I recently began a column about artists making a difference with their creativity in their communities. And I've had the great pleasure of writing about some incredible men and women.
Yet there's more to art than art. Artistry and creativity are not just results on a canvas, page, or stage. They are aspects of the spirit and ways of walking through the world.
With that in mind, I've expanded my focus to include all artists in the conversation, beginning with an incredible woman whose entire life -- personally, professionally, and spiritually -- is nothing less than a masterpiece.
Having spent almost 25 years working with the Institute for Development Research (IDR, which has now merged with World Education), Jane Covey now sits on the board of Free The Slaves, founded by Kevin Bales, Peggy Callahan and Jolene Smith. Below is a bit of our conversation about her life, her work, and the joy and importance of making a difference.
You're in the middle of an incredible life story. How did it begin? What shaped and prepared you for where you are today?
"My father was a career military officer in Air Force, so we moved around a lot. Looking back, what stands out as important was having exposure at an early age to difference. At 8, for example, we moved to Japan during the occupation and I had the experience of being the stranger and the other. Being from 'away', as we say here in Maine, has given me a sensitivity to people who are on the edges.
"In our family, there was always a notion of service. It was assumed that's what you would do with your life. When I came out of high school in 1961, my options -- according to my family -- were therefore teaching and nursing. As the eldest of five kids, the idea of being around more young people wasn't too attractive, so I chose nursing.
"In the late 70s, I went back to school to get my MBA. Not necessarily for a specific professional goal, but rather, to learn, open doors, and see. It was a great experience and, following a move to India, I began working in the 80s for IDR which helped build the capacity of NGOs (non-government organizations) around the world. Thirty years later, that notion of service still feels right."
How did you get involved with Free The Slaves?
"A friend invited me to think about it. He'd been consulting with the organization and said he thought the board could use someone like me and the work I'd done, particularly given my international work. I had never heard of the organization, much less slavery in that particular frame. I had some meetings and was very impressed. Free the Slaves exits to end slavery worldwide; their work and contribution in the first 10 years has been tremendous. I went in rather ignorant and I am still in the early learning stages of what modern day slavery is and getting it integrated into my own experience."
We hear about sex trafficking, as well as bonded and child labor. But we don't seem to hear about or consider 'slavery' to be a modern, ongoing issue.
"Exactly. The language of 'labor' implies somehow -- even subconsciously -- that it is on some level a choice people have made. Even the word 'trafficking' speaks more to the trade than the experience of the people trapped within it. And this is deliberate. Slavery, and the people it its clutches, are very hidden. They're in every country around the world even though slavery is illegal everywhere. In the US, they're nannies, agricultural workers, landscape workers, restaurant workers as well as sex workers. And perhaps 99% of those we see are indeed there by choice. But there are those that aren't as well. Many are brought over from other countries with promises of jobs, education, and a better future for themselves and their children, only to become trapped by violence or the threat of violence. They have no options."
It's hard for many of us in the West to comprehend 'no options'. While perceptually or emotionally we've all experienced the notion of being trapped, to experience it as a concrete reality is a different matter entirely.
"In the US we have trouble understanding because we don't see how vulnerable people are who are poor and without education, without any hopes that their children's lives will be better than theirs have been. There are people around the world living marginalized lives. Not only for the lack of money, but because they do not have a place in their communities. They are on the fringes. They are essentially without value in their own societies. It's that vulnerability that responds when someone comes to the village and says, 'I can get your son a job so he can send money home to you.' That child, sometimes as young as 5 or 6 ends up weaving rugs in a dimly lit, locked shanty for twelve hours a day, fed only enough to keep him alive.
"As well, where poverty is absolute, people often have children they simply can't feed. In those cultures, children working is very common and necessary. The families are too poor to allow their kids to go to school. So the promise of a job where they can have a better life and send money home is like a dream. Sometimes, it's simply even a promise of their survival, of their being able to survive and live. In these circumstances, the choice is between desperation or false hope. The latter often occurs as a sensible choice."
How many slaves are there in the United States today?
The estimate is around 40,000 in areas including domestic workers, prostitution, agriculture, sweat shops, and landscape businesses.
What can we do? What can we read? What do we need to know?
"The most important thing, I believe, is to educate yourself. Books are a certainly a way to do that. Disposable People, Kevin's first book is a great start, as is his Ending Slavery, where Kevin has basically laid out a system and plan for the same, which our organization has taken on. We focus on partnerships with organizations and people in the most vulnerable countries, including Haiti, India, Nepal, The Congo, and Cameroon. We financially support those groups to liberate and then rehabilitate. Because if you've been enslaved, even when you're free -- if you have no other option -- you'll possibly go back.
"In the United States, Free The Slaves focuses on raising awareness and supporting anti-slavery efforts here and abroad. (The website is constantly updated with information and resources, as well as inspiring, personal stories about men and women who have reclaimed their freedom.) The United States has anti-trafficking laws and slavery is illegal. Still, like all over the world, these things happen. There are brokers that literally bring slaves in every area over, through both legal and illegal channels. Many states have abolitionist movements that you can get involved with. First though, is understanding that slavery does exist."
I'd now like to talk about how this work -- this type of work -- has impacted your life.
(Laughing) "I believe many people might say that I'm a bleeding heart liberal. A do-gooder person. And to some extent it's true. But the fact is that I have gotten so much more than I have given in this work. I literally view it as privilege to be involved. When I was working with IDR, I would go into communities, meet the NGO activists, get to know them and the people they were working with. And I was always stunned at the courage, the grace and intelligence, the strength and the basic goodness of the people. Whatever we did to help was more like a catalyst than anything else. The real change, hope and struggle was in those folks. To be part of and to witness that, and to be the recipient of the sharing of that has been amazing. A truly humbling and enriching experience."
What wisdom would you like to share with readers about your work, your life, and your journey?
"Having had the circumstances of privilege, such that I get to choose work based on my values and passion and my personal vision of how the world ought to be, the one I believe in, has just been an amazing joy. I can't think of having a better work or professional life than that. I know that circumstances are such that not everyone has the freedom to do that. But I also know that many that do, don't. People see themselves as not having the choice, or choose not to make it. And they're missing out on how fulfilling, satisfying and enjoyable that choice, that life could be."
Many people, when presented with the idea of 'being a contribution', have the perspective that they simply don't have the time or energy to step into the life you're describing and living. What would you say to them?
"I would say to do one little thing, whatever it is. Do that volunteer day that your corporation puts together. If you're a visual artist and someone asks you to put a piece into a community auction, do it. Giving just a small amount of time or effort, a part of what you do, makes such a difference. The opportunities for contribution that work for you are out there. For example, I've been very strategic now that I'm retired about what I'll get involved with, and how. People are afraid if they say yes they'll get sucked in beyond what they can do or handle. Don't let this take you out of the game. You can state your own terms. Just say yes. Just make it fit. As my granddaughters would say, 'give it a go'."
Visit www.freetheslaves.net for more information about the great work Jane and the organization are doing.