5 Ways to Keep the Anti-Slavery Movement From Becoming Obsolete

Originally published as part of a 3 part blog series for the Verge Network.

You can find a dynamic, visionary individual at the center of virtually every social reform movement in history. William Wilberforce in the British abolitionist movement, Susan B. Anthony in the women’s rights movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement, just to name a few.

But take a closer look at those movements and you’ll find something else too – a community that caught the vision, aligned their actions with a common purpose, and persevered together until they achieved their audacious goals, even when others thought they would fail. Wilberforce was a part of the influential Clapham Sect, Anthony used the platform of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and King cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In other words, communities and institutions were instrumental in advancing their visions and movements over several decades.

Every movement invariably reaches an inflection point when individual passion is no longer enough to sustain growth or influence change. The most successful movements are the one’s that recognize that moment, adapt and establish a paradoxical blend of the individual and collective, organic and organized, grassroots and strategic.

The contemporary  movement to end slavery in the United States has reached a similar inflection point, and how we navigate the path ahead will be the difference between making history and becoming obsolete. After all, there are plenty of other causes to care about with far more straightforward solutions.

So how do we sustain the movement for another decade and achieve our audacious goals? The following five points create a standard that Allies Against Slavery is working toward, and we can apply them to the larger movement as well.

1) Deepen our understanding of the problem

The movement is young and we’re still learning about the nuances and complexities of modern slavery, much less the best ways to solve it. The good news is that we are slowly moving from merely what the problem is to why it’s happening. Asking why helps us begin to understand slavery as a community development issue, not just a human rights and criminal justice issue. 

When we look at slavery through a community development lens, three things happen – 1) we acknowledge that slavery occurs where we live or that we contribute to it, 2) we learn that slavery sits at the intersection of several root-cause social, economic, racial, familial, and institutional issues, and 3) we shift toward developing a broader range of holistic, preventative solutions in our communities that address those root causes.

 2) Empower ordinary abolitionists

Deepening our understanding of the problem and broadening the types of solutions we develop allows us to find news ways to engage people. At the end of the day, every community member should understand how he or she can use their unique sphere of influence – whatever that might be – to end slavery. Can you mentor a lonely kid? Can you adopt a child or help reform the foster care system? Can you plan an educational event? Can you design a website for an anti-trafficking organization? Can you start a social business that pays a fair wage and employs the otherwise unemployable ? Can you be a better neighbor?    

3) Develop cross-sector networks

Those who work on the bleeding edge of large-scale social change agree that the world’s most intractable problems will only be tackled through networks of cross-sector partnerships. That is especially true for modern slavery, a deeply systemic problem where the best solutions require the convergence of the public, private, and social sectors. We’ve seen encouraging progress here, with new private sector partners such as Google, Salesforce, Microsoft and others leveraging resources and innovative technology to support the movement, but we have plenty of room to bring new stakeholders in our communities to the table.       

4) Shift from collaboration to coordination

Individual passion, awareness campaigns, and organizations working in isolation will not sustain the next decade of the movement. That grassroots energy has to be funneled through the productive structure of cross-sector networks in which partners work closely together. “Collaboration” is the en vogue term most people use to describe the act of working together, but I suggest “coordination” is a more ideal scenario for these cross-sector networks. Imagine members of an orchestra tuning their instruments as they warm up for a performance. They are playing together, but not in unison, resulting in a cacophony of sound. But when they play in coordination with each other, the result is the beautiful music we recognize as Beethoven’s 5th. Our efforts need coordination to efficiently pursue a shared goal.   

5) Move the needle (and prove it)

The anti-slavery movement must begin to demonstrate its true value and impact. You may be thinking, “What can be more valuable than standing for freedom?” While it may be a noble cause, our good intentions and grand rhetoric don’t give us a free pass. We can’t just measure outputs - what we build and do. We must also measure outcomes - how the world is better because of what we build and do.  Granted that’s harder, but it’s a challenge we can’t shrink from. If our mission is to end slavery, can we prove we’re actually doing it? 

The movement has come a long way in 15 short years, and though we have a long way to go I’m confident about the path forward. It starts with personal change. We need to graft that personal transformation into a larger, coordinated network of communities and institutions that will sustain that work as long as it takes to reach our audacious goal, even when others think we will fail.