Beauty For Freedom: Using Art to Empower Human Trafficking Survivors
Our world is definitely not lacking in problems, whether they be political, social, environmental or humanitarian. And while the media mostly centers its emphasis on the U.S. political climate or the war on terrorism, one pressing concern might not be getting the attention it deserves: human trafficking.
One organization, Beauty for Freedom, is fighting to keep this humanitarian issue remain at the forefront, and make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed. The foundation raises money for other non-profits fighting against human trafficking by working with artists, designers, photographers and performers to help raise awareness through their respective creative industries. One of their ongoing projects involves teaching art therapy to human trafficking and child labour survivors, giving them the tools for self-expression and empowerment.
Their upcoming event, a panel for their latest “Project Ghana”, will host a series of notable speakers, namely, child slavery survivor James Koffi-Anan and modern-day slavery survivor Ima Matul. We sat down with Beauty for Freedom’s Shannon Mac Ardhail, who told us more about the organization, art therapy, and the upcoming panel.
So, what got you started with Beauty for Freedom?
I’ll just tell you the story. I was working at Archetype Showroom, which is a great fashion showroom who helped us with a recent fundraiser – they do sales and consulting and some charitable work – and I was in charge of their PR office. We were working with a denim brand, and I was researching how denim was made and what we could possibly do that’s interesting in New York to give back to the community. I came across National Denim Day, which is a story of sexual assault. This girl in the early ‘90s was taking a driving test and her driving instructor basically sexually assaulted her, was touching her. So it went to court, and the judge dropped the case because he basically said that she was asking for it because she was wearing tight jeans.
It’s so fucked up. So now, National Denim Day is a way to raise awareness of sexual assault and also empower women on their personal style. At National Denim Day in New York City, I met Monica Watkins, who is the founder of Beauty for Freedom, and we just instantly connected and started working on a project together for Denim Day with Archetype Showroom. Then I went about my life and sold out at my fashion firm to another job because it was a huge increase in salary. It was a bad transition and I ended up working with horrible people, and this was right around the Trump election, and I was like, “I have to quit.” My new bosses were bigots, and I just quit. Two weeks later, after I had recovered from the whole thing, I went to Monica and I was like, “I have to do something that is actually worthwhile.” So that’s how I got started.
Cool. So what is it about Beauty for Freedom that makes it an important cause for you?
So, Beauty for Freedom is an anti-human trafficking non-profit, and we also work with domestic violence additionally, just because there are so many issues. But we do it by empowering artists and people in the fashion industry, photographers, stylists, and also people in the entertainment industry, to donate their time to teach art therapy programs. So we teach art therapy to survivors, and we also raise money for other non-profits, whether they are actually rescuing people and helping them medically, or if they’re lobbying for policy. So, what makes me personally passionate about it is – I mean, the arts, when I was in school, helped me discover who I am, my identity, my personality, my sexuality, and that’s what helped me through all my hard times in school was music, performance, dance. So, I just knew that worked for me. I mean when you think about it, when you’re super upset or you go through a bad breakup, you go to your room, you listen to music; it’s a way to cope, it’s a way to escape, it’s a way to figure out that you can create.
You have the power to create. So it’s all about empowerment. That was a great tool for me, but I wanted to give it to other people who were coming from the worst situations and the worst environments in life, that needed it the most.
Very cool. So, what can you tell me about this event in particular, “Project Ghana?”
So, this season we’re focusing on Ghana. There’re a large amount of child labour trafficking in Ghana. We’re working with James Kofi-Annan, who’s actually speaking at the event. He was a survivor of child slavery, of child labour trafficking in Ghana – escaped, put himself through school, and started a foundation called Challenging Heights. Challenging Heights rescues and rehabilitates children from labour trafficking.
We target organizations like this where it’s not us coming into another country as Americans and trying to put our own system into play. We’re supporting an organization, we’re raising funds for them with this event. We’re supporting their child rescue services. To support a person who is actually from Ghana, born and raised, was part of the system, escaped, and has made something amazing of his life and has chosen to give back with this amazing organization, Challenging Heights – he’s the expert, it’s his culture, it’s his country. So we would just love to support his amazing efforts with money and also go in to teach the children art programs, and introduce them to art therapy, and introduce them to what we know and what’s kind of cross-cultural, which is art. It transcends all cultural boundaries.
That is so cool. Could you give me an example of a project, or art therapy program that you would do with the survivors?
Yeah! So, we’re working will lots of artists. Travis – he’s our visual artist and a mural painter – he’s going to work with the children there, to reclaim city walls and make something beautiful and allow them to help create an environment that is beautiful, that they’re had a part in, to empower them that they can make an impact, and make a difference in their community and make something beautiful. It’s kind of as simple as just giving them the tools, giving them the paintbrushes, giving them canvas and paper and letting them draw. We also have our performance artist Zephy Dime coming with us, and she’s teaching them dance and performance art, and acting as well. We’re also doing photography, with our photographer Erica Simone, who will give the children cameras and teach them how to use the cameras, teach them about photography, and allow them to go out and shoot their own subjects, their own environment. What we’ve done in the past, is we’ve actually taken photographs that the children have taken and put them in an art book, and we’ve sold the art books and that kind of helps sustain the community. So, it teaches them how they can sustain themselves.
Yeah, and you almost can’t believe that children as young as like, six, seven, who’ve had cameras in their hand for four or five days, are shooting these terrific images. I think that’s super cool, because instead of us going in and taking pictures of the children, they’re capturing their own environment. It’s a different way to see the project.
Yeah, it’s one thing to take pictures of the kids taking pictures, and kind of putting them on display.
Yeah, we’re not appropriating them or displaying them or using them, but we’re using their skills to let them show the world that they see and how they view their environment.
I love that. So what is something that most people don’t know about human trafficking or child labour?
There is so much, and I encourage everyone to go out and do some research, or come to the panel. I would say the biggest thing for me- just talking to people in New York and in my community- is how they think they’re so detached from it. But, we’re not at all; as Americans, our demand for cheap consumer goods actually fuels the industry of human trafficking. Whether you want a cheap piece of clothing, cheap jewelry, cheap makeup, cheap electronics, anything- that’s all being made, in some way, by forced labour or some form of human trafficking. Just because we’re not buying and selling people, doesn’t mean we’re not contributing to the cause. People aren’t selling people because they’re evil- it’s because they need to make a living in the circumstances that they’re living in. So, instead of demanding cheap goods, we can demand fair goods, and goods of quality, then that’s one way that everyone can change. Like, look at where your clothes are coming from. You end up acquiring things that are with you forever and that you love. I love all of the fashion that I have now- I don’t have a huge wardrobe, but I have a nice wardrobe. There’s thought, it’s intentional. And that goes with everything. When you buy something, it’s because you get to learn who made it, you get to know the artist.
Yeah, you know where it’s coming from.
You know where it’s coming from, and that’s what makes it special. My mom used to say we’re not rich enough to afford cheap things, because they fall apart and they don’t last. You need to have something- you’ll spend more money, but in the long run, it’ll be with you. Also, there’s a cost coming from somewhere in the world, do you know what I mean? Even though you’re not paying top dollar for this shirt, someone is sacrificing their child or their future to make that for you. It’s so fucked up.
Yeah, it’s like a chain.
Yeah, it’s so crazy.
So what do you hope to get out of the panel on Tuesday?
The event’s gonna be fire.
I’m sure it will be!
It’s just so great to see how passionate people are when once they learn about these issues. Like, The Line has been great that they donated their space, and all of these speakers that we have, like Benjamin Skinner who’s an Emmy Award-winning writer, and Vincent Lyn, who goes out and rescues children from slavery. It’s going to be so interesting to have all of those minds in the same room, and just to talk about what we can do as a community and where we can stand on this issue of child labour. Because the UN made a sustainability goal to end child labour by 2030, and it’s been 15 years since that started. There’s been some progress but not a lot. I think there are so many issues going on today in the world, as we all know, that they don’t know what to pick. It’s the environment, it’s women’s rights, it’s everything.
It’s kind of like, pick your battles.
It’s pick your battles, and it’s like- Nelson Mandela said “To be to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” But that’s what it is. It’s about realizing that your issue doesn’t take priority over someone else’s, but you can all work together to solve something and make it work, and that’s what’s happening in the fashion community. We can all help each other. So in helping these children and teaching them about arts and crafts and fashion, sometimes we will take prints that the children make and they’ll become part of a designer’s collection.
It’s a give and take, and it empowers people.
Amazing. We’re excited!
Yeah, everyone should come.
Images courtesy of Beauty for Freedom
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