump College of Law. The Scholarship provides financial assistance to meritorious graduate students who have demonstrated a commitment to human rights, and are currently enrolled in the Intercultural Human Rights Program at St. Thomas University Benjamin L. Crump College of Law, a Program that both Ms. Gillen and Ms. Massey cooperated with against human trafficking for many years. Associate Dean Brian Scarnecchia and Associate Dean Siegfried Wiessner introduced the recipients of the scholarship.

St. Thomas University Law Students Reflect on Human Trafficking

St. Thomas University College of Law students were an impactful part of the event through their participation, questions and comments at the training session, prayer at Mass, and attendance at the luncheon. Idian Livnat, J.D. Candidate, Mujahid Valeed Aldewli, J.S.D. IHR Candidate, and Maya G. Weathersby-Huggins, LL.M IHR Candidate closed the 2024 Gillen-Massey Award Luncheon with an interfaith prayer and reflection.

About the Award

The Gillen-Massey Award, annually held on February 8th,was established by A Voice in the Wilderness Empowerment Center in 2022 with the inaugural Award presented to Dr. Roza Pati, Founding Director of the John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy of St. Thomas University Benjamin L. Crump College of Law. Since that time, A Voice in the Wilderness Empowerment Center and the John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy of St. Thomas University Benjamin L. Crump College of Law annually receive nominations for deserving journalists, survivors, educators, service providers, and advocates combatting human trafficking throughout the world in honor and remembrance of the Award’s namesakes: Michele Gillen and Kyla Massey.

“Michele Gillen was a larger-than-life personality, a formidable journalist who put her sharp wisdom and unbound passion into exploring a hidden problem in our own backyard at a time when no one else did. I deeply treasure having partnered with her since the early 2000s. Kyla Massey was everyone’s daughter, sister, friend exploited in an industry that commodifies human beings – a ruthless and pervasive phenomenon that should shock the conscience of everyone. She is an angel who we can never forget,” reflected Dr. Roza Pati, Founding Director of the John J. Brunetti Human Trafficking Academy.


For information about previous awardees of the 2024 Gillen-Massey Award, please visit: https://humantraffickingacademy.org/event/gillen-massey2024/