Where are you from, and why there?
I was born and raised in Indianapolis, along with three sisters and many pets. My mother came from rural Indiana, which she fled to join the Rainbow movement in the 1970s. My dad spent a few years in the service in Korea, after which he got busted for cocaine smuggling and locked up in L.A. County jail. After jumping bail, he spent a stint in Colombia. My parents eventually met and fell in love while working at a flocking factory in Indiana. In many ways, my childhood was typical of our working class demographics — some members of my immediate family have achieved economic stability, while others continue to struggle with homelessness, mental illness, and meth and heroin addiction. But we all share a commitment to those in need, and a belief that the world can be better.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
I run a nonprofit human rights organization in Chicago, Corporate Accountability Lab. We research and develop new legal strategies to hold companies, primarily those based in the US, accountable for illegal and unethical behavior in their supply chains. By making it more costly for companies to allow human rights and environmental abuse in the production of their goods, we change the incentives that drive corporate behavior and create more sustainable economies.
I am passionate about this issue for more reasons than I can list here. We are all complicit in an economic system that relies upon exploitation, and demonstrates the banality of evil. Everyone should have decent work, a sense of agency, and the right to say no to activities that are inconsistent with their dignity. It is morally inconsistent that companies receive so many benefits from society, while society is forced to absorb their externalities, like pollution, displacement, workplace injuries, poverty wages and the effect of corruption on democratic systems. And I have known too many factory workers, indigenous people, human rights defenders and war survivors to ever place their needs below those of corporate executives and shareholders, or my own needs as a consumer.
How did you get involved?
I was first exposed to corporate accountability in college. The student anti-sweatshop movement introduced me to the intricacies of global supply chains, but also the importance of social location and how to leverage power to create social change. In 2002, I was arrested for civil disobedience at the School of the Americas, and served six months in federal prison. While there, I drove a forklift and separated scrap metal for 12 cents per hour, supporting the work of the Unicor factory at the men’s prison next door. The prison produced cages for immigration; the cages fit in the back of pickup trucks, to be filled with human immigrants found in the desert. We even affixed an “escape proof guarantee” on the side.
The work was difficult, degrading and demoralizing. The guards who oversaw our labor were condescending and verbally abusive, and the pay was so low that it took days of work to buy a bottle of shampoo on the commissary. Factory workers around the world experience similar conditions producing for the US market. But instead of being sentenced to such labor as a penalty for a crime, they are sentenced to this work as a result of an extremely unequal global economy.
After being released from prison and finishing college, I started work for an international labor solidarity nonprofit. I spend three years working with flower, banana and coffee workers in Latin America, supporting worker organizing and investigating cases of anti-union violence. Feeling frustrated with our repeated failure to make lasting change, I went to law school and began working on cases against US companies like Chiquita, Dole, Occidental and Drummond, largely for their financial support for armed groups involved in Colombia’s armed conflict. This eventually morphed into my current work. I founded Corporate Accountability Lab because the law has not kept up with the globalization of the economy, providing inadequate recourse to victims of abuses by transnational companies. Victims need new tools to obtain remedies and deter future abuses. Just as companies innovate in product development and business strategy, we must innovate to protect workers and affected communities from the vagaries of the ever-changing global economy.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
Those at the top of supply chains — primarily farmers and factory workers — have far too little power, and the multinational brands and retailers have far too much power. This is directly reflected in the profit margins of each entity in a supply chain. Top brands will often show margins of 30-45% on a product, while the margin of a factory owner may be as low as 1-3%. At this tiny margin, the factory owner is required to comply with the brand’s terms on not just price, quality, quantity and speed, but also whatever labor conditions the brand may set. The factory, unable to comply with so many demands, drops the labor compliance. This dynamic drives underpayment of the minimum wage, forced and uncompensated overtime, and cost-cutting on health and safety.
This dynamic is common to most manufacturing and agricultural supply chains — a feature, not a bug. Exacerbating this situation is the utter lack of legal accountability for the resulting abuses. Corporate Social Responsibility efforts often focus on peripheral activities (scholarships, building schools, holiday food drives), when the real problem is baked into the business model. Until companies change the way they do business, abuses will persist.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
Our most natural allies are other human rights attorneys, unions, university legal clinics, affected communities in the Global South, and the broader advocacy community. But because many of our strategies involve traditionally commercial areas of law that we seek to re-purpose for human rights, we are increasingly partnering with intellectual property attorneys and big firms.
What drives you?
I feel a personal calling to this work and couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I have an infinite fascination for all things supply chain-related, love working with people and learning about new cultures, and am drawn to problems that seem unsolvable.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
I believe that now, in our current political and cultural context, we need to cultivate a culture of courage. We are increasingly reactive and afraid in the face of climate change and xenophobia and the resurgence of white supremacy. Fear is not an irrational response to an uncertain time, but it is self-perpetuating and paves the way for our fears to be realized. In the legal field, including among young human rights attorneys, career-related anxiety is rampant. On social media, we criticize every move to prove that we are more “woke” than someone else, out of fear that we will be the next person on the chopping block. And when Trump bans Muslims or separates families, we curl up on the couch in fetal position because we believe it’s hopeless to keep fighting.
There is too much at stake for us to live in fear. We must channel our anger, frustration and feelings of impotence into courageous action, informed by love. I went to prison for what I believed in, despite the possibility that this would prejudice my career, because it was the right thing to do. I have stood on picket lines and worked in conflict zones. There are examples of people exhibiting extraordinary courage every day in every country in the world. I have the luxury to take risks for what I believe in.
And so do you. Join me.