Thursday 21 September, 2017

Trini woman honoured at BET's Black Girls Rock

Natalie Wilson, in blue, and Derrica WIlson, co-founders of the Black and Missing Foundation.

Natalie Wilson, in blue, and Derrica WIlson, co-founders of the Black and Missing Foundation.

A Trinidadian woman was among the honourees at this year’s edition of BET’s Black Girls Rock.

Natalie Wilson and her sister-in-law Derrica Wilson were among the list of honourees on August 22 which included stars such as Issa Rae of the hit HBO series Insecure, Beyonce’s sister Solange, US Congresswoman Maxine Waters and singer Roberta Flack.

Wilson and her sister-in-law were honoured as Community Change Agents for the work they do to find missing people in minority communities.

The women are founders of the Black and Missing Foundation Inc, a non-profit organisation based in Washington DC.

The Foundation was established in 2008 to bring awareness to missing people of colour, to assist families in finding their loved ones and to change the way missing minorities are treated in the media.

Speaking to Loop on Thursday, Wilson, who was born in Princes Town and left Trinidad at the age of nine, said they were inspired to start the Foundation when a young lady by the name of Tamika Huston went missing in 2004 from Derrica’s hometown of South Carolina.

“Her family struggled to get media coverage when she went missing and a year later Natalee Holloway went missing and her face and name dominated the news.  We realised that 30 percent of people missing were of colour and we said why do we need to sit and wait for someone to do something about it, so we joined forces. Derrica is in law enforcement and I am in media relations,” she said.

 Wilson said since they started the Foundation, the number of people of colour missing has risen to 40 percent. She said many families do not know what to do when their family goes missing so BAMFI’s role has been to work with families, help them to file police reports upon which any assistance is based, assist families to get media coverage and educate families about personal safety.

Asked what factors are influencing the increase in missing people of colour, Wilson cited mental health problems and online predators, among others.

“Mental health is a serious issue in our community, we are missing because of domestic violence, sex trafficking seniors wandering away because of dementia. Recently we had a case of a 70-year-old man, Maurice Taitt, from Trinidad, who has dementia, came up for a family reunion and walked away from son’s home. No one has seen him since.

“We know that Alzheimers is a problem but in the minority community, seniors play an important role and there is a sense of guilt to send them away so we take care of them ourselves. In our community we have an issue asking for help cause we are innately wired to do it ourselves,” she said.

The increasing use of sexual predators’ use of social media to groom young girls and boys is a big contributing factor.

“The predators have become savvy and they are connecting to young people online. There was a young girl from Baltimore who met a guy online and he picked her up at school and took her to DC where she was sex trafficked for six days. Fortunately, an Uber driver saw her poster on our site and we contacted the FBI and they rescued her.

“We use social media to bring awareness to the missing and they use social media to groom them. What we say to parents all the time is that if your child is on social media you need to monitor what they are doing and educate them to let them know the dangers. We encourage them to create fictitious accounts and engage with their children, befriend them and see what information they will give up,” she said.

To date, BAMFI has assisted in finding 200 people, not all of whom were found alive.

BAMFI offers its services at no cost and relies on funding from donors and fundraisers. The Foundation hosts a walk/run drive which this year raised US $20,000. While there is a small team, the Foundation relies on volunteers as well.

Asked about the challenges they face, Wilson said changing the mindset of the community on issues such as sex trafficking is one of the biggest obstacles.

“In our community, we do not believe in sex trafficking in our backyard. People don’t believe it is happening to them and people aren’t paying attention until it becomes personal. Even with law enforcement, they need to be retrained.  The police aren’t rated on the number of missing people found so it is not taken seriously. Missing children are classified as runaways but they aren’t always runaways and if they are what are they running away from and to?” she questioned.

Improving media coverage, the lack of which, she acknowledged, is driven by race, is another one.

“We have to change laws, we have to more vigilant and hold elected leaders accountable to help our communities.”

Speaking about the honour bestowed on them at this year’s Black Girls Rock, Wilson said it was an amazing experience. Beverly Bond, creator of the show which is aimed at honouring the contributions of Black women, has been a friend to their organisation, she revealed.

“We are grateful that it was presented on a national scale so people who didn’t know are now aware. We have seen an uptick in our social media platforms, more sharing of our missing people. We want Black and Missing to be a household name so when someone goes missing we are one of the organisations on the list."

Wilson said they have been strategising on plans to expand their offices to the cities that have high numbers of missing people, among them Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago.

Trinidad and Tobago is also on her list. Although she hasn’t been home in recent years, Wilson tries to keep abreast of news here and is aware of an increase in missing people especially young girls.

Wilson listens to Machel Montano’s “Happiest Man Alive” to pick her up when she’s down. The song, she said, makes her feel connected to the land of her birth and gives her strength to go on.

“Trinidad is who I am,” she said.