“There was a case a few years ago at Emory University in Georgia where a young woman met a gentleman at a club who wanted to offer her a job doing a photoshoot. She was interested, took his business card, that was it. She went home, decided, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ and met the gentleman at a coffee shop. She signed the paperwork and tried to figure out what the opportunity was gonna look like.” This paperwork included a W-4.
Through the paperwork, the man “found out where she lived, that she had a sibling. She was vulnerable to the possibility that this man was going to injure her family. She ended up going to where the photoshoot was, in an off-the-beaten- path location, and got caught up in commercial sexual exploitation for a couple of years. There were threats of violence and there were threats of personal harm and other things to mentally coerce her to stay.”
Bryan Bessette, the co-founder and president of the Freedom Cafe, used this true story to illustrate what human trafficking looks like, or one way that it may look. Human trafficking is a complex, pressing issue that Bessette defined as “a human rights violation, where a person is forced to perform labor, whether that’s traditional labor, commercial sexual exploitation, or domestic servitude. They’re exploited by force, by fraud, and by coercion.”
Photography by Christian McDonald
Bessette co-founded the Freedom Cafe in 2013 in order to combat human trafficking both locally and globally. The cafe sits a few steps off the University of New Hampshire’s campus in Durham. From the outside it looks like any other white, Colonial-style house. But upon entering the cozy coffee shop in the house’s basement, this perception becomes glaringly false. Sounds of espresso-bean grinders and soft music fill the colorful space, offering the welcome that coffee-shop aficionados crave.
The mission of the Freedom Cafe sets them apart from other specialty coffee shops. Their website states the vision clearly: “The Freedom Cafe is a non-profit specialty cafe dedicated to ending human trafficking and the commercial exploitation of all people.” Bessette explained that the organization works toward this mission through the use of “community engagement, education, and a simple way to fund the work that’s necessary for a traffic-free world.” Since the Freedom Cafe’s doors opened on February 6, 2013, their Cafe Counter – where coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and more can be purchased – has raised $60,000 for projects focused on ending human trafficking. “We’ve given grants to support survivor after-care programs,” Bessette said. “We’ve given grants to the prevention efforts, like building a clinic for a vulnerable community in Nepal.” Fifty- percent of the proceeds from the Cafe Counter go directly toward one of their current projects. Simply buying a drink at the Cafe Counter can be the first step an individual takes toward ending human trafficking; Bessette calls it “initiatingpeople as conscious consumers.”
Michael “Mike” Rieder’s involvement with the nonprofit followed a slightly different path. It began on February 6, 2013, during the second semester of Rieder’s freshman year at UNH. The cafe’s grand-opening doubled as the first ever Perform for Freedom, an open-mic night that still stands as a weekly tradition.
“My great friend Dave Adams started these events and they were pretty, uh, small at first,” Rieder said, laughing to himself. “They were just trying to figure it out, so I came every week to support him. And then I was here so much that he was like, ‘Why don’t you start doing sound with me?’” For the next three-and-a-half years, Rieder did just that.
Rieder and other loyal attendees of Perform for Freedom will tell you that the event is different than the typical open-mic. In Rieder’s opinion, it makes the cafe a community experience. “Anyone can give it a whirl, and you can be the worst musician in the world or the best musician in the world and everyone’s gonna listen to you and give you the same respect that you deserve,” Rieder said. “It makes it so much more than just a space to get your coffee. It’s a space to hear beautiful music and poetry.”
In 2016, Rieder graduated from UNH with his bachelor’s degree in music education and said goodbye to the cafe’s soundboard. He decided to move to Colorado, and after two years at Colorado State University, he had his master’s degree in music therapy. After another year, he had an internship to complete and a hint of homesickness.
“The community that I built my life around is on the East Coast, so I kind of wanted to come back,” Rieder said. “I needed to do a six-month internship, so I moved to Bar Harbor, Maine.” He considers this placement lucky for more than just the New England scenery.
“It was also the first time I worked in a coffee shop, officially,” he admitted. “I was at Freedom for three, three-and-a-half years, and I didn’t drink coffee and I never worked behind the counter.” Rieder couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. “I only did ‘Perform for Freedom’ and other events. But then I got that coffee experience, and I fell in love with coffee.”
With barista experience under his belt, feet planted back in New England, and some discussion with Bessette, Rieder found himself as the manager of the Freedom Cafe as of August 2020.
“I didn’t join Freedom to end human trafficking,” Rieder admitted. “I joined because I got to use a cool sound system. It was just a place I wanted to spend more time in, and then as the years progressed, I was slowly able to grow up and start to care about the impact I make on the world and the little things I can do.”
“Some of my favorite Freedom Cafe stories are the impact our former volunteers are having on the world,” Bessette said. Rieder has one of these stories. Rebecca Pearce, who received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from UNH, has another one.
Pearce volunteered at the cafe from June 2015 to May 2018; during the fall semester of 2016, she worked as a teaching assistant in one of Bessette’s courses at the university. But when Pearce first set foot in the Freedom Cafe, she was a customer. And she had never heard of human trafficking. “I got very intrigued about human trafficking and the cause that the Freedom Cafe was pursuing,” Pearce said. “And I thought, ‘This is a really cool place,’ so I started as a barista.”
Pearce worked her way up to the outreach committee and after years of presenting in dorms and teaching seminars, she graduated from UNH in 2019. “I am now a behavioral health specialist, which is a fancy word for a therapist,” she said. “I’m able to assess and teach others to look for red flags of trafficking in my patients.” She credits this ability to her work with the Freedom Cafe. “Not everyone knows the right questions to ask.”
During Pearce’s time with the Freedom Cafe, she was able to make connections in the local community. Recently these connections led the New Hampshire State Task Force to End Human Trafficking to contact Pearce and request her help starting a regional action committee (or “RAC”) in the Lakes Region. With Pearce at the lead, the committee will tackle “education, prevention, and awareness of human trafficking” and “push for trauma-informed care” for survivors of trafficking. “We want to educate everyone who may come in contact with survivors,” Pearce said.
While not everyone is a behavioral health specialist, we can all learn to look for signs. “Be aware, learn about human trafficking, learn about the vulnerabilities, learn the red flags,” Pearce encouraged. “Educate others about the issue. Keep the conversation going. Awareness is a huge part of the battle.”