Rob Morris gave the keynote address on “Why Prevention Education” last month at the National Roundtable on Safeguarding Children and Prevention Education, to a key group of stakeholders that included included government officials, law enforcement, and selected leaders from the anti-trafficking movement. The event was convened by the McCain Institute and the Administration for Children and Families. The following is an edited version of his speech.
It’s an honor to have been asked to share with you today, and I’m humbled to be speaking in front of a group that is so intentional and strategic in emphasizing the vital role that Prevention Education plays in protecting our children from exploitation. For a long time it seemed like prevention was on the sideline, something we knew we should be talking about. So it’s really encouraging to see an emphasis on how vital it is.
So thank you for this opportunity. I don’t know about you, but I have, time and time again, suffered from what I call conference burnout. You find yourself going to conferences with a specific theme, but usually what ends up happening is a reiteration of how big the problem is, and how bad the problem is.
I remember wishing that somebody would come up and say: “Here are some solutions that are actually working. Here are some things that are actually effective in dealing with this issue.” The idea that we’re in this room full of really smart people who are immersing themselves into this complex issue, and working on solutions to create a safer world for children, is a huge, huge win. Because 17 years ago when Love146 first began, this wasn’t happening, at least not on this scale. To see this happening now is really fantastic.
Now allow me to confess, and to be a bit transparent. When we first started Love146, prevention was honestly an afterthought.
Our main emphasis was Survivor Care. It seemed like this was the need that we could address. We understood that children need credible and safe places to begin their long journey of recovery. So we did that for years in Southeast Asia and then in the UK. And then here in the U.S.
Then we started feeling this tension because we had this bold vision statement as an organization: “The end of child trafficking and exploitation. Nothing less.” It was our rallying call, our trumpet. Then we realized we were never going to end trafficking by just caring for those who were impacted by this horrific oppression and injustice without actually addressing the cause. I’m a bit ashamed to say I had an “aha” moment of realization: Maybe we should go upstream. You know that classic illustration, about bodies floating down the river? So we started thinking about what we could do to stop the bodies from ending up in the river in the first place. I remember what that “aha” moment came from. I take a bus every day to my office in New Haven, Connecticut. Day in and day out our bus would pass a business woman with a laptop bag riding a scooter to work. Not the motorized scooters I’ve been seeing lately, but the old school push scooter. And a funny thought hit me: She’s going to have one really muscular leg and one leg that isn’t so muscular, because one leg is doing all the work. And I thought: that’s what we’re doing as an organization. We’re working out this leg of Survivor Care and there’s this shriveled thing called prevention that’s actually at the core of doing something about ending trafficking.
I remember speaking with our executive director in the Philippines, who made a statement in a meeting that just leveled me. She said, “Survivor Care exists because of failed prevention.” I was just gutted by that statement.
The reason we’re caring for children who have experienced being trafficked is because somebody didn’t prevent it from happening.
So we looked at hiring experts, and one of those experts is in this room, Kimberly Casey, who helped develop and create our Prevention Education curriculum, Not a Number.
Not a Number goes beyond the classic trafficking 101, equipping youth with the skills they need to address, understand, and identify their own vulnerabilities, and then helps them know what to do if someone wants to exploit those vulnerabilities. One of the greatest compliments we receive comes from adults who were victims of trafficking when they were younger, and who are being trained as facilitators to use our curriculum. Sometimes they’ll tell us: “If I had only known then what’s in this curriculum, then I would not have been exploited, and I would not have been trafficked.” And that is the core.
One of the challenges that we found in dealing with prevention work, especially in the beginning, is that it was so much harder to fund, especially for individual donors. Because prevention doesn’t have the sense of instant gratification of giving and seeing the immediate result.
There are no quick wins when it comes to prevention. In fact, we have an internal joke that when we post anything on our website with a button that says, “Learn More,” few people ever click it. So we toss around this saying internally, that “you’ve lost me at learn more.” But that’s the essence of prevention. Prevention is learning more.
As an organization, though, we’ve always wanted to be in that place of being learners. Years and years ago when I started traveling internationally someone told me, “When you visit other cultures, you either go as a learner or you go as an offender.” That was a great piece of advice. As learners, we’ve been able to develop a curriculum that’s really effective. Years ago I was in Cambodia and the director of a large human rights agency came up to me and said, “You know what your problem is as Americans?”… And I braced myself. She continued. “You don’t think. Instead you react.” It was a really interesting observation. “I think sometimes you see some human rights abuse in the world and you just want to fix it,” she explained. “And because you haven’t put the time in to create effective and sustainable solutions, your reaction can cause more harm than good.”
I felt like someone laid a house on my shoulders, and I carried that weight back to Love146. We have to be thoughtful in our solutions because at the end of the day we want our solutions to be effective. We want our solutions to be sustainable.
We deal daily with the internal tension that exists between the time that it takes to think through solutions that will be effective and sustainable, and the factor that while we are thinking through solutions, children are being exploited and trafficked every day.
Yet it takes time to create solutions that will be effective and sustainable. And I think that’s the piece that makes prevention so difficult, because it takes time. So what you are doing here today is a big deal — coming together, at least from my perspective, as a massive think tank that is saying, “We’re willing to pay that price of taking the time to make sure that what we do is going to be effective.”
Because if what we do is effective, then we will together be creating a safer world for children — which is the goal. You know, the topic that I was supposed to share on today is, “Why Prevention Education?” I mean, it’s just like I could’ve had the shortest talk imaginable by just saying, “Well, because Prevention Education will create a safer world for children.” And that ‘s the bottom line.
In closing, I want to share this thought: One of the things that we practice at Love146 is what we call defiant hope. By defiant hope I don’t mean optimism. Sometimes someone will hear me talk about this and say, “Oh Rob, you’re so optimistic.” But I’m not an optimistic person. I’m not anti-optimism either. In fact, I wish I was an optimist, but I’m not. Because I think there’s a tendency for optimists to deny the harshness of the reality of a horrific situation by telling themselves it’s all gonna be okay, it’s all going to work out. I think that in some ways that’s a form of denial, and I’m not that person.
This kind of hope is different, which is why I’ve added a word to it: “Defiant.” We’re living in a time of deep despair, of cynicism. We have instant access to horrific news 24/7. Years back somebody said to me, “To be hopeful anymore is foolishness.” At first, I thought, I think you said that to the wrong person. Secondly, I disagree. I think hope is an act of defiance. What I mean by that is that defiant hope recognizes the reality of the harshness of the situation and faces that darkness with an insistence that it can change. It then goes further and says that it can change by your individual action. That’s defiant hope.
So I want to thank you for being people of defiant hope. That you would take time, energy, and even vocation to push hard, to learn more, to learn together, and create solutions that will be effective, sustainable, and create a safer world for children. Thank you for that kind of commitment. Thank you for your hope. It’s a privilege for me to be a part of this with you.