What do you think of when you hear the names Cleopatra, Monsanto, Syria, the United Nations? Maybe even more important, what do you feel?
Names matter. In ancient times, people believed that when you knew someone’s name (or some spirit’s name) you had power over them. Today, whether with our family name, our nationality, our religious affiliation, or our sexuality, the names we use define us. This holds true for companies and even nations as well. Names are more than letters strung together. They’re identities that endure over time. And yet, the associations we make with names depend on the stories we’ve heard. Names don’t mean much (if anything) if we don’t have a context for them. Names define us, sure, but the definitions are shaped by the stories we and others tell.
My story of involvement in the anti-trafficking fight began nine years ago when a story on Dateline where a nonprofit organization, International Justice Mission (IJM), went undercover in Cambodian brothels, gripped me. Graduate school seemed like the logical next step. Though I learned a lot through reading and classes, my field work was the cornerstone of my education. In Los Angeles, I learned about the global nature of human trafficking as I helped NGO’s monitor mobile brothels selling Korean women. In India, I learned how poverty creates opportunities for traffickers as I met poor young women seeking to provide for their families. In South Africa, I learned about resilience as I met survivors leading the movement to rescue their sisters. In Thailand, despite a culture that caters to sex tourism, I learned about the hope of prevention as I partnered with a crew to make a documentary film. We ended up telling a story that was new to my experience in the anti-trafficking world: prevention. For me, the timing was perfect.
After months of visiting, working with, and learning from rescue and aftercare organizations, I began to wonder if there was another approach to changing the system. I blame my inner economist. Like so much else in our world, human trafficking can be understood by the simple equation of supply and demand. I kept wondering what it would look like to change the supply side of the equation. What if we could find the factors that led to risk and, more importantly for me, intervene in ways that helped eliminate those risk factors? While I knew there was no silver bullet, the idea of preventing human trafficking before it occurred was a new approach that enlivened me.
In late 2008, the documentary film we made, “The SOLD Project: Thailand,” launched at the Disney headquarters in Burbank. The star of the film, a young girl named Cat, captured the hearts of the audience. The response was overwhelming. After long conversations with the two founding directors, I officially came on board as we founded a prevention organization that inherited the name The SOLD Project.
Fast forward a few years. I’m back in Northern Thailand interviewing students for a short video for our website. I ask them to introduce themselves. As they come to the camera one by one and proudly announce “I’m a SOLD scholarship student!” I shudder. I realize that the Western branding of our organization is causing these bubbly, young, and beautiful children to boldly describe themselves as SOLD. Sure, it was our organization’s name, and, yes, we knew they didn’t really mean it. (Most didn’t even understand it.) Yet without realizing it, we had created a culture where saying they were “SOLD”’ was normalized. Yikes. This was the day where I began questioning myself about the story our organization was telling.
If they’re honest, anyone in the nonprofit world will tell you that story is our currency. Whether with films, or blog posts, or vignettes shared at coffee meetings, we fundraise through stories. We show donor’s their impact by sharing a story of a transformed life. Even the data we use to show our impact lives in the context of a story. There may have been a time when capturing attention was easy. But as long as I’ve been in the space, it’s only got harder. Guidestar currently shows 650 results when you search the term “human trafficking.” With so many organizations and so much content being produced at all times, it’s not surprising that organizations increasingly sensationalize their storytelling. In some cases, sensationalism seems benign. In other cases, sensationalizing someone’s story, or encouraging them to do so, has done harm to those already suffering or vulnerable.
While story has the power to wound, it also has the power to heal. It makes sense. Stories make us human, after all. They give us meaning by placing our daily actions in a larger context. They help us understand those who are different by revealing our common humanity. Stories expand our empathy, change our minds, open our hearts, and give voice to our histories. Stories, like names, are how we construct our identities. They tell us who we are. They also open up possibilities for our futures. The first step in doing anything is telling ourselves that we can. The stories we tell ourselves and others shape the world.
Stories, like names, matter. Which poses some questions for those of us seeking to do good in the world: Can we tell stories that demean those we serve to raise more money? Does sensationalizing stories do more harm than good? Do we owe our constituents more? What about our audience? Is there an ethic to storytelling?
Sensationalism is like sex — it sells. But I believe there’s a better way. A more dignifying way. A more human way. Pity may seem to empower some of us, but it really makes all of us smaller. Connecting with one another through empathy, however, empowers us all.
As an organization, we’ll be unpacking this idea of ethical storytelling over the next year, especially in regards to storytelling for the purpose of fundraising. For now, we’ve made the decision to put our branding where our heart is. We’re rebranding our entire organization to reflect the hope, dignity, and freedom that we want to be representative of our work. The SOLD Project, while not a bad name, isn’t a positive name and doesn’t reflect the reality we seek to bring about for those we serve. As we go into the world with a new identity as The Freedom Story my goal is two-fold. First, to inspire and educate our donors with true stories of resilience and hope. Second, to create a brand that positively reflects the lives of the students and communities we serve.
Our name, The Freedom Story, and the story we’re telling, that preventing child exploitation and trafficking is possible, are who we’ve been, who we are, and who we’re becoming. I’m incredibly excited about what lies ahead, and I hope you’ll join us for the journey. It’s going to be a good story.