Dear Modern Day Abolitionist
It’s not about you. It’s not about you. Please know though that I say this with so much love and kindness. I am writing you to tell you that it’s not about you because if you joined this fight, if you became an abolitionist to make a difference, to end human trafficking to rescue people, to stop slavery- You Will Burn Out.
It makes sense for the above reasons to be why you became an abolitionist- you felt compelled to do something. But eventually that sheer determination will only fuel you for a couple of years and then you will become fatigued. Joining a cause to change the world is great but what will sustain you and fuel you is simply just to love people and respect their dignity.
I cannot tell the detriment that is made in counter trafficking when those in need of assistance or support are not given the dignity they are entitled. Understanding terminology, statistics, stories and reports are all well and good but if we are not careful they can stigmatize and dehumanize a particular group of people experiencing a social injustice. And then we forget that, that particular people group is made up of unique individuals. These individuals have their own independent experiences and stories.
If dignity for others is a core value that you adhere to in any kind of humanitarian service work, than you will already be combating the savior complex that can be so prevalent in service work.
I tell you all of this because I made these mistakes early on but never dreamed I was hurting more than I was helping. After all, everyone in the anti-trafficking movement was camped around the mission to stop it. And it is a good reason to fight but it cannot be the main reason we rally. We have to rally because we love people. Because we believe in their value and dignity because we see them as as EQUALS, as PEERS because we see them as FRIENDS. The anti trafficking world has often bonded over outrage and anger as a means to fuel people to fight to abolish and yet the numbers increase in exploitation as well as staff and volunteer burnout.
I believe to fight against human trafficking the approach cannot be re-active but rather purposefully and sustainably approached. I think there is a need for the conversation to change in how we discuss Human Trafficking or raise awareness in the anti- trafficking movement. While albeit well intentioned, the image or perception of what is happening and how to help has incidentally created an “us versus them” mentality, in which the practitioners, volunteers, NGOs, etc are on one side of the fight against slavery and the survivors are on the other. When in fact we are all on one side and are ending modern day slavery together. Avoid using statements that say, “we provide freedom or we rescue.” I caution this because I can tell you that I have seen that kind of language bring more harm than good across the globe.
Over the years, I have sat across the table from women and men working in prostitution, women and men in prison, kids growing up in violent communities and later going on to steal to survive, young people trying to dodge gang life and young people succumbing to the pressure of gang life.
I have listened to the stories of formerly incarcerated men and women trying to rebuild their lives after serving their time but coming against a society that won’t let them rebuild.
I have sat across the table from people who never thought they would leave home and country and become a refugee dependent on another nation’s generosity. And ALL of these stories and relationships have changed my life.
Here’s the thing, there was a time that I didn’t know to think about human trafficking, exploitation in prostitution and pornography, mass incarceration, gang violence and recruitment, child marriage, etc as more than heartbreaking issues of our day.
That is, until I was introduced to people affected by it daily. As I came to know these people-they became my friends. I then not only cared but became passionate to fight against the things that placed my friends in these situations. It was not about a cause, my friends weren’t a social justice “issue” they were living, breathing human beings who at some point had their stories hijacked.
And at the end of the day, every single one of these people just needed someone to listen. They needed to be seen and known. The thing is, after every table moment, I walked away humbled, challenged and changed. It forced me to look at governments, politics, systems and institutions and navigate ways for change, real change.
And it’s not easy but change can and does happen and one of those ways is to first sit across the table from the people whom you might normally have never met.
I made a promise to myself years ago that I would celebrate every win in a fun and memorable way.
When I got word that a refugee family we were assisting in relocating had finally made it safely out of their country and arrived to their destination without problem- I jumped on my bed!
When the text arrived that a young woman who had been trafficked had made an escape and was finally safe- I ate cake at midnight!
When a survivor messaged me to let me know she is still safe and pursuing her dream of a degree in fine arts-I took the rest of the day off and walked at my favorite park!
There are plenty of times I don’t receive good news and my heart breaks but I have learned that I cannot camp in disappointment or setbacks in fighting modern day slavery. I take a moment to let the tough news sink in and I grieve. Our whole team has also learned to celebrate failure, not because we failed but because we tried.
If you are helping to provide support to someone requiring assistance, learn their name and a fun fact or dream they have, not the horrible things that have happened to them. Figure out how to humanize them instead of turning them into a cause or part of a social problem you must solve. If you memorialize the horror of what they have been through in order to fuel you to do what you do, you really actually just dishonor what they have survived. And then if you share only their pain and suffering with the world as a way to spur people to donate or fight-you keep the freedom they have at arm’s length.
My fellow abolitionist, after almost ten years in anti-trafficking work, I am fully convinced that if we let a love for people, a value for their dignity and a view of their equality be what fuels our passion to fight modern day slavery, we just might end it.