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The woman dedicated to finding missing Black people urges public to stay vigilant

What I’m Reading
Phil Lewis
July 25, 2023

Carlee Russell, the 25-year-old Alabama woman whose disappearance made national headlines after she called 911 to report a child walking along the highway, admitted the entire incident was a hoax, authorities said in a press conference.

While the announcement led many social media users to condemn and criticize Russell for taking attention away from real cases, a woman who has dedicated her life to finding missing persons is urging the public to remain focused on the bigger picture — bringing our loved ones home.

“While Carlee’s revelation is disheartening, we will not be dismayed,” said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. “There are far too many missing people of color who actually need our help and are counting on us to help bring them home.”

Nearly 40% of missing persons in the United States are Black, despite making up only 13% of the country’s population. The Black and Missing Foundation is a nonprofit organization that aims to bring awareness to missing people of color.

Wilson, a public relations professional, co-founded the organization in 2008 alongside former law enforcement officer Derrica Wilson. The pair use their combined experience in law enforcement and media relations to combat the persistent lack of attention given to missing persons of color. The sisters-in-law were also highlighted in the four-part HBO series “Black and Missing.”

I talked to Natalie Wilson about the Black and Missing Foundation, her efforts to bring missing people home, and how the public can help.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about the Black and Missing Foundation.

We bring awareness to missing people of color across the country. Our strategy, especially from a media perspective, is to make our missing [individuals] household names, too. 40% of the missing population are people of color, and yet oftentimes, they do not receive the local and national media coverage to highlight or bring awareness to their disappearance, or the law enforcement resources, even community engagement, to help find them and bring them home. We have experience in media and public relations and with law enforcement to help bridge the gap to find individuals that are missing from our communities.

When did you create this organization, and why?

The organization was formed in 2008. The inspiration behind it is a young lady by the name of Tamika Huston, who went missing from my sister-in-law’s hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. And we read how her family, particularly her aunt, who’s in media relations, really struggled to get local and national media coverage for her beautiful niece. A few weeks after Tamika disappeared, Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, disappeared, and she dominated the news cycle. Natalie Holloway disappeared a year later, and I’m sure you can remember her story, her face. And Tamika’s aunt Rebecca reached out to those same reporters, same network, same station, and she was met with silence.

So we decided to do some research. Missing persons of color was an issue in our community because we definitely didn’t see ourselves in the news cycle. And at the time, we found that 30% of all persons missing were of color, primarily Black males. When we first started the organization, there were more missing Black men than Black women.

We decided, why not us? I’m in PR and media relations, Derrica [Wilson] is in law enforcement, and those are the two critical professions needed to help find and bring our missing home. Fast forward to today, 40% of the missing population are people of color, and their families rely on us. They need our support, and they’re desperately searching for their missing loved ones.

Can you talk about the impacts social media has had on your work?

Social media has been a blessing to us because we ask our community to be our digital milk carton, meaning to help these cases, share them with your network so that they can go viral. Awareness is key, and the community must be aware of someone that is missing because it can help bring them home.

With social media, we don’t have to wait on the traditional news cycle. They can help us share that information, and it can reach a vast audience instantaneously. So if you’re missing in D.C., you may not be there. You could be in New York, or you can be anywhere, and someone may recognize your profile or your face from that social media post. We’ve had success in finding missing individuals via social media because our community is very engaged and very vigilant.

Given the recent news about Carlee Russell, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about her case.

Now that we officially know the truth, we can no longer give any more energy to this case. While Carlee’s revelation is disheartening, we will not be dismayed. There are far too many missing people of color who actually need our help and are counting on us to help bring them home. We are calling on our community not to let this single incident undermine our efforts to help us find us. We have shown that we have the power to make our cases a priority too, and we must move forward and build upon this momentum.

Can you tell me about a time you were able to reconnect a missing person with their family, and what that was like for you?

A couple of cases that stick out of my mind were in the D.C. area. There were two young girls who were missing, and we were able to tap into local media outlets. Because they shared the information on the news, law enforcement got involved and the community was really engaged in helping to find them. There was also a young lady who was sex trafficked from Baltimore to another part of Maryland. This young lady was being trafficked and traveled via Uber, and a vigilant Uber driver saw her thanks to a media partner. He thought something was wrong. He saw her profile, contacted us, we were able to contact the FBI, and she was rescued. So we’ve had success. We’ve been able to find or bring closure to over 400 cases.

Many people think there’s a random person waiting in the bushes to grab and force them into sex trafficking. While some of that surely happens, can you talk about some misconceptions people might have?

Well, some of that happens, but the sex trafficking industry is very sophisticated. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. And what we’re seeing is that we’re spending a lot of time online, and these predators and pimps are grooming our young girls and boys online as well through chat features. So we just have to be mindful. A study was conducted by the Urban Institute where they interviewed these pimps and pedophiles, and they said that they target Black women or girls because for two reasons. One, they know that no one is going to look for them, and two, their charges will not be as harsh for trafficking them as anyone else.

So we have to do a better job in protecting our children, our women and girls that are most vulnerable. But sex trafficking is an issue that is happening in our communities, in our neighborhoods. We’ve even heard of children and young adults being trafficked by their own families, by someone they know, someone that should love and care for them. And you have to remember, many of these children or young adults are vulnerable, and they’re looking for love and affection and some of the basic things that we take for granted. And the traffickers, they hone in and take advantage of those vulnerabilities.

How can people help in the effort to find missing persons?

We can’t turn a blind eye to this issue. When you see a missing person’s flyer, don’t just disregard it because you don’t know that missing individual. But I will say that [the Carlee Russell] case has shown that we have the power to come together as a community to help us find us. I can only imagine how many families we could help if we put this same energy into finding other missing people of color. So be our digital milk carton. We need our community to get involved. Start with your own community. Who’s missing from your community? Share those profiles, help them to go viral.

There are thousands of other missing people. Let’s not forget the Keeshae Jacobs, the Joniah Walkers, the Tiffany Fosters, the Jennifer Blackmons, the names go on and on. Their families are desperately searching for answers. All it takes is one person to come forward with that information to help find them, or at least provide the families with the answers that they deserve. We can’t do this work alone. We need our community to get involved and don’t let this one incident deter our efforts.

Photo credit: HBO

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