How to Create Human Trafficking Awareness That Actually Compels

02/21/2017 01:39 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2017

It has been a fierce season for human trafficking awareness-raising and we aren’t done yet. Dressember has passed, and we completed Human Trafficking Awareness Month with flying colors. We posted our stance on multiple relevant awareness days and Ashton Kutcher’s powerful speech to Congress last week has been perfect for leveraging on social media. In a few short days many abolitionists will paint a crimson “X” on their hand for the End It Movement. Then the LBD.Project will breeze in on March 1st, participants wearing the same black item of clothing for thirty-one days to bring freedom to modern slaves.

Yet as our momentum fuels us forward, I often wonder, are we just creating hype? Are we creating awareness for human trafficking that actually compels a response?

Statistics and Stories Aren’t Enough

When I first studied human trafficking over ten years ago, I picked up two renown books on the subject. This was my debut to the many contrary and confusing human trafficking statistics out there. But I was not hindered from getting involved, no matter if there were as few as eleven million or as many as forty-five million modern slaves, or even if the average age of entry into sex trafficking could be sixteen instead of thirteen.

I read, watched and listened to a lot of stories too. The “face” of modern slavery is what drew me to this global issue. However, the horror of these stories would fade almost immediately—and yet I still acted.

Although the personification and facts attributed to my growing awareness, I was compelled to become an abolitionist by something even deeper.

A Case Study: When You Can’t Prove Human Trafficking

Sharing statistics and stories are the bread and butter of raising awareness. Facts are our validation; personification is our hook. People won’t even bother listening unless a survivor shares and bares all for us to ogle over. Then if we don’t have stats, we don’t have a case, and if we don’t have a case we can’t find investors of time and money.

Or, so we think.

When NOVA HTI (the nonprofit I directed) was beginning, we had no real statistics or stories to leverage. In fact, we only had the glimmer of a picture—basically just our congressional representative telling us to do something. And sure enough, as we dug into rumors, we discovered there was something happening under the surface in our suburban microcosm. But convincing others to help and care--with nothing juicy to prove the murky image--felt hugely impossible.

It is true, most were never convinced it was worth their time. But there were also many who responded and poured themselves into our local anti-trafficking movement. Once we acted and created systems for the facts and stories to be discovered, there they were, clear as day. Human trafficking was alive and thriving in the D.C. metro area, a “hidden crime” just as the FBI declares it to be.

The anti-trafficking movement in Northern Virginia didn’t take off primarily because of stories or statistics. It took off because people believed it was wrong and that they should do something about it.

Leveraging Worldview to Create Awareness

Over the years, I, like may other advocates, activists, and all manner of housewifey do-gooders, have taken the facts and tried to prove, convince, force, manipulate, and shame people to care. Even if a large part of that was unintentional, there is no doubt we need to move to a higher standard of advocating with credibility.

However, our purpose itself is not corrupt. We want people to feel our passion. We want people to know they should care about modern day slavery regardless how many slaves there are; regardless of how old the victims might be—just because this should not be so.

Neither statistics nor the most horrifying of stories will convince people that human trafficking is wrong. Worldview is a framework that must be reconstructed. However, we don’t have to spend all our energy pushing a freight train onto a different moral track. There already are millions of people who are not involved in the modern abolitionist movement—and yet still share the belief that people should be set free.

How to Tweak Our Advocacy to Compel People

Creating awareness is simply marketing. Its very essence is selling a cause. And although facts and testimonials are a vital part of marketing, human brains often ignore this as unessential noise. However, while filtering out what our brains consider fluff, Simon Sinek discovered they also lock on the why. Serial entrepreneur, Dale Partridge, dubbed this whyology, determining that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Is it possible our advocacy might be more effective if our primary goal while creating awareness wasn’t to convince people who don’t care? If we led with our why, our focus would be shifted to discover, inspire, and call forth those who already believe what we believe.

I’m not saying we drop the facts or leave out the stories. But when a survivor isn’t ready to tell their story, we can graciously let them to continue recover from their trauma rather than pushing. When someone begins fighting for proof, we can walk away. We don’t have to be discouraged because we are still limited by inhibiting factors (e.g., lack of systems to identify victims, lack of awareness, and not enough laws or training to enforce those laws) to accurately present a full picture of what human trafficking looks like.

Conveniently, Partridge posted about human trafficking yesterday. Yes, he mentioned statistics, but he was primarily focused on the why, the belief, and the underlying worldview to drive his point home. And as we continue raising awareness in this season, let’s follow that example of compelling people by connecting with our common belief that everyone deserves a chance to be free.

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Elisa Johnston writes at Average Advocate to empower people to become world changers. Consider joining Average Advocate’s annual LBD.Project to bring freedom to modern slaves.

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