By Tyrone Curran
I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Odessa, Ukraine, minding my own business and suddenly out of nowhere this lady came and sat opposite me, her English was broken and she seemed to be from Russia. She did not seem to be entirely with it but the one thing I noticed were the scars on her face. She’d clearly been beaten or in some other violent interactions. After a few minutes of her sitting opposite me I started to gather from the words she was using that she wanted me to ‘get her out of here’. This was not a sexy, illicit suggestion, it was a desperate plea from a person in distress. My response, however, was one of pride and self regard. Even though I was in a strange city I wanted to keep my reputation intact. My interaction with this lady ended with her being taken out by restaurant staff kicking and screaming.
I will never forget that because that was the moment I realised what I was actually willing to do for this cause… nothing.
You see within the social justice landscape you can so easily find yourself moving from campaign to campaign talking about the other and never truly identifying and communing with the other. Never seeing the human and interacting with the real life behind the campaign. This was me. When I was given the opportunity to engage with somebody who was on the receiving end of exploitation I did not know what to do with myself.
Fast forward a few years and I started actively getting involved in the fight against modern day slavery. This is a story for another time, but that early moment in Ukraine was defining. Was I willing to do something? How much was I willing to truly understand and identify with ‘the other’? And who is ‘the other’ when it comes to modern day slavery?
With regards to modern day slavery, too often we don’t take time to understand the complex situation that the other faces. We end up falling into the trap of believing a simple, binary narrative about those facing this exploitation: the person is enslaved at one point in time and then at a later point rescued and considered ‘free’. In response we have therefore adopted simple often romanticised solutions focused on physically freeing slaves.
In reality, slavery is a much more complex web of interactions with physical freedom being very different to emotional mental and spiritual freedom. Any campaign or organisation that shows their success simply as the number of people that are rescued is allowing the public to believe a story that is in fact not true when it comes to those impacted by slavery.
Nothing drives this point home more than my work in the London Pupil Referral Units. Here I came across young girls who were being sexually exploited by young men in gangs. These girls were trapped by the fear that they would be social outcasts if they testified about anything that happened to them. And so they remained silent. And the abuse and exploitation continued.
This does’t fit our definition of slavery… it certainly doesn’t fit the binary idea of a victim being sold and then owned and exploited by a perpetrator. And yet these girls were enslaved within this lifestyle of exploitation.
It was only through listening to and truly understanding the broader context of these girls’ lives that I started to understand that modern day slavery has many faces and is enabled through a complex web of social interactions and realities that are operating within a community. I started seeing that I – and others – couldn’t just be the hero and rescue the slave and that the situation would then be perfectly resolved. No, a different response is needed. We have to change the way our communities work.
Modern day slavery starts in a community and can only be stopped by a community.
This was an idea that I was introduced to when I first started my journey into the world of counter trafficking nearly a decade ago and it stands true today.
Seeing this reality play out, I truly believe that as we expose people to the more nuanced story of slavery in our community and society we will start to see more complex solutions being drawn up that actually work.
After these last few years working in this field and seeing a number of different, often simplistic, initiatives and responses to modern day slavery, one approach that I see true potential in is through enabling the community to respond. More specifically, working with grass root and / or faith based groups which are deeply rooted in the community and are invested in seeing their local areas flourish. These communities, if engaged with and empowered to be the agents of change will be there long after those charities and well meaning individuals from the suburbs have left. As we take this fight forward, I believe this is one option we need to seriously explore further.
I hope that as you have delved into the world of modern day slavery through this series of blogs that you take up the fight not as an individual but as a community wherever you may find yourself.
Please share and get the conversation going to start thinking up solutions that are not campaign driven but community driven.
About the author: Tyrone Curran is a consultant to the Charity Sector and Church led organisations where he focuses on Youth-Led Development and movement building. His background has involved managing large scale international volunteering programmes for a development agency and working on government funded programmes. He trained to be a teacher in South Africa but felt the call to explore other ventures in the UK; this is where he helped to setup The Sophie Hayes Foundation which supports survivors of trafficking in the UK. His other passion is coffee and he is currently helping setup a coffee roasters that will train and employ people with convictions. Connect with him on Linkedin and Instagram to explore future collaborations.