10/26/2011 01:34 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2011

None of Us Are Free

Two weeks ago, an estimated 50,000 people gathered with the president and civil rights leaders to honor the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. Dr. King's courage moved our nation to unite for racial equality and human dignity. He inspired countless others around the globe to demand freedom from oppression. Dr. King's return to the Mall is a reminder that we must keep fighting for justice. What was true in Dr. King's time remains true today: None of us are free until all of us are free.

Last weekend, I had the distinct honor of speaking at the third annual DC Stop Modern Slavery Walk, where thousands gathered on the Mall to raise awareness about human trafficking and lend their voices to those silenced by slavery. It is fitting that King's dedication led into this event, symbolizing a passing of the torch to the next generation of civil rights leaders and advocates.

Growing up, just after the 1960s, I feared that I had missed my chance to take part in the most important movement in our country. I now know that I have found my place -- and that all of us can step up and join a movement that matters. This year, I became CEO of The Global Fund for Children, which invests in innovative grassroots organizations that fight for millions of the world's most vulnerable children. They are vulnerable because they were born poor, or born in places where they were forced to work. Or to be soldiers. Born disabled, or born girls. Our work serves the larger dream that King envisioned. It is their potential that should matter, the content of their lives. Not their color, religion, gender or the circumstances of their birth.

Some of the most important work we do ensures that children are safe from trafficking and exploitation. We have the privilege of working with grassroots leaders in 72 countries whose work and dedication ensures that children can be free from slavery. These are some of the most courageous people I have ever known, working with children in circumstances many of us could never imagine or survive. They make sacrifices every day, putting their own safety at risk, to help others gain freedom and independence. To be rescued, rehabilitated, reunited with their communities and to be whole -- and children -- again.

Human trafficking is the third largest and fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. In fact, more people are enslaved today than at any other time. It affects over 1.2 million children and young people each year, of which 80 percent are under the age of twenty-four and some are as young as six.

In South Africa, I met girls as young as seven who were trafficked into Johannesburg. I've also met incredible grassroots leaders working in Johannesburg who ensure these rescued girls are sheltered, safe, counseled, educated, and never return to trafficking.

I am humbled by brilliant, brave leaders like James Kofi Annan with whom I shared the stage on Saturday. James established Challenging Heights in Ghana so that his experience as a child slave would not be repeated.

Whether in Guatemala, Serbia, India, Mongolia, Senegal or other places around the world, The Global Fund for Children finds and supports local NGO leaders, visionaries and slavery survivors who fight so that all of us can be free.

Before I give you the wrong impression, let me be clear. Slavery is not confined to remote parts of the world. It happens in our own country, even here in Washington, every day. There are workers in hotels and factories and farms of every sort who don't get paid and who aren't free to leave.

The partner groups involved in the DC Modern Slavery Walk have come together to spread the word that anyone and everyone can help put an end to human trafficking. There are various ways to get involved and make a difference. Whether it's by donating, partnering, interning, volunteering, or learning more about organizations that specialize in the cause, we must stand behind these courageous men and women who fight to end exploitation and trafficking in their communities. We have the ability to help them become seen and heard.

The torch has been passed to us. Putting an end to modern day slavery is our civil rights movement. Now it's our time to make a difference, and we must continue to work together to ensure that people everywhere are free.

Kristin Lindsey is the CEO of The Global Fund for Children in Washington, DC. For over twenty years she has worked with foundations, nonprofits and policymakers in Chicago, DC and various spots around the globe. The Global Fund for Children invests in innovative, community-based organizations working with some of the world's most vulnerable children and youth. To date, GFC has invested $21 million in over 500 grassroots organizations in 78 countries, serving over 1 million children.