Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Celebrities and Trafficking

Intro by Justin: We idolize celebrities. They are modern day demigods who roam the Earth gracing us once every year or so with a world shaking motion picture or a heart wrenching song. They are the heroes and caricatures of perfection that grace the silver screen and more recently dance and sing for us on YouTube, our mouse clicks often numbering in the millions busily pressing "play" and "repeat." Yet when a celebrity gets involved in a human rights issue what does it mean?

When I was researchin
g human trafficking in the Philippines in 2007 I worked with people who had been fighting the good fight day and night for over a decade, pouring themselves, their time and energy into combating trafficking. I know that trafficking is currently highly lucrative and that where there is money, there is deep motivation on the part of the traffickers to maintain business as usual. I saw first hand that the struggle to end human trafficking is a long-term process that ultimately requires the transformation of deeply entrenched political, economic and cultural factors if the root issues are to be effectively addressed.

With this in mind, what are we to think when a celebrity joins the fight against trafficking? What do photos with trafficking survivors, a visit to a shelter and a speech or a song actually amount to? Does a celebrity's involvement signal real commitment or is it just a flash in the pan? Despite these misgivings, it is impossible to deny the unique opportunity a
nd ability that celebrities possess to use their fame to focus our attention on important global issues like human trafficking and make a significant impact.

Justin: After researching Ricky Martin and his humanitarian efforts, I am happy to have discovered his dedication to combating modern day slavery and his use of his celebrity status as a way to effectively support the anti-trafficking movement.

Ricky Martin first encountered human trafficking in 2002 during a visit to Calcutta, India. Founder of the
Ricky Martin Foundation, which works to combat human trafficking and other human rights issues, Mr. Martin has had an admirable track record in activism receiving numerous accolades for his efforts including Billboard's Spirit of Hope Award, the Alma Award, the International Humanitarian Award by the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and the Hispanic Heritage Award for his humanitarian work through the Sabera Foundation in rescuing three orphan girls from the streets of Calcutta. In 2005 the U.S. State Department named Mr. Martin one of its "Heroes in Ending Modern-Day Slavery." Martin also collaborated with the International Organization for Migration on “Llama y Vive” (Call and Live), a campaign aimed at the prevention of human trafficking, protection of the youngest victims of child trafficking and prosecution traffickers.

Human trafficking is an issue that requires a collective effort from all sectors of society to be effectively addressed. No one group has all the answers or resources needed to solve the problem of modern day slavery whether it be government, law enforcement, the civil sector or celebrities. Collaboration becomes integral to making a real difference in the long term and, at the same time, recognizing how we can each use our unique strengths to help the cause.

Although celebrities alone are not the solution to ending human trafficking, I am glad to see someone like Ricky Martin embracing his role as a pop icon, engaging the issue of human trafficking over the long term and using his fame to make a difference.

Click here to watch Ricky Martin's speech at the UN GIFT conference in February 2008

Youngbee: Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore launched the Demi and Ashton Foundation (DNA) on January 25th, 2010. The couple have been very explicit about their support for anti-human trafficking through social media even prior to launching their DNA Foundation. They tweeted statistics on human trafficking and they also spread the word about anti-trafficking events and campaigns on Twitter. I am not sure what motivates they have behind their support for anti-human trafficking initiatives. Maybe they want to support human trafficking victims because they want to be trendy, or maybe they just are genuinely concerned for the victims of trafficking. Either way, that is not something that I would like to waste my time worrying about. I don't know them in person, nor do I know anyone who can tell me what they were about when they established DNA.

But one thing is clear: their celebrity status is put into a good use with this work. Within three days of launching the DNA Foundation, 2,182 fans have already joined their Facebook page and 3,661 people are following them on Twitter. Obviously, this is a significantly better start than most nonprofits in the US have. From their website, it is not clear what direction the DNA Foundation will take in terms of supporting the cause of trafficking victims. But, time will tell, and one can only hope for the best.

Elise: Some may have already heard that Lindsay Lohan is attempting to make her mark in the anti-trafficking world ever since she started tweeting her vows to take action over the summer. Now, a clip has been leaked for a new documentary that she is apparently shooting for the BBC in India focused on child trafficking. I have to say that this is a particular avenue by a particular celebrity where the negatives seem to outweigh the positives: here is someone known for her poor personal decisions and the clip reveals that, like in many other arenas in her life, she is diving head first into a topic that she really does not understand. While her celebrity status could at least spark interest in awareness among her fans who would otherwise spend their time watching how many times she changes her clothes every day, starring in her own documentary and narcisstically claiming to save 40 children in a day will probably not create the kind of change she seems to hope for.

This is one human rights issue wh
ere, if you really want to contribute to the fight, you cannot expect that your face will be plastered all over the results of your assistance. For example, donating funds to a victim service provider is a great idea, but the provider may not want a lot of attention in order to avoid risks to themselves or the survivors with whom they work. I'm not sure Lohan would be able to handle that kind of tame or unpublicized philanthropy. Maybe I'm not being fair; maybe she already has. I am not looking forward to her documentary, though.

Jennifer: In November 2009, Emma Thompson's exhibit called Journey opened in New York after showings in London and Vienna. The exhibit, curated by the two-time Oscar winner, is inspired by the story of a sex-trafficking survivor that Thompson first met in 2006. In a piece for Newsweek, Thompson writes, "What made her story so personal for me was where she'd been imprisoned: the same massage parlor [in my neighborhood that] I'd once treated as a joke. It underlined an awful truth: that human trafficking is not just a problem for other communities or other people. It exists on our own doorsteps, and our lack of action shames us all." Perhaps I am drawn to Thompson's anti-trafficking work because a similar experience was the catalyst for my anti-trafficking work.

In addition to her work raising awareness, Thompson is also the chair of the Helen Bamber Foundation, an organization that works with trafficking survivors and survivors of other human rights abuses. In interviews and pieces about her work, Thompson stresses the importance of being self-reflective about the ways we promote slavery through our own life choices, and she also cautions about objectifying and re-victimizing survivors. Like Elise, I am wary of celebrities whose anti-trafficking work appears more narcissistic than useful. In her writing and speaking about trafficking, Thompson not only works to end slavery, she serves as a model for others seeking to use their celebrity status to fight trafficking.

Click here to watch Emma Thompson speak about the Journey Exhibit

Meg: It's certainly amazing what fame and money can accomplish, and I think that Oprah is an obvious example. Human Trafficking is one of the many causes she is championing. Besides featuring a book that spotlights human trafficking in her book club (and having worked at a bookstore, I can vouch for the popularity of Oprah's Book Club books), she also has devoted a significant portion of her Oprah's Angel Network charity to human trafficking. On the For All Women Registry section of the site, visitors are encouraged to spend "$5 - or 5 Minutes" on causes including ending modern-day slavery -- and there are many creative suggestions of ways to help.

Just a thought: although celebrities who choose to can certainly do amazing things to promote a cause, I think it's important to keep in mind that we all have our own valuable resources and advantages which we can use for the benefit of others. It can sometimes be easy to focus on our limitations, rather than on what we can do. Even a few dollars or minutes of time donated here and there can do good things to help victims of human trafficking, and a few dollars or minutes donated by many "everyday people" can do great things.


  1. Its good when celebrities/artists use their popularity to advance a worthy cause such as working against human trafficking.

    But I hope when they do films, they are also aware of the messages they are sending their audiences. Sometimes, some movies deliver messages tolerating sexual exploitation & trafficking.

  2. I totally agree. Jay Z recently expressed regret over the song Big Pimpin ... Just one example how the human trafficking culture might be inadvertently glorified. He said, however, he was sorry he wrote it and wished he had considered the human trafficking implications.