“Empathy is a Character Trait”

May 24, 2018
Tucked away in a back office of our North American Headquarters in Philadelphia, Sister Teresita Hinnegan is hard at work on a documentary film project that is perhaps the culmination of her years of work to fight human trafficking. At 90 years old, she may not have as much of a spring in her step as she did in her younger days, but her “fire and flame” for gender equality burns as fiercely as ever. It is her passion that drives her to continue raising awareness about the plight of women around the world.

On the surface, she and her film-making partner, Camille Whitsett, might not seem to have much in common. Now a specialist in sexual trauma for the Community Health and Rehabilitation Facility, Camille prides herself on the scrappy streak she inherited from growing up in rough-and-tumble North Philadelphia. The two women’s worldviews inevitably clash from time to time, but they make a point to always hear each other out when they disagree. From behind their laptop screens, they laugh and banter through what can at times be a very tedious research process.

Interestingly, they have wildly different stories of how they became involved in the fight to end violence and trafficking. After retiring from a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Sister Teresita helped to co-found Dawn’s Place, a center for trafficked women, in 2007. During that same year, she also opened the Center for the Empowerment of Women in Philadelphia. Since then, she has been an active voice in the struggle for human rights.

 Meanwhile, Camille was living in Italy. One day as she strolled through a piazza, waiting for a friend to return from running errands, she noticed a strange man following her. When he finally approached her and began speaking to her in Italian, she noticed that he had a foreign accent. She would later find out that the man was from Albania, a well-known source country for human trafficking, and that he lived in a house with two foreign girls who were undocumented. Even without that piece of information, her gut was telling her that something wasn’t right, that she needed to get away from this strange man.

He knows I’m here by myself, she thought. Luckily, just as she noticed that the man was not alone, her friend finally appeared. She could never confirm for sure that the strange man was involved in trafficking, but the mere possibility that she may have had a brush with such a terrible fate was enough to leave an indelible impact on Camille. When she returned to the United States, she began volunteering at Dawn’s Place and was introduced to Sister Teresita at a local Salvation Army.

Over the last five years, they have worked together on various projects like training hospital workers to recognize signs that a patient has been trafficked. The idea to create a documentary came about last year when Sister Teresita was contacted by a friend who works in production. After reading countless books and articles, she and Camille are now preparing to interview men involved in anti-violence programs.

Sister Teresita explains: “At the present time we’re looking at causes- the demand not only for prostitution, but also the relationships between women and men, the cultural context, how men dominate women. When boys grow up, what happens to them? How are they conditioned by culture, by history?”

Through these interviews, they hope to learn what information is most effective in counteracting the messages that teach young boys to be violent from an early age.

“Empathy is a character trait,” Camille reflects. “People aren’t born to be angry and nasty and malicious toward each other. It’s all learned.”

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