The Washington Post

Three Northern Va. students at James Madison U. create anti-human trafficking campaign for MTV

Dancers from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater perform part of "The Backstory," an anti-human trafficking campaign for mtvU created by four James Madison University students, three of them from Northern Virginia. (mtvU)

Four students at James Madison University, three of them from Northern Virginia, devised an interactive video experience called “The Backstory,” and MTV chose it for full production and distribution. The idea was created by Liz Ramirez of Sterling, Danielle McLean of Ashburn, Jasmine Jones of Reston and Kristen Hotz of Philadelphia, who were all taking the same class at JMU when their professor, Paige Norman, suggested it as a possible project.

MTV took their 11-page pitch for “The Backstory” and ran with it. They created a series of six videos in two different packages, which begin on a Craigslist-type page, and make the viewer a semi-participant as the stories unfold of young people forced into the sex trade or slave labor. The dramatic visuals are provided by dancers from the Alvin Ailey Dance theater, choreographed by Troy Powell; the music is scored by singer-songwriter Kenna and the narration is read by rapper Talib Kweli.

As part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month, MTV will be promoting “The Backstory” on mtvU, which plays on 750 college campuses nationwide, as well as through social media and their various Web sites.

Here is one of the six videos contained within “The Backstory,” and the backstory of the project, which won the four students $10,000 as well, is after the jump.

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The packages are truly engaging, forcing you to participate in text or Facebook chats to move the story along, with frequent requests for the viewer to share them on social media or get more involved with the cause. After a short text conversation between friends about a person they know, and suspect may be in trouble, the videos come in, dramatizing the victim’s horrible life beyond public view.

The three Northern Virginia women were thrilled with how MTV realized their vision, and said it was very close to what they envisioned when they prepared it last spring, as part of their “Writing for New Media” class. They brainstormed for hours.

Part of the interactive aspect of "The Backstory" requires the viewer to participate in text message or Facebook chats with a friend, which lead into powerful video dramatizations of human trafficking. (mtvU)

They did extensive online research and had their eyes opened. “I didn’t know that much about human trafficking in the U.S.,” said McLean, 22, a Broad Run grad. “You know that it’s out there, especially in other parts of the world.”

Jones, 20, a South Lakes graduate, said, “It makes you completely reevaluate your life. It was really heartwrenching to go through these stories, and to see how many people are subjected to this on a day-to-day basis.”

Their tale of a young woman gradually forced into prostitution closely mirrored the Fairfax County case revealed last year of gang members recruiting teen girls into the sex trade, though they did not base their tale on that.

“We just wanted people to connect,” Jones said. “Not to be like a video game, but to reach their heart. It’s serious and it’s personal and it’s in my backyard. Just get their emotional level to connect with what is going on.”

The JMU students were not involved in the production, but “we were thrilled with how it came out,” Ramirez said. “It came out better than we could have imagined.” She and McLean both said the project made them want to go into advocacy media after graduation.

Here is the launch page for “The Backstory,” which appears to be like any other sleazy online “personal services” page. And here is the home page for “Against Our Will,” mtvU’s campaign against human trafficking.

At multiple points throughout "The Backstory," viewers are given options to learn more, or to find out how to get actively involved in fighting human trafficking. (mtvU)

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.



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