Where are you from, and why there?
I was born and raised in South Louisiana, USA. My father’s family worked in the oil and gas industry — a considerable part of the economy there — and my mother’s family has been there for generations. My father was, and continues to be a geologist and my mother was, among other things, an ESL teacher for newly arrived migrant children. She went on to establish and lead the first adult literacy program in the state, which connected volunteer tutors with adults who never learned to read. While we have a very rich culture, South Louisiana was not the most diverse place in the world to grow up; however, because of my mother’s work, I was able to meet fascinating people who experienced and saw the world very differently, which really appealed to me. My family is incredibly supportive and have positively influenced me at every stage of my life; but I’d say it was my mother and the work she did when I was a child that largely shaped the path I would eventually take.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
Generally speaking, I work on the issue of contemporary slavery, but my work has taken many forms, from survivor support to advocacy and research; and it necessarily crosses over into other relevant issues, including labour rights, migration and exploitation. Within this space, you might say I am obsessed with evidence and making sure that action against slavery is not assumed to be useful simply on the basis of its intent. Most would agree that ‘slavery is bad’, but we still need to hold ourselves accountable to actually achieving real and measurable change. Otherwise, the work becomes about ‘us’, not about people in slavery. I do this work because, like many others, I care about justice and equality. On a more personal note, however, I do this because there is wisdom, growth and worth in making oneself sensitive to the suffering of others — rather than ignoring, dismissing or rationalising it — and in trying to undo the systems that perpetuate that suffering.
How did you get involved?
Unlike some, I did not set out to “fight human trafficking.” Early on, I planned to work in the area of forced migration, reintegration and resettlement; however, everything took a huge turn when my husband and I relocated to Los Angeles and I was hired by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking to start their refuge for women trafficked to the US. It was a daunting task, but the years I spent learning from survivors and from the incredible advocates across the country have fundamentally shaped who I am today. I feel privileged and incredibly grateful for the many opportunities I have received to make my modest contributions to the anti-slavery sector.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
Obviously, there are multiple challenges to eradicating slavery; however, I would describe the biggest threats as apathy (or helplessness), lack of accountability and avoidance of worker involvement.
Firstly, the pace at which we live and the erosion of trust in government makes it difficult for people to feel like they can do anything to positively change the world. We need to make it easier for average people to make a positive difference.
Secondly, we do too much in the name of anti-slavery without actually articulating what change we expect to see and how we will know whether we have accomplished that change. As legislation mandating corporate action on slavery and human rights takes off across the world, we need to build in monitoring and evaluation from the start so we understand what, if any, impact we are making and whether there are any unintended negative consequences of well-intentioned initiatives. The same is true for criminal justice and victim support responses.
Finally, slavery doesn’t occur by accident; it is the result of active decision-making — decision-making that creates and sustains an imbalance of power within employment that disproportionately affects people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We won’t eradicate slavery until we start making different decisions and those decisions need to be informed and led by people who are most impacted by this problem.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
I have found that allies can come from the most surprising places and you need to keep an open mind. My most frequent allies have come from the non-government sector as well as government, law enforcement and business, but there have been opponents in all of these groups as well.
I have also found allies amongst survivors of slavery and trafficking, from trade unions, academia and from local community groups. I think it is fair to say that in the anti-slavery space, allies generally gravitate to each other on the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘what’. We all have the same goal: to end slavery; it’s on how to do it that we differ. The people that I have gravitated to tend to share some common characteristics: they are fiercely committed to evidence-based approaches; they know sustainable change takes time; and they are, at their core, optimists, who believe in the capacity for change even against the greatest odds.
What drives you?
A certain quote comes to mind: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing.” I’m not on a mission to save the world. I wouldn’t call myself an idealist. I just have a personal resolve to be a part of the solution. I can’t be a bystander. I am also driven by people and by the goodness and courage of others. When I think about how entrenched and terrible this problem is, I remind myself of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people I have met and collaborated with over the years — all working for positive change within their own sphere of influence. I also think of the survivors I have had the privilege of knowing and I think, if they can survive this, come out the other side, and in some cases become advocates themselves, I have no excuse to give up.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
That I did what I could whenever I could. Most of us won’t be an Eleanor Roosevelt or a Nelson Mandela, but we don’t have to be. We cannot bear all the world’s problems, and trying to only leads to exhaustion. However, if each of us does what we can, whenever we can, then together, we create a constant and sustainable force for good.