Long before she won a presidential award for her work combating human trafficking, Minal Patel Davis ’01 had a passion for inclusion and fairness.
“I was always the kid at the playground who walked right up to the child nobody else wanted to talk to,” she said. “Even then, I hated seeing people lonely or left out.” She also remembers standing up to a pack of boys who were bullying a classmate when she was a high school sophomore.
Years later, Davis turned her passion into a career as a special adviser on trafficking to the mayor of Houston. Almost four years after her initial appointment she is still the only person to have held the position anywhere in the country.
Much of her work involves labor trafficking, situations where people have been coerced into work, sometimes in unsafe conditions. The victims include not only immigrants who are forced into sex work but U.S. citizens and immigrants coerced into all kinds of labor, including children who are too young to work legally and women forced to work by abusive partners. Her role is to develop policy with the mayor's office, aid law enforcement and educate employers about their responsibilities.
On October 17, 2018, Davis received the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Davis said the award was extra special for her as a first-generation American.
“My parents and even my older brother were born in India. I was the first person in my family born in the U.S.,” she said. “To go from that, then to get a chance at the mayor’s office, then to win that award is just amazing.”
Davis, who earned a dual MBA and JD from UConn in 2001, credits her education for preparing her for her unique professional life. At UConn School of Law, she was a member of the Moot Court Board, which she said helped develop her negotiation skills.
“I always tell people that the education I got in law school and business school is the reason I take the approach I do,” she said. “Every conversation I have is a negotiation, and I certainly learned those skills in law school.”
Rather than slowing down or basking in her achievements, Davis is determined to use her award to spread awareness and resources globally. She took a two-week trip to India, where she met with local leaders to discuss anti-trafficking efforts, and she is planning a national conference to provide anti-trafficking training to municipal officials.
Davis has seen her team expand from two people to five and hopes that her team’s success will spur action elsewhere. She said she is happy and willing to share resources and that she hopes to see more collaboration between cities in the future.
“It would be amazing to start an association of municipalities for this, like they have with workforce development or transportation,” Davis said. “I am very passionate about taking the things we’ve done in Houston and applying them globally.”
Davis said her work is difficult and can be emotionally taxing, but she is sure she is in the right profession.
“I feel like I was born to do this and everything else was just leading to this,” she said. “Because I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, everything feels easier than it actually is.”
- Camille Chill