An estimated 40.3 million people around the world live in slavery involving either sexual exploitation or forced labor. A new partnership with Freedom United is giving Rotarians a chance to do something to stop it. Dave McCleary was volunteering at a youth conference in 2012 when a young woman named Melissa explained how she had ended up in the sex trade. She was living in a nice suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, when a young man knocked on her door and offered her a job as a model. The man turned out to be a pimp, who lured her into prostitution through a combination of drugs, threats, and coercion
“She was from my town, and was living in an apartment where my wife used to live before we got married,” remembers McCleary, a member of the Rotary Club of Roswell. “After the presentation, a member of my club gave her a big hug. I asked how he knew her, and he said she used to babysit his kids when she was 12. That’s when I realized this wasn’t someone else’s problem. This is happening all around us.”
McCleary is now co-chair of the Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery, which has been coordinating Rotary clubs’ efforts to fight slavery since 2013. A big challenge for the group has been motivating clubs to act. The immense scale of the problem can be daunting. The Global Slavery Index estimates that, worldwide, 40.3 million people are subject to some form of slavery: bonded labor, forced labor, child slavery, sex trafficking, or forced marriage. “I think many people ask, ‘What can I do? What impact can my small club possibly have?’” McCleary says.
One answer could come from the group’s recent partnership with Freedom United, a nonprofit organization that has mobilized millions of partners, activists, and advocates through online campaigns to convince governments and companies to end slavery. Through Freedom United’s website, Rotary clubs of any size can sign up to form “freedom rings,” which raise community awareness of slavery while sharing information with one another through an online platform. Freedom United helps the club plan a two-hour community event by arranging speakers that can include experts, survivors, and representatives of local nonprofits that are already fighting modern slavery. At the end of the event, people are invited to join the ring. The core team this creates then selects yearly projects to commit to. “These rings are inspired out of a Rotary club but also pull from the larger community,” says Joe Schmidt, CEO of Freedom United. “We have a series of things they can choose to do. We ask them to keep it pretty simple and laser-focused on one particular project.”
Schmidt, who advises Delta Airlines on its anti-trafficking strategy, met McCleary through Delta’s involvement with Georgia Rotarians, including during the 2017 Rotary Convention in Atlanta. Rotary and community members gather for an education and engagement event called a Freedom Forum in Raleigh, North Carolina, to learn more about fighting modern slavery. A Freedom Forum in Raleigh, North Carolina, features shrimp cocktail and an explanatory card to illustrate how modern slavery impacts everyday lives. Freedom United Executive Director Joanna Ewart-James and Advocacy Assistant Miriam Karmali hand out fliers at a flower show being held in London discussing the link between modern slavery and the sponsor of the flower show. Rotary and community members gather for an education and engagement event called a Freedom Forum in Raleigh, North Carolina, to learn more about fighting modern slavery.
Rotary and community members gather for an education and engagement event called a Freedom Forum in Raleigh, North Carolina, to learn more about fighting modern slavery. “Dave and I started to talk, and we recognized that there are maybe 200 to 400 groups just in the U.S. working on modern slavery topics. However, they are all disjointed with no common platform,” Schmidt says. “It sparked in us a connection between Freedom United’s interest in taking our massive online community down to the grassroots level and Rotary’s ability to provide hundreds of groups all over the world who would be foot soldiers in this fight.”
According to Schmidt, a ring in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, is planning an annual gala fundraiser, and one in Raleigh, North Carolina, is working on a walk/run to raise awareness. Another ring is organizing a “red sand project,” where volunteers sprinkle red sand in the cracks of city streets to represent all the people in the world who are enslaved. Ian Rumbles, president-elect of the Rotary Club of Clayton, North Carolina, heard Schmidt speak at his district conference in April. His club is in the beginning stages of forming a ring. “What resonated with me was hearing about the amount of domestic slavery and the number of people forced to work in farm fields in my own state,” says Rumbles. “The fact that people in our country were modern slaves made me think that I can only imagine the amount of slavery around the world.”
Schmidt says Rotary’s experience with polio eradication makes it a perfect partner for this fight. Rotary’s patience in committing to a cause and its track record with polio have shown that Rotarians are willing to take mature, committed action toward long-term global change, even if it doesn’t give immediate gratifying results.
“Rotary’s patience in committing to a cause and its track record with polio have shown that Rotarians are willing to take mature, committed action toward long-term global change, even if it doesn’t give immediate gratifying results,” he says. “That’s the thing missing in the fight against modern slavery: large organizations who are willing to step into this thing for the long haul and eradicate slavery once and for all.”
Rotary clubs have been supporting anti-slavery organizations for over a decade. In one of the larger efforts, 14 Rotary clubs led by the Rotary Club of Dunbar, Lothian, Scotland, opened a vocational training center for trafficking survivors in Kalimpong, India, in 2015. The project was funded in part by a Rotary Foundation grant. The group plans to add a home for women and girls freed from slavery. McCleary is hoping that the partnership with Freedom United will better lead to more. “The great thing about Rotary is that even though we are international, we are community-based,” he adds. “So if there’s a need in a community, we have Rotary clubs there to make it happen.”