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Campaigning against exploitation

Noelle Volin

Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

After graduating in 2011 from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, Noelle Volin was intent on a career with the FBI fighting human trafficking. But while waiting for the results of her bar exam, Volin, a 2006-08 Rotary Peace Fellow at Tokyo’s International Christian University, volunteered with Breaking Free, a nonprofit that helps victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. She realized that she wanted to work directly with victims and became the organization’s staff attorney and director of policy. Volin is now the training and technical assistance director for the Don’t Buy It Project (DBIP), part of Men as Peacemakers, a Duluth-based organization that works with communities, schools, and individuals to prevent violence and sexual exploitation. DBIP is a campaign that encourages men, in particular, to recognize commercial sexual exploitation — from prostitution and strip clubs to online pornography — and to reject it.

THE ROTARIAN: What did you learn from working with victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking?

VOLIN: I went to law school, but the clients knew more about the system than I did. They didn’t know the technical terminology, but they knew how poverty and racism and sexism affected their lives. If I hadn’t heard those experiences from them, I wouldn’t understand the complexity of this issue. I would have just gone in and tried to be a superhero. I’m so grateful they trusted me and educated me.

TR: What drew you to working at Men as Peacemakers?

VOLIN: I’ve been on the response side. People are frustrated because they know that sexual exploitation and violence don’t have to happen in the first place. It doesn’t feel right to focus all my energies after the fact, after the harm has occurred.

TR: How does Men as Peacemakers combat sexual violence on college campuses?

VOLIN: It’s about changing the culture on campus, rather than accepting that this is a part of college life. We go into fraternities and talk to athletic teams and say, “You can party and have fun, but how do you do this without causing harm?” Everyone should feel free to party and not be at risk of sexual assault. Getting drunk doesn’t give you an excuse to cause harm.

TR: What does the Don’t Buy It Project do?

VOLIN: It’s about encouraging the average guy — who may feel helpless when he reads about these things — to understand that there’s a lot he can do. He has a huge role to play in preventing exploitation, in stopping it before it even happens. We also talk about messages in mainstream media that objectify other humans.

TR: How did the Rotary Peace Fellowship influence your career?

VOLIN: I learned that you don’t go in and tell people what they need and what they should do. When we work with survivors and survivor-led organizations, we ask, “What can we do for you? What do you need?”

TR: What do you tell people who say that your goals will be impossible to achieve?

VOLIN: We have to have realistic hope. We need to envision a future where sexual exploitation doesn’t happen. We might not see the end of it in my generation, but what do we need to do to move toward that goal? What are some tangible things we can achieve in this generation so that we can have a future without sexual exploitation?


• This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.