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Coach receives Fulbright fellowship to Philippines

Laura Davis, a running coach at Mills College, has received a Fulbright scholarship to the Philippines to write a fiction novel about human trafficking.

Davis earned her MFA in fiction from Mills in May 2006 and began as head cross country coach that fall. She spearheaded the track and field program in 2008 and has led both athletic teams since.

She said she became interested in doing research on the topic when she heard colleagues discussing it about three years ago.

“I thought no way this was happening, so I started doing my own research in that point of time,” she said. “Oakland is one of the worse places in the country for trafficking, especially with young girls. That was a big eye-opener for me.”

Davis says there are currently about 27 million people who have been trafficked into forced labor, sweatshops, prostitution, staffing restaurants or picking fruit.

She and her husband Nate recently hosted  “Taste for Freedom” to raise both awareness of human trafficking and money to fund an upcoming trip to the Philippines.

The May 20 event, held in the Student Union, featured organizations such as Because Justice Matters, Freedom House and MISSEY. Workers of Faith representatives were also there; the Mills club hosted a week-long event in March about underage sex trafficking.

Davis and her husband leave for the Philippines in mid July and will stay in the country for a year. The two will live in a house they’re renting from a couple who founded the nonprofit Samaritana, which fights human trafficking.

“It is one of the worst places in in the world for trafficking children. We really wanted to do something about that. We actually wanted to go to make ourselves uncomfortable, where we will be forced to depend on others,” she said.

The $11 thousand in funding from the Fulbright scholarship won’t cover all expenses, but it is instrumental in allowing Davis to go on the trip to gain background inspiration and research for her novel.

“My hope is to write a story so people will be more aware of what is going on,” said Davis, whose fiction novel involves an ensemble of characters who each has a different perspective and experience with sex trafficking. They include a young girl sold into slavery, an American who chooses to be a sex worker and a Peace Corps officer who has a naive perspective on the issue but still wishes to change the world.

“The novel is about the way modern-day slavery affects people and how it affects everybody whether they realize or not,” she said.

This is Davis’ second novel; her first, which has yet to be published, is a love story based in New York City about the challenges and beauty of bringing two different cultures together.

Davis and her husband chose this year to put their daily lives in Oakland on hold for 12 months as part of an idea they had: to dedicate one year out of every seven to charitable work and helping others. They were married in 2003 and have been preparing since then for the seventh year, 2010.

The couple saved enough to cover their mortgage for their Laurel District home while they are gone.

When looking back at her four years of coaching at Mills, Davis said she is proud of the legacy she is leaving.

“I hope I have taught these women not to be afraid to believe in themselves and to set high goals for themselves — that they’ve learned life skills,” said Davis, whose coaching has led to several honors and championships, including the cross country team advancing to nationals this year.

Davis also won the Coach of the Year at the California Pacific (Cal Pac) Championship Conference in Fall 2009.

“Laura is much more than a coach…she is our mother, she is our mentor and she is our friend,” said first-year cross country athlete Kylie Stevens. “We all believe that she is the best thing that has happened to us.”

Davis said is not sure whether she will return as a coach at Mills after her trip to the Philippines.

“I think for me this was the opportune time to move on to something new. I don’t know if I would come back to coaching or do something with human trafficking,” she said.

She said she is still the two teams’ “biggest fan.”