• sarahbethray

On Becoming an Abolitionist

I was 21 years old and on an 8 month journey around the world when I first encountered Human Trafficking in a hot and humid beach town steps from the Indian Ocean.

It was 2004 and my privileged upbringing taught me that slavery had ended with the 13th Amendment back in1865, but as I stepped from my cheap hostel that hazy January morning, my eyes confirmed a very different reality.


As it turns out, my backpacking buddy and I had gotten stuck in Thailand for 4 extra weeks due to the bird flu and we were using the time to explore marine parks and stage culinary adventures while trying to get by on $3 a day.


We had already slept in some strange places on that shoestring journey around the globe - from mud huts to monkey riddled beaches and even the back porch of a funeral parlor. Never did we expect to wake up in a Red Light district.

As we stepped out our hostel door the morning light revealed a surprising site. Portly Western men dressed in their best tropical attire parading around with tiny Thai girls on their sweaty arms. Our suspicions were later confirmed when these fathers and uncles led their young beauties toward hotel rooms they had rented for the day.


I decided I never wanted to return to Thailand.


At the same time - I can remember lying face down in that sticky hostel room ($3 a day doesn't buy air-conditioning) thinking about what those girls were going through and crying out to God, saying, "If there is one thing you let me do in my life, please, please let me be a part of seeing these women set free."

That journey changed the trajectory of my life, leading me into a deep dive of learning all I could about human trafficking, the sex industry, and unjust labor. My research led me to pursue poverty relief as vocation in an attempt to uproot the source of so many related injustices, including modern day slavery. As it turns out, poverty produces a very steady supply of would-be trafficking victims.


I'll always remember the parable my college Ethics Professor used to begin a debate about the best way to respond to injustice in one of our classes. He told the story of a village high in the mountains, with a river running along its edge....

One day a shout goes up as someone from the village sees a body floating down the river. The people in the village rush to the riverbank, pull out the body and are able to resuscitate the victim. The next day dawns and this time there are 3 bodies floating down the river. Again, the villagers are able to rescue the victims and bring them back to life. The third day, even more bodies, and the fourth still more. Finally, a wise person in the village decides to go upstream to the next village and find out where all these bodies are coming from.

While I have many times desired to play the part of the rescuer, I have always been the person that wants to know WHY all the bodies are floating down the river. If I know why, perhaps I can stop the injustice before it starts.


This motivation led me to co-found the Fair Trade Boutique Yobel in 2008, a social enterprise that helps to combat poverty by employing marginalized artisan groups. I later authored a business training program to make entrepreneurship accessible to those living in developing nations in hopes of strengthening their local economies.


I continue to try and keep bodies out of the river in my current work with Neema Development by offering consulting to organizations who share my desire to end the poverty that leads to the desperation that creates vulnerability that results in slavery.

Teaching business principles has reminded me that addressing supply issues will not solve the entirety of the slavery problem. You see, there will always be a supply so long as there is a demand. Therefore if we wish to eliminate supply, we must begin with demand. Addressing demand, however, was not something I was equipped or prepared to do alone.


Thankfully, we are rarely asked to do hard things alone. Some good friends of mine founded a counter-trafficking organization called The Exodus Road in 2011. TER exists within the intervention space, to not only pull bodies out of the river and restore them to life, but to partner with local police in gathering intelligence that helps to find and arrest the one(s) who put them there in the first place. The impact of their courageous work is to make it more dangerous for perpetrators to throw people into rivers, or in dispensing with the metaphor, more dangerous to buy and sell human beings.


It may not mean the desire to purchase sex or slave labor has been eradicated, but it does mean someone must think long and hard about the consequence of acting on that desire before they choose to do so, effectively decreasing demand.

While I have been a fan and supporter of The Exodus Road since its inception, it has been a recent privilege to join this organization as a board member and to know that in doing so, I am partisan to a multi-faceted approach to ending slavery.


That cry of my heart 17 years ago is being answered in tangible ways and I am so grateful!

Which leads me to ask, what is the cry of your heart? What injustice makes you weep? What issue causes you to rise up in your chair and say, "I will not stand for this any longer!"


Pay attention to that thing, I beg you. It has been placed inside of you for a reason. You are meant to respond to it. And if that thing happens to be modern day slavery, I invite you to consider becoming an Abolitionist.


Abolitionist -- a word that is used a lot these days. More than it was ever used in1865, which is fitting considering there are more people enslaved today than during the course of the entire transatlantic slave trade.


With 40.3 million people enslaved, and most of that slavery hidden, it is going to require quite a lot of us choosing to become Abolitionists if we want to see it come to an end.


So what does it mean to be an Abolitionist?


During the 19th century, it was to be "a person who sought the immediate emancipation of all slaves." I don't think that definition has changed too much despite the fact that google insists on making it past tense (insert eyeroll).


Assuming the 19th century definition, to be an Abolitionist means we must find and free slaves. ALL SLAVES. Practically, that is a big job -- and multi-faceted as we have already suggested. So a great place to start is in finding a reputable counter-trafficking organization and join their cause. Volunteer in their offices, share their posts, give to their mission, go to their events, tell others what they do. Become a SUPER FAN.

Beyond that, pay attention to what you are uniquely gifted in doing and find a way to offer that skill to the #EnditMovement. I can tell you, I never would have guessed I'd develop a business training program to try and combat slavery, but here we are. Likewise, my friends at Free the Girls have discovered creative ways to help reintegrate survivors using bra sales as a model! Suffice it to say, there are a lot of possibilities.


Regardless of what you choose, it is important to get some skin in the game if you want to succeed in resisting apathy. There is a well-known Cycle of Inaction from @ohhappydani that The Mustard Seed Marketplace recently posted to their feed. I think it is well worth acknowledging how often we fall into this cycle when faced with the overwhelming injustices of the world.

To break the cycle of apathy we must get involved in an active way; investing something of ourselves that will require courage and a degree of sacrifice for the sake of another. How this plays out in real time is deeply personal and will look different for everyone.


For Abolitionist David Zach, it looks like being an undercover operative for The Exodus Road and using his music with Remedy Drive to raise awareness and proclaim freedom. For my friend Dalene, it's using her media platform in a strategic way. For my girl Kate, it's educating her 3 young children. For my colleagues, it's changing the way they shop to avoid slavery in supply chains. For my SIL Sara, it's using her business platform to create items that promote equity. For my brother Jeb, it is actively campaigning for law reform.


Bottom line, you have to decide what getting skin in the game means to you and then GO DO THAT THING. It does not have to be a great endeavor in order to be successful in making a difference for someone else.


In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

Whatever we choose to do in our pursuit of becoming an Abolitionist, we must not look the other way. Remember, you are not alone. And if Neema Development can connect you to effective ways to fight human trafficking, please reach out -- we are only an email away.








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