I am an Abolitionist

I wrote this speech for an oratory contest that got cancelled, but I thought I’d share it since it will likely never be used again:

Dear Mr. President,

People will tell you my generation is the Harry Potter generation. Having girls of your own, I’m sure you know what this means–we were young enough when the books came out to truly believe in the magic. We thought our acceptance letters to Hogwarts would arrive on our 11th birthdays. We played Quidditch in the backyard. We believe in the values of deep friendship, bravery, and love. Even as we have grown older, the world of Harry Potter still resonates with each of us. Some critics may call this the new Peter Pan complex of my narcissistic, apathetic, cynical generation. Perhaps there is some fair truth to that claim, but I think our Harry Potter fascination is a result of the fact that it resonates with something far deeper than childish fancy, for it has to do with our deeply-rooted desires to be heroes–someone who makes a difference in this world. 

I am addressing you today on an issue in these United States that is dear to my heart for it calls upon my values of friendship, bravery, and love for my fellow man. That issue is modern-day slavery in the forms of sex trade and prostitution. I’m sure you’re wondering where Harry Potter fits into this charged topic, but let me assure you that it will all fit together in the end.

On Sept. 25, 2012, Mr. President, you delivered an address at the Clinton Global Initiative on the issue of Human Trafficking as modern-day slavery. You said, “Slavery ought to concern every person because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community because it tears at our social fabric.” I applaud you for recognizing that this is a growing issue globally and in our United States, and that your administration has already begun initiatives to effect change.

I am not making an appeal to the U.S. Government to throw money mindlessly into a new bill or initiative hoping the problem will right itself over time, but rather making an appeal to our nation’s leaders to invest in equipping individuals to end slavery themselves, beginning with education.

This is as much an appeal to my generation as it is to you, Mr. President, for I truly believe that great and lasting change occurs from the grassroots up.

According to the US Department of Health & Human Services, human trafficking is the  second largest criminal industry in the world, and the fastest growing. Nearly two million children are in the commercial trade and an estimated 600,000 persons are trafficking across international borders annually. Nearly 80 percent of victims are female, more than half of whom are under age. Human trafficking in general and sex trafficking in particular is a global venture generating approximately $32 billion a year in profits. 

But we cannot keep pushing the issue out thinking the problem lies in the world beyond our American borders. The sad reality is that the sex trade occurs in our own backyard. The US State Department estimates 14,000 to 17,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the sex industry in the US annually, many of whom reside in cities such as New York, Atlanta, and Charlotte. The sex trade is not comprised of internationals alone, but also women from our own country. We tend to believe the myth that prostitutes are women who choose to sell their bodies voluntarily. In assuming this we overlook:

1) Prostitutes are underage in one out of two cases. The US Department of Justice says the average American prostitute begins working between the ages of 12 and 14.

2) Forces such as discrimination, poverty, limited social mobility, and gender inequality results in women being more vulnerable to sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking happens under our very noses, sometimes even to young girls in our public school system. An article from USA Today in September 2012 told stories of young girls in middle and high school trapped in prostitution. One girl said that during a sleepover she was handed over to a pimp by her friend’s father. Another girl was forced to sleep with clients during her lunch break at school to complete her quota. 

Usually girls who are victimized have a history of family abuse and rape and are lured into the trade by promises of security and love, then they cannot leave because their traffickers beat or threaten them. One survivor told USA Today about how her trafficker often used brute force to keep her from leaving. She reported that her captor once took a potato peel to her face and raped her as she bled. 

As much as these stories grieve and anger me, what angers me more is that we are so ignorant of what goes on around us–that we are blind and deaf and dumb to those who are afraid and alone and trapped. But where do we begin? How do we right these wrongs? 

The beginning step in education so we can become aware of the signs. We need also to change inadequate laws and policies that place the blame on the women rather than on the traffickers. You said in your address to the Clinton Global Initiative that since 2006 the US Department of Education has focused on training several school systems on how to be more aware of the sex trade. With all due respect, Mr. President, this is a nationwide problem that cannot be solved by educating a handful of school leaders alone. We must reach a larger demographic if we want to see lasting change. 

So how do we combat this vile practice? We do what we have always done in the US with issues if social justice: we fight for it. We fight for it by bringing understanding where there was ignorance, light where there was darkness, truths where there were myths, and compassion where there was apathy.

Mr. President, I appeal to you to charge and urge our schools and law enforcements and businesses and communities and public health services to be informed on this topic because ignorance is our greatest enemy. Urge them to equip themselves with educational materials that they might become more aware and thus take measures to stop this vile practice in its tracks.

But if ignorance is our first greatest enemy, our second greatest is apathy. And this takes us back to Harry Potter:

Maybe we believe in those stories not because of how magical or well-written they are, but because we are anxious to be heroes in our own lives. But when we find we are not Harry Potter–and not all of us can be–we give up and settle for apathy. But I reject that. I reject that because J.K. Rowling created Neville Longbottom for the common man. Neville could have been the chosen one to defeat Lord Voldemort, but that was not his fate. Harry was chosen to conquer the darkness and be the face of deliverance, yet Neville was never excused from doing his bit to defy evil. He could have run off, caved into the cowardice of his peers, or despaired and given up because he was not the chosen one., But what does the story say? Neville–poor, weak, sniveling Neville–became a hero in his own right because he chose to stand against evil and tell darkness, “this far, but no farther.”

You, Mr. President, are in many ways one of the Harry Potter of this world. You did not choose to inherit the problem of sex slavery, yet the ball is in your court. You are a leader and you cannot neglect your duty to uphold our nation’s core value of freedom. Will you do your part to change the course of our nation? Will you lead us by bringing the issue to our attention and not allowing us to forget it? Will you pass laws that generate greater checks and balances and put strategic funding toward initiatives to free women and girls?

And now I get to you, my generation. Let me assure you that while you may not be a Harry Potter, you are in no way excused from taking action. With knowledge comes the responsibility to act upon that knowledge. You may never single-handedly change the course of our world and bring an end to the sex trade, but that in no way excuses you from playing even the smallest role in preserving justice. We all have voices and an audience. They may be small, but let us never despise the days of small things, for you never can tell where they may lead. Who fooled us into thinking we need to be the chosen one or we can do nothing?

Now it’s up to you. Now we are the enforcers and the task is up to us to bring about change. I have three applications for you today. The first is specifically directed at men:

  1. You can end the sex trade by truly valuing women. They are not sex objects for you to toy with, but human beings to be cared for and prized with compassion and love.
  2. For everyone: Inform other people. It’s as simple as that.
  3. Act. Join clubs on campus seeking to uphold social justice. Donate your time or money to organizations seeking to end trafficking or who provide aftercare for survivors. Support the individuals who work for these organizations with encouragement, love, and prayers.

Be that voice of change. Sometimes all it takes is one voice–a small, Neville Longbottom voice–and then that voice becomes a hundred, and then a thousand,  until it cannot be silenced. Now the choice is up to you. The great abolitionist William Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again you did not know.”



One thought on “I am an Abolitionist

  1. Beautiful, words filled with passion, inspiration, and most of all hope for those still enslaved.
    Yes, of course this can be a completely overwhelming topic.
    But it’s the little steps powered by the big hearts like yours that make a difference.
    That make a change.

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