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ARTICLE In Seattle, Snuffing Out Human Slavery

An image of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march through the South occupies a prominent place on the Facebook page of Seattle Against Slavery.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” the image reads, echoing a famous line of the civil rights leader.

The picture was supposed to be up only in February, for Black History Month. But no one can quite take it down and so it might be permanent after all.

Fitting anyway, because its message – one inextricably and inherently linked to core Jewish imperatives to repair the world and advance justice – is the driver for an organization dedicated to the eradication of slave trafficking in Seattle and beyond.

“We are creating righteousness,” said Robert Beiser, the executive director of Seattle Against Slavery (SAS) and recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in 2011.

This organization is enmeshed in society’s dark underbelly, populated as it is by human stories that are hard to fathom and often ignored by a mainstream population blinded by its horrors or oblivious to its proximity.

But human slavery is undeniably present, taking many forms and shapes: trafficking of young boys and girls in the sexual trade, exploitation of refugees and immigrants in the service sector, economic manipulation of homeless veterans on the streets. And the list goes on, scorching dignity, hope and justness.

SAS was not deliberately founded on core Jewish values, but the very mission of the organization reflects and enlarges them. And the very fact that its executive director is a Jew who has fully embraced such Jewish imperatives gives SAS such grounding.

“There is really no idea for the physical reality of human beings on earth outside of their relationship with God other than to create justice in the world,” Beiser said. “The lessons we learn from Talmud and Torah bend us toward doing that work, to keep people safe.”

“Judaism functions as a training regime to create greater justness and kindness in the world. It is fundamental and intrinsic.”

On both the macro and micro levels, SAS is making a discernable impact on human slavery in the Seattle area, focusing as it does on educating the public, government officials, and victims themselves; mobilizing volunteers to create awareness; and working on prevention, intervention and services to those being exploited.

There have been significant advances and victories recently. A multi-language public awareness campaign, called “No One Should be Forced,” featured billboards and ads on public transportation throughout King County, Washington, beginning in 2013. Calls to the state’s trafficking hotline multiplied exponentially as a result.

And just last fall, public employees in Seattle – health inspectors and others on the frontlines in the field – began training to recognize clues of human trafficking and to learn how to report it to the proper authorities. SAS and a consortium of other human rights organizations lobbied and advocated for the new policy, which puts more eyes and ears on city streets.

“Many people think of human trafficking and modern slavery as something that happens far away in the world,” Beiser said. “It’s something they hear about on the international news. They don’t know that it’s right here, like someone trapped in a home and forced to work as a nanny under threat of violence against them or their family members.”

“It’s beyond the scope of what most people are aware of or recognize. So much of our work is by necessity putting the word out there, making people realize it exists, and getting them invested in the issue.”

In an attempt to address larger, more macro societal forces that create climates in which forms of human slavery can be seeded and take root, SAS has adopted a program active in Chicago to teach high school students about violence prevention and personal and social responsibility. The program, which has already reached almost 1,000 students in King County, aims to create allies in the fight against human trafficking.

To be sure, human slavery and trafficking is not a Seattle-only issue. Exploitation of workers halfway around the world, for instance, can bleed into the Seattle area – or any other city or town for that matter – by way of unfair trade products or environmental degradation. Recognizing this, SAS is fighting against these forces by raising awareness of product origins.

Right now, in fact, SAS is supporting a boycott called by The Coalition of Immokalee Workers against the Wendy’s fast-food chain for its use of tomatoes grown in unregulated farms with evidence of human trafficking.

The far-reaching work of SAS is done on a shoestring budget and staff. Beiser, plus one half-time employee, coordinate the direction and programs of the organization, but rely on a pantheon of volunteers to do the legwork.

Volunteer recruitment is critical, and winds back to public awareness campaigns that get people so outraged by human slavery that they are moved to do something about it, whether it is educating others at a Passover Seder on one end, to reporting suspicions or instances of the trade on the other.

“We rely on people doing what they can,” Beiser said. “People develop an identity, a connection with a cause or injustice, and naturally feel compelled to fight cynicism and hopelessness. There are gradations of the work, from volunteering, to getting a degree in human rights and international law. We need and try to build a broad-based pyramid of support and action.”

Beiser himself has headed SAS since 2012. Although he was raised as a secular Jew, his consciousness and passions have landed him squarely in the realm of Jewish social justice causes and work.

Consequently, he readily views the work and impact of SAS through a Jewish lens, and in presentations to synagogues and other Jewish groups, the fit is natural.

“Jewish history and wisdom can be very purposeful,” he said, “and can solve some of the world’s problems. If we tap into that, we can serve others and the world in very meaningful ways.”

“I connect to the prophetic traditions and teachings of Judaism that says you call people out when they are doing something that is wrong, and you have to call people to serve justice and righteousness,” he said. “Ours is not to complete the task necessarily, but we must engage in it and not desist in trying.”

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