Scholar Who Studies Sex Trafficking Wins National Journalism Award
Carrie N. Baker had only recently broken into magazine journalism when she received a national award for her reporting on sex trafficking.
Ms. Baker, an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Berry College, in Georgia, became the first honoree of the Jane Velez-Mitchell Journalism Award this year. The award—named for the host of the talk show Issues on the HLN network—honors a journalist who brings attention to the issue of violence against women and girls.
Michelle Bart, public-awareness chair for the Northwest Region of Soroptimist International, one of the award's sponsors, solicited Ms. Baker's application after reading an article the professor wrote for Ms. magazine about legislation to protect victims of sex trafficking. Ms. Baker submitted her application materials, which included a personal essay and a few pages of basic paperwork, but she didn't elaborate much on her academic background.
"To gain more perspective on who this woman was, the committee Googled her," says Ms. Bart. "When we got reading on Dr. Baker, it was like, 'Oh my goodness, look at all this.'"
Ms. Baker, 46, received her bachelor's degree in philosophy from Yale University in 1987 and earned both a law degree and a Ph.D. in women's studies from Emory University before joining Berry in 2002.
She has written for scholarly journals about women's studies in the rural South and issues of race, class, and sexual harassment. Her book, The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment (Cambridge University Press, 2008), documents the grass-roots movement of the 70s and 80s that helped create public policy on sexual harassment.
Despite her prolific background in academe, Ms. Baker was a stranger to journalism until she attended a workshop for scholars through Ms. last summer. She thought of the workshop as an opportunity to bring her scholarly research to a wider audience. Just a few months earlier, she had attained tenure at Berry, so it seemed like a good time to branch out with her writing.
"Academics obviously write like academics," she says. "Journalism is very, very different. As an academic, you get so in your rut of writing 50-word sentences. I think it was really good for me as a scholar to kind of say, Let's bring this to a level where it can be popularly consumed."
In her Ms. article, "Jailing Girls for Men's Crimes," Ms. Baker examines how several states have worked toward establishing safe-harbor laws that protect underage girls and victims of human trafficking from being prosecuted for prostitution.
In the article, she explains that sex trafficking "tends to conjure images of girls in Southeast Asian brothels or women from former Soviet-bloc states," but that in 2010 the U.S. Department of State included for the first time a country narrative about the United States in its annual "Trafficking in Persons Report." The document cited cases in this country involving compelled labor, debt bondage, and forced prostitution, among others.
The five-person committee that selected Ms. Baker for her honor included Ms. Velez-Mitchell, who is known primarily for her TV commentary on high-profile crimes and court cases and for speaking out against what she calls "the war on women." Next year Ms. Baker will also serve on the selection committee.
Ms. Baker accepted the award from the television host in Portland, Ore., in January. The media exposure has led to other opportunities, including a TV appearance on Issues with Ms. Velez-Mitchell. The professor continues to contribute to Ms. as a blogger—the scholars who attended the Ms. workshop were invited to blog for the magazine's Web site—and she's also started to use Ms. as a teaching tool in her own women's studies classrooms.
"I think of the classroom as a place for activism and social change," she says. "I want my academic work to be relevant to the broader world. I want to make my students engaged citizens. I'm not trying to tell them what to think, but I'm trying to communicate to them the importance of engaging in the world around them."
Ms. Baker hopes to write more articles for Ms. this summer, when her academic workload is a little lighter. She will move to a new position beginning this fall as an assistant professor of women and gender studies at Smith College, where she plans to continue to do research on sex trafficking.
"For my students to be able to go to my blog or have them read my article ... I really feel like that informs my teaching and my scholarship," she says. Reaching not just scholars but activists and other women through Ms. "makes the rubber hit the road. It brings it to the real world, and then I can come back into the scholarly world and use that experience."