Conversation With Abolitionist David Batstone on New Media Activism

ive hundred years ago, religious activists set European culture on fire with new forms of media-driven activism. Later, this was called the Reformation. And, 200 years ago, abolitionists conducted a war of pamphlets and papers that rained down across Britain and the U.S. in a relentless campaign to end the African slave trade.
There’s a powerful connection between new media, spiritual change and social activism — and Dr. David Batstone has become a modern pioneer in these fields, leaving his post at the helm of Sojourners Magazine to devote himself entirely to combating modern slavery through the Not For Sale campaign. There are other groups trying to end modern slavery, but Batstone is interested especially in using new media to build — and fuel — a grassroots network of ordinary abolitionists. That means, he wants to reach folks like you and me who are eager to lend a hand, if someone will only show us a way to make a difference.
Be sure to click on the cover of Dr. Batstone’s book, “Not for Sale” — and catch our “Care-to-Read-More?” options at the end of this story.

HERE are highlights of our Conversation With Dr. David Batstone:

CRUMM: 27 million. That’s the number of men, women and children in slavery even as we speak. We see that number cited in many places, although the actual number may be even higher than that. Let’s start with that startling number: 27 million. Who counted?
BATSTONE: 27 million comes from Kevin Bales in a book he researched, “Disposable People.” He went country by country and looked at credible reports by governments and human rights organizations in each country. Then, he added up all the numbers.
That’s why it’s considered a conservative figure. It’s carefully documented. But I think most of us working against slavery can see that this is only the tip of the iceberg. I think it’s a much larger number. I was intrigued that Forbes magazine did a cover story in February, called “Child Labor: Why We Can’t Kick Our Addiction,” which is a good barometer among mainstream media. Forbes doesn’t go out on a limb, but they reported on the ubiquity of child labor — so common that products produced this way show up in places like Macy’s, Ikea, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
This is part of the bigger picture of slavery. I don’t know any child at age 12 who freely chooses to work every day laboring in a cotton field in India or producing products for these retailers. Often, we’re talking about situations where families sell their children to a steward in exchange for money and then that child is bonded for years to work in a rug mill or somewhere else. We use the number 27 million because it is commonly agreed upon. It’s a conservative number. But the larger number of 100 million, which includes forced child labor, is also reasonable.
CRUMM: We just recommended the “ABC Nightline” investigation on slavery in Haiti. That’s an eye-opening report in which we actually see the lives of real slaves. But, what’s the larger picture globally? Who are these 27 million slaves and where are they located?
BATSTONE: The biggest numbers are in India and China. But then beyond that what you have are pockets where slavery is very prolific. We really don’t even have a good lens into Middle East slavery yet, but certainly the people trade is very large in the Middle East. In Africa, you have slavery in the coca fields. There’s a lot of slavery associated with agriculture.
In Western countries, the highest numbers are in countries like the United States, Germany, Holland and Italy. There you have forced labor. Each of those countries have trafficking particularly in the commercial sex industry. The main source countries, the recruiting grounds for those slaves, are the republics of the former Soviet Union and then Cambodia, Thailand and southeast Asia. These tend to be places where someone takes control of the lives of vulnerable people and then sells these people across borders.

CRUMM: Describe some of the work you did before diving into the anti-slavery campaign.
BATSTONE: I’ve spent years studying the ways religious beliefs shape social values and political persuasions. I was the Executive Editor of Sojourners Magazine from 2001 to 2006.
CRUMM: Around the end of your time at Sojourners, you were commissioned to write the book, “Not For Sale” — in conjunction with the William Wilberforce anniversary and the release of the movie, “Amazing Grace.”
BATSTONE: Yes, my book, “Not For Sale,” was the official book for the movie’s release. Walden Films and HarperCollins timed the release of my book to coincide with the film.
CRUMM: So, the film was an important catalyst to the abolition movement, but it wasn’t entirely successful. The film got some mixed reviews. It did pretty well, but it was a small movie. So, how do you evaluate the impact?
BATSTONE: That’s a fascinating question. What impact did the Wilberforce movie have? I don’t know if people made the leap from the Wilberforce story of fighting against slavery in Britain centuries ago — to saying: Yeah, OK, and we also need to fight slavery today too. Many of us in this movement hoped that a lot of people would do just that -– but the climax of the Wilberforce film is that he ends slavery -– then there’s nothing like a flash on the screen that says: By the way slavery is still with us. The film ends and he has ended slavery.
CRUMM: But it did set you on a whole new track in life. You became one of the leading researchers on slavery. You founded a group that now is in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement around the world.
BATSTONE: Yes. I set out to write a book and, in the process of writing that book, I got more and more deeply embedded in this research. It’s one of the reasons I left Sojourners. The more I dug into the reality of people being bought and sold around the world today, the more I had to focus on this problem. I went to five continents and it struck me how few resources there are –- what a small response we have to a global crisis! At that stage, I decided I can’t just write a book; I’ve got to get involved myself.

CRUMM: So, when did you start Not for Sale?
BATSTONE: Not for Sale was founded in February 2007 at the time the book was coming out and the movie was being released.
CRUMM: How big is the group now?
BATSTONE: We have 40,000 members around the world. These are people who have signed up to get our free, weekly updates and action plans.
CRUMM: Is there a charge?
BATSTONE: No, it’s free.
CRUMM: Where are these 40,000?
BATSTONE: We’re global. I’d say 75 percent are Americans.

CRUMM: You’re very active. It seems as though every time I check Not for Sale, there’s something new unfolding. I’m curious about the headquarters for such a big operation. What does your world headquarters look like?
BATSTONE: (laughs) What does our world headquarters look like? Well, it’s really a hub for inspiring local actions against slavery. I’ll answer you that way. A lot of what we do is online. One of our most exciting new tools is: It’s a web site where you can go and document trafficking that’s happening in your area. You can read what other people are mapping. You click on Oklahoma, for example, and you can see what kind of trafficking is happening there. This helps you to volunteer in groups in your area that are fighting slavery.
CRUMM: How do you make sure people aren’t maliciously attacking somebody who’s a personal enemy? How do you prevent malicious stuff?
BATSTONE: We build in screening. You have to register with an identifiable address so we can get back to you. Another screen we use is that we allow for someone to correct or amend or otherwise challenge an account. Once you publish it, someone can check it out. If someone comes back to us and says: Hey, this is patently false –- then we have an editor who goes over the new material every day and we retain ultimate editorial control. We’re balancing open-source principles with our editorial functions.
CRUMM: Are you mainly looking for people to post items on the map that they’re suspicious about –- or are you looking for people to post news items they’ve seen, say, in local newspapers or from local police blotters or court documents?
BATSTONE: We’re looking mainly for reports people are seeing out there. We’re interested in people passing along published reports, police reports and in many communities this is very important. We’re documenting cases that have happened and putting them all on the map so that people can see the widespread patterns of this problem. In San Francisco, we’ve got a team here actively documenting cases that have happened — so if someone stumbles onto a live case, then we can see if it’s part of an existing pattern.
CRUMM: What do you do if you uncover a new case?
BATSTONE: We call a national hot-line number and they’re able to let people know that there is an existing case to investigate. We direct calls to police. If victims call us and tell us they’re in need or afraid, we channel them to social-service providers.
We’re a network of information and resources, trying to raise awareness locally about what is happening. When you see more and more points on the map in your area — then you can tell your local police that this really matters to you. Through this kind of community activism, a higher priority can be put on investigating more cases.

CRUMM: So, what’s the range of slavery in this country? What are we talking about? People who are forced into the commercial sex industry? Servants locked away in suburban homes? Agricultural workers?
BATSTONE: The research base on existing cases –- a fairly representative sample — shows that about 50 percent of the bondage in this country revolves around the commercial sex industry. But, then, this surprises a lot of people: About 27 percent of slaves are in service often in up-scale neighborhoods. There was a recent case in Houston of a family that kept a young Nigerian girl for 12 years.
They went over to Nigeria with the explicit idea of finding a slave. They pretended she was their niece and for the next 12 years enslaved her in their home. It’s the most difficult kind of case to detect, because many neighbors just assumed that the family was helping some poor woman from Africa.
CRUMM: In the years I worked at the Detroit Free Press, I can remember several investigations into slavery –- a couple of them involving servants in up-scale homes. And what astounds people about this, when it comes to light, is that the so-called servants didn’t simply run away or go to the police. What we found at the Free Press was that the servants are terrified of the police –- because of what the families controlling them have done. The families have taken their travel documents. They’ve told their slaves that, if they whisper anything about their situation, the slave will wind up in far worse shape, right?
BATSTONE: Absolutely. That’s a common problem. But, you’re more informed than about 99 percent of the people we talk to about this problem for the first time. When people first hear about the problem of slavery, they ask us: How can there be slaves hidden here in the U.S.? Why don’t they just run away or go to the police? The answer is: They’re terrified of the police. Part of this is because of what they’ve been told and the situations that human traffickers have forced them into. And part of this is because there’s often official corruption involved somewhere in these cases.

CRUMM: Is there a kind of central clearing house -– a roundtable where the various abolitionist groups working together?
BATSTONE: Yes, we all collaborate and have a common organization in Washington D.C. called The Action Group where we can work together in trying to pass legislation. It’s our common ground.
CRUMM: So, how do you distinguish your group’s mission within the overall anti-slavery network?
BATSTONE: Each group has a little different approach. Part of my own goal is to help build a social movement where people of faith — across the board — can get enthusiastically involved.
CRUMM: It seems as though this movement is succeeding in raising awareness. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen PBS running a documentary on the legacy of the African slave trade. Then, this week, ABC’s Nightline weighed in with its expose on slavery in Haiti.
BATSTONE: These TV programs are important. They help us kick start new waves of public interest.

CRUMM: Tell us about your own upcoming film.
BATSTONE: It’s “Call and Response.” It’s going to be huge among young folks because some of today’s hottest musicians participated in the film — bands that my own kids listen to. It opens Sept. 5 in New York and 100 percent of the film’s profits will go to anti-slavery groups. I’m the associate producer.
CRUMM: You’re using a lot of new-media tools.
BATSTONE: That’s how to raise up a movement today. That’s really what we see as our niche -– trying to raise up a grassroots movement. So, we try to create as many media events as we can — always looking for ways to give people new ideas of “10 Things You Can Do.”
CRUMM: You’re crowdsourcing the movement.
BATSTONE: We use the phrase open-source activism, so our new Slavery Map online is an open-source information tool. We’re building a second one right now that we’ll call Free To Work. As we build this new project, we’re going to be looking for business researchers, journalists — anyone working globally around commerce — to help us identify every company supply chain we can trace. How do companies use labor? We want to trace everyone from IBM to clothing stores to the supply chains in small companies. For this one, we’re going to use another open-source platform where we’ll, again, have some screening. We’ll edit it and audit it — but we’ll use these new methods to generate the information.
CRUMM: There’s nothing to see yet?
BATSTONE: No, we’re designing it right now.
CRUMM: And, in this new project, will you award badges? Will corporate leaders be able to get a badge if they’ve been transparent and they’re documented as free from using forced labor?
BATSTONE: I love it! You’re thinking like we’re thinking. Yeah, you’re getting right to the heart of what we’re talking about. We need an implicit stick and then the carrot is that we also want to work with companies to increase awareness -– awareness that can help them in their own marketing. If you pledge not to use slave labor in your supply chain and you let us see where you get your resource, then we’ll help you tell people that you’re a Free-To-Work company.
Stories are showing up everywhere these days. Bloomberg just ran a story about an automaker using pig iron from Brazil -– in this case, iron from slave labor –- in cars we’re driving here in this country. We want companies to make sure they know about their whole supply chain. We want companies to be transparent about that and we’re going to help them see that it can help to build their reputation if they do this.
CRUMM: You’re talking about a big stick and a big carrot — the possibility of getting your badge.
BATSTONE: If we do the research work, then it’s an easy choice. Nobody is on the side of slavery, if we understand the issue and know what’s going on. Imagine a choice in tires. You buy this tire and you know it’s from rubber produced by slaves -– and you can buy this other tire and you know that this other company has been checked out. You know it’s Free To Work and your tire didn’t involve slave labor — Well, which tire are you going to buy?
CRUMM: OK, I can see where you’re headed with this. You’re a professor, an author — and you can hit the road and build this awareness into the next generation of business leaders, right?
BATSTONE: Right. This is viral. If people find out about this and tell other people, then it spreads. It becomes a part of the new way of doing business. When we launch Free To Work, I’m going to be going to business schools all around the country and get professors to assign this as a project to spend a semester learning everything you can about a company’s labor-supply chain. In a year then, or two years, when we have a critical mass of information, then we can go to the consumer public with a lot of what’s been produced.

CRUMM: So what’s your own business model? You know you never did answer that question about what your world headquarters looks like out there in San Francisco.
BATSTONE: This is an emerging form of advocacy. When I describe this to most people they just scratch their heads. They don’t get it. But we don’t actually even have a headquarters office, as such. I have five executive staff members. We work virtually. I tell people, we have 4,000 offices all across the United States –- and they’re all run for us by Starbucks.
CRUMM: And the idea is to focus on the message -– the voices you’re trying to get out there to people, right? In as many forms as possible through as many tools as possible.
BATSTONE: Yeah. That’s it. There are so many resources out there -– so many new tools to use, most of them online. We’ve just produced a new digital version of a Bible-study guide for faith communities to use in talking about the Not For Sale campaign. We’ve created this great tool and we’ll be delivering it to them digitally right there through the Web site. We want to reach people in as many ways as possible –- and the online world is providing us a whole new generation of tools to make that happen.


TAKE ACTION: Here’s the main portal into Batstone’s Not-For-Sale campaign. Look around in there. You’ll find lots of resources, news and tips for getting involved. You may not find it immediately, but there’s also a Downloads page, which includes a free Abolitionist’s Handbook.

PLAN TO CATCH THE FILM: Batstone and his activists are coming at us from all directions — including theater screens. Find out about “Call and Response,” a movie that will be making the rounds this autumn. No, it won’t be released wall-to-wall like “Iron Man” or “Batman.” You’ll have to make a point of going to see it. So, check out the site. The anti-slavery documentary includes Ashley Judd, Moby, Dr. Cornel West, Julia Ormond, Madeline Albright and Cold War Kids — in other words, a mix of creative people so diverse that it will expand your mind, whatever your age. (And, yes, this strange animated eye is part of the Web site’s many offerings.)

CHECK OUT YOUR STATE ON THE SLAVERY MAP: The latest wave of Batstone’s open-source activism is The Slavery Map in which activists are asked to help track incidents of slavery that show up in local news reports and police records. This innovative use of online maps and grassroots postings is similar to activism in the emerging Asian online communities — including strategies used by Isaac Mao, the godfather of Chinese blogger-activists.

WHERE DOES THIS ALL COME TOGETHER? “The Action Group” is a central coordinating network for the major abolitionist groups working across the U.S. In earlier ReadTheSpirit articles on the challenge of slavery, we’ve mentioned a couple of the major groups — but The Action Group pulls together an even broader coalition.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK, PLEASE. Click on the “Comment” link below. Or, you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly. Or, visit us on Facebook, where the best meeting place at the moment is our new OurValues Facebook group.

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