Tag Archives: ethical storytelling

10 Ways To Be a Better Ally

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dscf6377Anyone can be an ally in the fight to end child trafficking and exploitation. Our staff, whether paid or volunteer, range from counselors, mentors, and educators, to managers, farmers, marketers, writers, researchers, photographers, and filmmakers. People who support us include donors giving to our students and programs, fellow activists in the field, people in related industries, and of course, like-minded, concerned individuals who follow us and give shout-outs on social media. All are needed and welcome. Whether you’re with us on the ground daily or you follow us through cyberspace, we’d love to share with you some of what we’ve learned about being a better ally to those most at risk of exploitation.

  1. Tell stories ethically

So much of what we do at The SOLD Project comes from a heart of story telling. From the documentary that started everything to our blog and the way we connect people across the globe, stories lie at the core of how we operate. Our goal in sharing these stories, however, is not to perpetuate pity. We try to avoid engaging in sob stories to drive donations, and choose to instead focus on stories that are dignifying, respectful, or empowering to the person involved. Their lives are their stories to write in way that inspires pride, and our goal is to share stories that inspire connection, and a deep respect for our common humanity. This means a focus on positivity despite challenges. It means writing with the person’s consent, and often even their input, and being willing to let them change how the story is written—letting go of control and your own agenda, and being open to what a story has the potential to become.

  1. Offer your real skills

Well-meaning volunteers come through wanting to offer their time to help organizations like us working in the area. To be a well-functioning and ethical organization, we need to be thoughtful about who we invite in and how. The best way to have a positive impact is to share a skill or knowledge you’re already passionate about. If you want to come in and help build desks for our classrooms, but you’ve never built furniture a day in your life, the result is unlikely to be beneficial for you or the nonprofit. The desks would probably be inexpertly made, possibly even dangerous to our students, and would cost materials and time that could have been given to someone local who does have that expertise. It probably wouldn’t be fun or inspiring for you either. If you want to do volunteer work, try to find a project that harnesses your true interests, passions, and skills, and it will lead to a much more meaningful experience for both you and the organization with whom you’re working.

  1. Practice non-judgment

We often hear questions like “How could a family sell their child?” or “Why would a girl ever voluntarily go into the sex trade?” In order to truly understand others, we have to remember that we don’t all come from the same place. If your family is well and whole, even in hard times, these things might be unthinkable. But if we consider what it would be like to grow up in place where hunger is a frequent house guest, working any way you can is literally the difference between life and death, and sacrificing yourself to save your family is one of the most honorable things you can do, the decision looks very different. Also very rarely is it one decision; it’s often a series of decisions: drop of out school to save money, try to find a job in a restaurant, or maybe a bar, leave to go to the big cities for more opportunities, and end up in a job you never expected to take for money you never thought it was possible to make.

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  1. Remember that root causes are systemic

The cause of child exploitation almost never begins with the trafficker or the victim. It begins in poverty, in statelessness, in gender inequalities, in racism, in exclusion and alienation, and in a world where children are viewed as less than fully realized human beings. If we really want to end trafficking and child exploitation, we need to start with the society that allows and perpetuates all these things, and we need to start interrogating ourselves as individuals, and examine any of the ways we are complicit.

  1. Look to the helpers

In recent years, there’s been a general outcry against too much donation money going to “overhead,” and some basic agreement that the more money given directly to the recipients of aid, the better. Obviously, multimillion dollar salaries for CEOs of organizations whose base is still struggling to feed themselves is not an ideal scenario. However, in lieu of a society with a universal basic income and support infrastructure in place to help people in need, organizations run anemic without donations for their staff and general programs. In our experience, the scholarships are necessary but not sufficient. Children need mentorship and guidance, a safe place to stay and play, and awareness raising programs to help ameliorate vulnerability locally and abroad. We also need long term staff that can build deep, lasting relationships with the students, their families, the community, the legal and medical system, and fellow activists in the field. To be done effectively, all those things cost money and require people with talent, skills, deep commitment and expertise. Those people also need a living wage and various kinds of support to help keep them focused and balanced in a very emotionally demanding job. If donations are a way you’d like to be involved, consider sponsoring a student, and also consider sponsoring the support structures that help ensure the scholarship and prevention programs are as successful as they can possibly be.

  1. Assess your own agenda

Any help you can offer is always welcome. However, sometimes, if our best intentions aren’t coming from the best place, we can end up doing more damage than good. A question we can ask ourselves is: Am I joining the cause in a way that respects the dignity of the people I’m helping, or are the people merely tools for something else I (whether consciously or unconsciously) want to achieve? Getting something for yourself is not inherently a bad thing. What we most want to be careful of is: when push comes to shove, will we act in a way that serves our own agenda regardless of the needs of the other person, or will we let go of our own needs if we discover it does not help the ones we serve?

  1. Always be open and willing to learn more; to listen as well as speak

No matter what we think we know about trafficking, prevention, our students, or any of the issues we grapple with on a daily basis, we practice it best from a perspective of humility. Truths may change, or our understanding may deepen, or there are people from whom we might learn something so long as we assume we don’t have all the answers.

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  1. Be inclusive

There’s a phenomenon among activists where people can sometimes get stuck in a feedback loop of each trying to prove how committed to the cause they are, thus getting ever more extreme, and shutting out people who are deemed insufficiently committed. This is not a healthy way to grow a movement. Accept people on their own terms. Let each learn and grow and commit on a level that is sustainable to them, whatever that means.

  1. Find a tribe who both encourages you and holds you accountable

Being an ally in a social movement of any kind can be incredibly mentally, emotionally or even physically challenging and draining. It can feel isolating at times. Surround yourself with people who fill you up, who help you feel encouraged and rejuvenated and inspired. Surround yourself with people who make you want to do better and be better—and you will, and so will they.

  1. Keep your own love tank full

You know how when you get on a plane, they tell you in case of emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others? It is incredibly hard to give when you are empty. Generosity is much easier when you are full and whole and complete. Do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy, and then you can give more whole-heartedly and in much healthier ways to others.

Want to be an ally of The SOLD Project in the fight to end child trafficking? Check out these ways to get involved and ways to give!

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Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The SOLD Project. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.

A Word From Rachel: These Are People. Not Stories to be Sold.

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Our President, Rachel Goble, recently wrote a piece on the Huffington Post. We are reprinting it here for your view. You can find the original article here.

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The anti-trafficking world turned 15 this year (by definition), and it seems like we’re starting to, well, act 15 as well. Stories of deceit, of trickery, of allowing white lies to grow into big hairy black ones continue to emerge.

It’s true that when the anti-modern-day-slavery movement began more than a decade ago, there was little knowledge around how to effectively combat trafficking, but with the media attention it received and the swell of compassionate people who were ready to take action, there was no denying the urgency of the situation.

I can remember watching the Dateline special in Cambodia. In it, IJM went undercover in a brothel and rescued dozens of underage children who had been forced into sex trafficking. During this time, many journalists began writing about trafficking, mostly sex trafficking, and in each of the articles, a clear pattern was present — a vulnerable girl, whose past we knew next to nothing about, was taken advantage of by a malicious trafficker until the organizational hero appeared.

When I first walked the streets of India’s red light districts, in 2008 (/), I was overwhelmed by the immensity of the global problem. I was young and naive but desired to help. Thankfully I’d had enough cross-cultural training at this point to know that my journey into this world should begin with one goal: to listen. My goal wasn’t to listen, as in hear what people are saying, write it down, and publish an article about it. My goal was to listen, as in allow the culture to bring me out of my comfort zone, to wonder why people acted certain ways, to ask questions about things that were different or alarming and to learn to see them from someone else’s point of view. To listen to the joy in someone’s voice as they spoke about their children or the sorrow as they spoke about the long hard days they worked to provide that kept them apart.

I listened. I was present.

This listening changed me as I moved away from the formula that was in my head (girl trafficked by a man, rescued by an organization) to a much more nuanced understanding of the incredibly complicated factors that allowed trafficking to exist. Economic vulnerability, lack of jobs, lack of education, greed, the powerful preying on the weak, a demand from John’s for sex, a demand from consumers for cheap clothing — the list goes on and on.

And this shift created within me – and within our team – a desire to tell stories with as much authenticity, nuance, and dignity as possible. Why? The reason is simple — I would want my story told that way.

And yet in the last few years, we continue to see heartbreaking cases of organizations who gave in to the sensational. From Somaly Mam in Cambodia to COSA in Thailand. Like most of us, I don’t know the entire truths behind these stories – only what has been released online. What I can take away from these exposures, though, is that there is a temptation to sensationalize stories to gain supporters.

Any non-profit leader would be lying if they said they weren’t tempted to sensationalize and over simplify their impact stories. I know I’ve been tempted, but we must fight this temptation.

Very recently I was on a call with the CEO of one of the largest international foundations in the world. They host an annual conference for women, and this year one of their panels focused on child trafficking. A mutual friend connected us, believing that our organization’s prevention efforts might be able to contribute to the panel. Or so I thought.

I became suspicious of the CEO’s agenda when she began asking me what survivors I knew in Thailand. After repeating that we were a prevention organization, but that I’d be happy to connect her with some of our partner organizations, I asked her if she was having a difficult time filling the panel with survivors.

“Oh no.” She said. “You know, you talk to more people, and eventually you find more interesting stories.”

My. Heart. Broke. This right here. This is the problem.

Storytelling is currency in the non-profit world. We live and die on how we tell the story of our impact. Story can inspire. But story can also exploit.

In our quest to sell more tickets, earn more dollars, garner more clicks on our websites, we fill the space with sensationalized and at times even false stories. It has to stop. In the non-profit world, the end doesn’t justify the means. Rather, the means can destroy the end — bringing freedom and dignity to those we serve.

These are people. These are survivors. These are not stories to be sold.

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