Dan Olson, who has served on our team as a writer and researcher since October 2015, is moving onto a new position as Director of Content at Reflektion. He has done outstanding work with us, most notably with all the research, planning, analysis, writing and promotion of our Social Impact Assessment, without which we wouldn’t have such clear indicators of the impact of our organization. He has shown remarkable depth of understanding, sensitivity to people and issues, and has been a fantastic cheerleader for growth–both personal and as an organization. His work in grant writing has been likewise indispensable, and his presence on the team will be sorely missed. As he prepares for this next stage, I asked if he would share some of his reflections here with us. Here is what he had to say.
What drew you to work with The Freedom Story and how has the experience been?
Well, I met Rachel in 2014 at a kind of micro-conference – a small gathering of creatives and activists in Manhattan. My wife and I had just moved to Oakland, less than a mile from Rachel’s apartment, and Rachel and I were the only ones interested in drinking wine the first night. We realized we even attended the same graduate school. Our friendship seemed fated.
Not long after that, Rachel and I collaborated on a book project, which led her to ask if I was interested in grant writing. I had been curious about the anti-trafficking world since undergrad when I heard an NGO leader speak about freeing sex slaves in India; grant writing was an interesting challenge to undertake; and I was intrigued by the idea of an upstream approach to fighting human trafficking.
Overall, my experience has been phenomenal. I’ve learned a ton. Not long after coming onboard, I managed our first social impact assessment. I had the privilege of writing the literature review, working with incredibly intelligent and passionate people – like you, Athalie Waugh, and Sherry Lou – and immersing myself in the very interesting, though also incredibly depressing, world of human trafficking.
One thing I’ve loved about working at TFS is our team. We’re small but scrappy, and we all wear several hats. Now that I think of it, it’s been excellent preparation for transitioning to the startup world; at TFS, we see a problem that needs to be solved, and we all roll up our sleeves and try to hack a solution. This is especially true since our focus is prevention.
While a lot of NGOs and government agencies have an aspect of prevention, this usually means awareness raising or some sort of legislative approach. These elements are, of course, crucial. But we’re the only organization I’ve come across that’s in an innovative space in prevention, trying to lead an upstream approach.
What’s one thing you’ve learned about human trafficking that you wish other people knew or would understand?
Damn. It’s hard to narrow that down. I suppose it’s this – human trafficking is incredibly complex. That probably sounds banal, so let me elaborate.
Whether you’re trying to understand – let alone change – the sex trade in Thailand, a ton of factors come to play. You can only begin to understand it when you look at broader economic trends. Inequality is huge. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Thai government spent a ton of money – much of it coming from the US, especially during the Vietnam war – to make Thailand into a modern nation. In many ways, it worked. Thailand is now one of the famous Asian Tigers. But development in Thailand is skewed. While significant investments were made in the regions around Bangkok and throughout Southern Thailand, little went to those in the North and the Northeast. So, you end up with a nation where some have access to opportunity and resources and others are stuck in poverty with little access to resources, such as quality education. This created a situation ripe for exploitation. It’s no surprise that the Northern regions function as supply sites for the sex industry.
This inequality gets exacerbated at the global level. You have Western men, with relatively large levels of privilege and power, who come to Thailand for sex tourism. Even a middle-class American man – though these are disappearing even as I write – can save for six months or a year and go to Thailand and live like a king for a couple of weeks while purchasing relatively impoverished women for sex or even sexually preying on vulnerable kids. (Thankfully, the FBI and Thai police are making predatory predaphilia more risky.)
I think this is part of why so many in the anti-trafficking space focus on rescue and aftercare or a criminal justice approach. Both options are fairly straight forward: save victims or pursue criminals. Got it. While both approaches are crucial, neither gets at the underlying issues. If you want to do that, you’re going to have to spend time coming to grips with what drives risk for individuals and communities, what encourages exploiters, and how this all meets. When you start investigating the push and pull factors, you realize pretty quickly you’re dealing with complex systems.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, a picture holds us captive. When it comes to the trafficking world, and our world in general, I think he was right.
We still view the world mechanically, as if it can be broken up and understood in silos. But the world – individual humans and other animals, human societies and cultures, and the ecosystems we’re a part of – isn’t made up of machines. Along with the rest of nature, we’re biological entities in biological systems, with a multitude of interrelated and interconnected parts. The ways we relate – whether through social media and movies or trade routes and legal systems – are complex and dynamic, with feedback loops, emergent properties, etc. You can look at aspects of complex systems to understand them, but these will only provide clues to what’s happening and then only when you’ve adequately situated them in their context.
The causal relationships in complex systems aren’t as simple as those in mechanical ones; we’re not talking about levers and pulleys. Say you want to know why a particular plant species is disappearing. To understand why you need to know that elk populations have grown over the last 20 years because wolf pack migration patterns have changed. You’ll only understand why wolf migration patterns have changed when you consider human hunting habits from 50 years ago; and to understand those, you’ll need to look at the mink fur market during that time. I’m making this particular example up, but there are a million real-life correlates in the world.
So, if we want to understand sex trafficking, even just in the States, we’ll need to consider something as minute as the lack of trust between women of color and US police. Not only is it common for police to prey upon sex workers of color, but American police have historically been used to police and control African-American communities through violence and terror. We’ll also need to look at immigration laws, cultural attitudes around sexuality, race, and gender (why, for example, do most people view black girls as older and more mature? Is this connected to the use and abuse of of their bodies during slavery?), education rates in different communities, the pornification of our culture, the commodification of all of life, and the list goes on.
There’s a reason more women and girls of color end up in the Life than others. It has to do with race, of course, but it also has to do with economics. For historical reasons – slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, redlining and unequal community investment – African-Americans have much less collective wealth than others in our country. You can’t understand sex trafficking in the States without looking at race, economics, gender disparities, etc., along with how these all cross and interact with each other. This brings us back to the complexity issue. Race and class and gender and opportunity – they’re all intertwined in our contemporary world.
I know I’m on a soapbox, but I really believe this is an important point.
We at TFS always strive to remain politically neutral. Given that our supporters and employees have varied political ideologies, this makes sense. I also think the diversity of perspectives is essential. Debate is good. We live in a complex world, which we humans only grasp in part. On the other hand, there are some political, economic, and social issues where the spectrum of options is minimal for those who claim to be against human trafficking.
While I’m happy Trump followed President Obama in declaring January a month to recognize the issue of human trafficking, his other policies are almost all universally detrimental to the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery. From his immigration policies to his racist rhetoric, to the Republican tax plan – which will markedly exacerbate inequalities – his administration’s perspectives and policies are antithetical to the fight against human trafficking. I’m really tempted to say you can’t support Trump and also support the fight against human trafficking without being a hypocrite. Maybe that’s too reductive, but I’m honestly not sure. If you support, whether explicitly or through the policies you push for, patriarchy and the subordination of women, economic and racial inequality, harsh immigration policies and the unequivocal championing of police, you can’t say you’re against human trafficking. You just can’t. I want to be clear – I’m speaking for myself, here, not The Freedom Story.
While human trafficking is complex, the things that make it possible and exacerbate it are understood. And, as we’ve found with education, there are some very clear points where intervention is incredibly effective.
I know most of us are overwhelmed by politics these days, but they’re decisive for this issue. After years of working in and studying human trafficking, I think it’s imperative, especially for Millenials concerned with social justice, to recognize the importance of progressive politics when it comes to this epidemic. When it comes to voting numbers, Millennials now outnumber Boomers. It’s time to get involved. At the very least, show up at the poles. Contrary to popular belief, your vote matters. Also, midterms are coming!
Okay, soapbox over.
What will you miss most about working with us, or in the anti-trafficking field more generally?
My soapboxes! Just kidding, sort of.
I’m going to miss my coworkers. Of course. From our Thai to America staff, to our exceptional editorial team in Berlin (with only one team member! haha), to our board members, to our variegated and passionate movement of supporters, to the partners we have in the field, I’ve loved working with everyone at TFS.
I’m also going to miss having some skin in the anti-trafficking game. While I’m thrilled about my new role as Director of Content at Reflektion, working in the AI meets retail space is going to be a lot different than working to fight human trafficking. It’s not the end of my work in the anti-trafficking space. Far from it. It’s just a different direction. Maybe only for several years. Maybe for a long, long time. I’m not sure. All that being said, it felt pretty good to get up in the morning and know that everything I put my hands to had real-world effects on the lives of vulnerable children, youth, and communities. It was also awesome to be a part of carving out a space for prevention in the anti-trafficking world. I’m going to miss that.
It makes it easier knowing I’m leaving TFS in incredibly capable hands. I’ll miss the work, but I’m confident it will continue to thrive without me.
Thank you, Jade, and thank you to everyone else at TFS for making my time here phenomenal. I’m going to miss the work and everyone involved in it.