Lighting the Dark & Crooked Road: Tools for Youth Who Want to Stop Slavery

With his father, 18-year-old Brandon Friedman speaks to audiences about the dark realities of modern-day slavery in #BTLslavery events this summer in nine U.S. cities, July 28-August 6, 2014.

With his father, 18-year-old Brandon Friedman speaks to audiences about the dark realities of modern-day slavery in #BTLslavery events this summer in nine U.S. cities, July 28-August 6, 2014.

When faced with stories of abuse and exploitation suffered by victims of human trafficking, sex trafficking, and modern-day slavery, even one person’s story, we often don’t know what the appropriate response is, as Rebecca Nagle, founder and co-director of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, suggests about the public’s sometimes confused reactions to survivors’ testimonies of sexual violence.

How to support individual healing is only part of the dilemma and challenge. Paralyzing criminal networks so they can no longer operate is another challenge, and changing society’s attitudes and behaviors that enable discrimination and exploitation of certain groups of people, is yet another.

Coming from a world of human rights and social justice journalism where the stories of injustices we tell are often dark, I sometimes hear complaints that the media’s reporting is just bleak, that it suggests no clear solutions.

But if the solutions to how to end human rights violations are sometimes confused, or confusing and disheartening, it remains that our understanding of human trafficking and modern-day slavery is nevertheless expanding, thanks to the brave testimonies from survivors, their work to make right what is wrong, and the efforts of countless dedicated activists, filmmakers, journalists, lawmakers, and others who’ve taken up this human rights cause.

Once you first learn about human trafficking and modern-day slavery, as British abolitionist William Wilberforce is frequently quoted as saying, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

“Whenever I present the stories of modern-day slavery to young people, they always want to help,” says Matt Friedman, technical advisor to The Mekong Club in Hong Kong with 25 years of overseas counter-trafficking experience.

Youth spirit is vigorous and fresh, he says. “16-year-olds have an uncomplicated view of right and wrong. It’s clear to them that slavery is wrong, plain and simple, and they want to know what they can do to stop it.”

Matt’s years of experience presenting modern slavery stories to kids inspired his dreams to empower youth with the knowledge they need to become activists for human rights.

The Breaking the Links (BTL) Campaign was that dream until Heather and Wilbert Williams, founder and co-director respectively of the anti-slavery NGO Silence Softly Speaks, came along. They met Matt in Bangkok and learned about his awareness-raising ideas, including his thoughts to produce shackles reminiscent of the Livestrong wristband used by the Lance Armstrong Foundation to raise awareness about cancer and support for cancer patients. Several months later, to Matt’s happy surprise, Heather and Wilbert presented him with prototypes of the BTL shackles.

Matt’s first thought was that the shackles be worn on ankles, not on wrists. So last summer while in Connecticut on vacation with his family, Matt wore the anklets in public to see how people would respond.

“Whenever I went out, I wore a shackle and each time someone asked me what it was,” remembers Matt. “It provided a great entry point for discussion and I was able to start talking about human trafficking. People were always interested and wanted to learn more.”

“I liked the idea that the shackles be worn on the ankles,” says Matt smiling, “until someone told me she thought I might be a criminal out on probation and the anklet was my GPS monitoring device. That, and the cold facts of winter, made us decide that wrist bracelets might be the better option.”

It was a simple market study that helped us decide to offer kids bracelets instead of anklets. As with the Livestrong wristband, our hope is that the BTL bracelet will be worn as a symbol of solidarity with victims of modern-day slavery, that it will help spawn conversations about slavery and a tidal surge in awareness, and finally, that it will help us raise funds to support programs for victims.

Earlier this year the BTL Campaign got a big boost from new project partner Worldwide Documentaries, Inc. (WDI). Their documentary, Not My Life, is the first film to depict the global scale of human trafficking and modern slavery, as well as perspectives from both victims and perpetrators. WDI generously offered Not My Life as the educational component we needed for our toolkit. It is free to watch from the BTL website, and the first of four steps we outline on our site.

The four steps are simple enough: 1. Watch the documentary Not My Life, a powerful depiction of slavery today; 2. Wear the shackle as a visible symbol and conversation-starter; 3. Talk about modern-day slavery with others using a “talking points” card and information gleaned from the film; and 4. Share the #BTLslavery Campaign toolkit with others so that over time, we have an exponential increase in the numbers of people who know about modern slavery and are actively taking steps to stop it.

This week and next, Matt and his two teenage sons are taking the #BTLslavery Campaign to nine U.S. cities over ten days in a U.S. 2014 Summer Roadtrip. On July 29 they started in Newington, Conn.. From there they drove to Rochester, NY.; Columbus, Oh.; Troy and Canton, Mich.; McMurray and Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Baltimore, Md. On August 5-6, they will end the roadtrip in Washington, D.C. with events at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on August 5, and at Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C. on August 6. Both these events are cosponsored by Arlington, Va.-based ArtWorks for Freedom.

Matt’s 18-year-old son Brandon is sharing the floor with Matt during presentations. Already he is a gifted speaker and clearly fired up to stop slavery. Matt’s 16-year-old son Damien is managing logistics, insuring they get to the right address at the right time.

Matt’s kids are a good example of how response to a crisis or atrocity in a meaningful way starts with knowledge and understanding. Armed with understanding, tools further enable and empower kids (and kids-at-heart) to get started as human rights advocates.

And so, with truth and accuracy on our side, we must keep telling the awful stories of human rights abuse. Public response may continue along a dark and crooked road, but in time and with careful thought and attention to best approaches, I think we’ll get better at responding appropriately to a single person in need of help and healing, and to the millions of other victims  out there now.


Claire Pavlik Purgus has been a member of the Breaking the Links Campaign team since its inception. She is the managing editor at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.


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