BH: Do you still identify with the Quaker faith?
EBS: I do, and particularly the element of Quakers that is the core tenet — that we are all of God and also of everyone, and we are all animated by the Divine Spark. Subjugation of man by another is a subjugation of God. Seeking the Divine Spark in every man, woman and child and also in these violators of the laws is necessary because otherwise we reduce them to caricatures. When we do that, we make our job a lot more difficult as far as abolishing slavery because it’s akin to the idea that people are beyond salvation if they’ve committed a crime, and the Quakers don’t believe that, and I don’t believe that. Some of them need to be shown the error of their ways by the possibility of prosecution, but also, in just a few miraculous moments, when presented with the real misery that they’re causing to other human beings, there’s real remorse from traffickers. I found that in the north of India with a young man who had enslaved a young boy and then met the boy’s mother. The boy was now missing, but this trafficker got down on his knees in front of this slave’s mother. He pledged himself to her to do whatever he could to repair the damage that he’d done. The remorse was real, and that sense of commitment to her was real.
BH: Did faith or prayer help you to cope with any of the situations you witnessed out in the field?
EBS: I was constantly [relying] on the faith, as I mentioned when I was talking to traffickers, that there is God in everyone. As somebody said to me recently, sometimes you have to look real hard, but it’s important that we look, and it’s important that we remember that. Otherwise, the issue’s hopeless. I fundamentally don’t believe that the situation is hopeless, or that traffickers are beyond salvation. There is God in everyone.
BH: If a reader is moved by this interview to reach out and help the cause for abolition, how do you recommend he or she get started?
EBS: The first thing to do is to understand the issue. Don’t assume immediately that you’ve got all the info. [After nine years researching this topic] I’m still learning what slavery is. There are many forms of slavery and the point is to get our arms around the problem before we can wrestle it to the ground. Pick up Kevin Bales’ book Ending Slavery, where he offers ways for individual activists and governments and organizations to take action.
BH: And your book A Crime So Monstrous covers this issue in a very unique way, too.
EBS: Right, you can pick up my book as well — it’s an attempt to tell these peoples’ stories in a graphic way, and it reads like a novel, but it also conveys, as much as I can, the humanity of the people we’re talking about.
Getting involved at the local level is a good idea. Talk to local community groups, and church groups, and the local sheriff. It’s incredible that every police force has training on murder but not on human trafficking. There are roughly 17,000 murders in the U.S. every year, and almost every precinct has a homicide unit. Seventeen thousand people are also trafficked into the U.S. every year, and only two to five police precincts in the country have human trafficking divisions. It’s up to us to raise awareness and get law enforcement to understand that when they see a young woman on the street, particularly if she’s a girl, she’s a victim. Even if she’s an adult, chances are there’s some kind of coercion at work. The just response, the godly response is to reach out and ask, “How can we help you?” and talk to her about how she can get out of the business, rather than to throw her in jail and treat as a criminal.
Imagine what we can all do in terms of raising funds and awareness and supporting groups like Free the Slaves, because they do such good work globally, and they take what money is donated to them and give it all to their partners. Support tremendously responsive networks that free slaves and work to keep them free.
BH: What are you working on now?
EBS: I’m speaking on behalf of Free the Slaves and raising awareness about the issue. I’m a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, in the Center for Human Rights Policy. My own work is to get the Obama administration to have a robust policy that is geared toward eradicating slavery, by doing targeted development work. That’s the area that people can have a big impact in, if they write to senators and Congress and say that we, as a community or a faith community, have one mind on this issue. You can make a big impact by speaking with one voice. The government should listen to that. I have to be faithful that this administration will.
Organizations through which you can take action
www.casademaryland.org – CASA Maryland
www.castla.org – Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, Los Angeles
www.fiacfla.org – Florida Immigration Advocacy Center
www.stoptrafficnow.com – Columbia, Missouri student organization
To enter our random drawing to receive a free copy of E. Benjamin Skinner’s book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, send an email by midnight (EST) Thursday March 26 to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “A Crime So Monstrous.”