Using Business And Commerce To Fight Slavery
I remember the first question I was ever asked by a Babson student. It was my very first day teaching in September 2002, a class called Postcolonial Literature and Film. I had just finished introducing the course, going over the syllabus, and outlining the shape of our semester’s work, and I asked if there were any questions.
A young man raised his hand and asked, “What are you doing here?”
His question was not quite as belligerent as it sounds—in fact, it made a whole lot of sense. Why would a liberal arts professor be drawn to a school where she will never teach a student majoring in her field, never offer a graduate course or direct a doctoral dissertation?
At the time, I responded with something about the joy of “not preaching to the choir,” of reaching across disciplines and worldviews to engage students in subjects they may not otherwise encounter as a kind of “cross-cultural” exchange—all of which, it turns out, is true.
The truth at the very beginning, however, actually had more to do with the prospects of landing a tenure track job in the Boston area in a dismal job market. Ten years later, though, I’d almost have to say “divine intervention,” were someone to pose the question to me again.
What else could have led me to what I often think must be the one academic community and workplace on earth that would foster my development from a professor of literature to professor of literature and faculty director of a multi-sector partnership seeking to innovate with social enterprise in the fight against human trafficking, specifically sex slavery?
Let me tell you about the work.
My human rights work led me about six years ago to join a truly incredible organization, Made By Survivors (MBS), for which I now serve as Board Chair. MBS employs girls and women who have survived slavery, making products that we import, market, and sell in the US. When MBS Founder Sarah Symons visited anti-trafficking activists and NGOs in Nepal and India (global hubs of sex trafficking) and asked what they most needed, she was surprised by the response: not funds, not HIV medications, not awareness initiatives, but rather, jobs.
It is one thing to “rescue” someone from slavery; it is quite another to enable conditions by which that person might live into a free and autonomous, productive, creative, dignified life without the threat of being re-trafficked. Made By Survivors partners with local NGOs serving survivors of slavery or those at great risk for being trafficked by providing employment opportunities which can help to enable and sustain a truly free life.
Using business and commerce to fight slavery—a significant proposition, but not so easy when you consider the multi-billion dollar illegal trade in humans, and the powerful interests committed to sustaining that trade. The great thing about MBS is that its CEO, John Berger, is a human rights activist by way of business. After 20 years in investment banking, he has turned his prodigious business/ economic/ finance knowledge and experience to the problem of employing survivors of slavery, and the results have been astonishing.
MBS currently employs approximately 200 survivors in production centers making jewelry and other handicrafts in India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere. For these artisans, the impact is nothing short of life altering (I’ll share some stories in a future blog; for more, please visit www.madebysurvivors.com).
Still, that’s not enough. I learned this first-hand on my recent trip to Mumbai and Kolkata to tour some of our production centers and the shelter homes with whom we partner. Truth is, we need to employ 2000 survivors, or 20,000, or 200,000, or… We need to figure out a way to attack one of the critical causes of modern-day slavery—poverty and disempowerment—at its core in order to glimpse the real possibilities of global abolition.
The problem we face is how to guarantee consistency in raw materials, design, production, quality control, export, and marketing/sales such that we can increase our production while still maintaining the small, healthy, happy, fair-trade, living-wage production centers that enable survivors to continue receiving therapeutic treatment and other much-needed interventions in the wake of the trauma left by slavery. Ordinarily, to increase production and ensure quality control, a company would just create a large, centralized production center…in other words, a factory. Of course, MBS is not in a position to go that route, as our mission is to help survivors to reintegrate into their lives and communities, and to prevent trafficking in the first place by providing viable livelihood options within often impoverished and remote communities. We need to provide opportunities where they are.
John’s brainchild: the Microsupply Chain. Rather than creating one big production center, he envisions creating a chain of small production centers and workshops that could be linked using mobile phone technologies to coordinate materials, design, production, and export, so as to fill large orders just as a large factory would.
Currently, this idea is being tested by a pretty high-powered partnership: Babson faculty and students working with the support of Cheryl Kiser and the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation Laboratory on business models; MIT faculty and students working on mobile technologies and logistics; and RISD faculty and students working on design.
With help from corporate partners like Toyota (and, we hope soon, others), we plan to create a replicable, scalable model for production and sales that can not only help us to employ more and more survivors of slavery, but also can provide an open-source model to help all kinds of small-scale, fair-trade producers get past existing barriers to entering large global markets.
So what’s a liberal arts professor like me doing at a place like Babson? I could not have fully imagined how my response to that question would evolve over the years, and I’m certain that in another ten years, I will have much more to add. For now, I hope that if anything about the work of the Babson-MIT-RISD-MBS Microsupply Chain Laboratory piques your interest, you will get in touch and join with me in the global abolition movement.
Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg
Associate Professor of English