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Truth in Numbers: Alumna Combats Human Trafficking Through Statistics

By Gregg Sangillo

Davina Durgana earned her Ph.D. from AU's School of International Service in 2015.

Davina Durgana earned her Ph.D. from AU's School of International Service in 2015.

Initially, the field of statistics wasn’t exactly Davina Durgana’s cup of tea. But she soon decided that she liked guesswork even less, and she went looking for new approaches to combating human trafficking.

“We were kind of saying, anecdotally, ‘It seems like there may be a massage parlor or brothel there,’” says Durgana, an American University alumna. “But we didn’t know if those were just the stories we happened to hear about.”

Her preference for foreign languages gave way to numbers, and she’s now using statistics to ascertain where instances of human trafficking are most prevalent. As Durgana addresses the trafficking epidemic, people are taking note of her contributions to the field. Forbes recently named her to its “30 under 30” list of people to watch in the sciences.

Tracking the Traffickers

Durgana is based in the D.C. area and currently does statistical analysis for the Walk Free Foundation, a private nonprofit that focuses on human trafficking. She’s part of a team that publishes the Global Slavery Index, and this year they’ll work with the United Nations to collect data on modern slavery. She also teaches at the SIT Graduate Institute.

She bases her research on the UN’s seven areas of insecurity, including economic, political, and environmental weaknesses. Using vulnerability models and Gallup data, she’s able to identify regions that are susceptible to human trafficking.

“Anywhere where there are vulnerable people and a viable market, there will be trafficking,” says Durgana. Labor and sexual exploitation occur in developing countries—where many vulnerable citizens live. But she says trafficking is also a problem in wealthy nations, such as the United States, where there’s a huge market for cheap labor and commercial sex.

In recent years, U.S. politicians have paid much more attention to the issue of human trafficking. But it’s still not necessarily front-page, headline news. She posits that the issue raises all kinds of sensitive questions about American consumer and lifestyle choices.

“I just wonder if some of it comes down to our own culpability,” she says. “Going to strip clubs for bachelor parties—we’re part of this culture of commercial sex. We go to restaurants or nail salons, where we see potentially exploitative labor situations.”

Intellectual Growth at AU

Durgana earned her doctorate from American University’s School of International Service in 2015, focusing on international relations, trafficking, and applied statistics. She notes AU’s role in fostering her intellectual and professional development.

“American was the best choice I could have made for a Ph.D. program. We had such fantastic facilities and great professors. We had great opportunities for additional training,” she says.

She finished her Ph.D. at an expedited pace, with help from SIS Director of Doctoral Studies Sharon Weiner. And she mentions the invaluable support from her adviser and dissertation chair, professor Joe Young.

Durgana’s dissertation model is now being utilized by Seraphim Global, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit.

“I feel at home with the global work that I’m doing. I feel like it’s really impactful,” says Durgana.

Big Plans and Shout-Outs

Durgana grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where she often returns for family visits. With the UN headquarters nearby, it’s also an additional work base for her.

While earning her undergraduate degree at George Washington University, she took a mission trip to El Salvador that sparked her interest in human trafficking. At that time, her community service contributions were so numerous—an EMT in the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department, a Big Sister mentor in Anacostia, among others—she received a lengthy shout-out from First Lady Michelle Obama during her commencement ceremony.

Her extensive internship and work experience included stints in the office of then-Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. and on Hillary Clinton’s 2006 Senate re-election campaign. She later interned in the Office of Vice President Joe Biden and worked as an associate in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. She also earned a master’s degree from a joint program at the Sorbonne and the American University of Paris (no relation to AU in D.C.).

While working at the White House, she ended up talking with the same speechwriter who worked on Michelle Obama’s GW commencement address.

“He said, ‘You actually did everything that you were planning to do.’ And he was so happy about it. It was a really great moment,” she recalls.

Forging Ahead

As Durgana forges ahead with her work on human trafficking, she says that there’s a risk of burnout for many people in the field. That’s why—though she has worked with trafficking survivors—she believes that survivor support should generally be left to psychologists and therapists. To avoid her own burnout, she’s also active in Cross-Fit training.

In the future, she’s open to running for elective office. Right now, she’s navigating a path that’s grounded in academic research but extends to policy. On the subject of modern slavery, she’s co-editing an upcoming edition of the journal CHANCE, which is co-published by the American Statistical Association and the Taylor & Francis Group.

“I think this is the sweet spot of where our work has the most impact,” she says. “A lot of what motivates me and keeps me so excited is really finding my niche.”