Reflections from our outgoing CEO, Jolene Smith
Dear Friends and Supporters,
It all started around a kitchen table. It was the day that changed everything for me, and over time I came to see that it was the beginning of what would change everything for thousands of people in slavery, and would educate millions of people about the existence of this heinous crime.
I remember looking at the individuals to my left and to my right and having one predominant thought: These people are crazy. My very next thought: I must join them.
We were still strangers, really. We lived in different parts of the country and had met only because each of us had been inspired by a book, Disposable People. It uncovered the problem of slavery worldwide. We were committed to ‘do something’ about it. We met around that kitchen table in Oxford, Mississippi to see if it made sense to ‘do something’ together. We left the table having made an entirely different commitment: to not stop until slavery is eradicated.
The focus on nothing less than eradication has made all the difference in terms of the impact Free the Slaves has made. It meant a hard slog, no doubt about it. Very few people believed us that real slavery still exists. Of the people who did, many wanted instant gratification, quick fixes that would not root-out the problem at its source. We had no money, no office, no titles. What we had plenty of were people who thought we were insane.
And after digging beneath the surface, we found individuals and groups around the world who were willing to risk their lives to combat slavery, and in fact already were. We met people in slavery who would stop at nothing to achieve freedom for themselves and their families. Turns out, that’s all that is truly needed.
Today Free the Slaves has eradication-focused programs running in seven countries on four continents. We help people to freedom every day and dismantle the systems that allow slavery to exist. Free the Slaves was the first organization to bring to light that slavery permeates the global economy, working its way into the products we buy and investments we make, which helped spawn numerous efforts against slavery in supply chains. Free the Slaves has established the Freedom Awards to celebrate frontline heroes of the abolition movement. The Freedom Awards has become one of the most prestigious awards programs of its type. And Free the Slaves has created the world’s largest video library on modern slavery, to empower survivors and others closest to slavery to tell the story of slavery themselves, in their own words. The video footage has inspired millions, through use on all the major television networks, including now on CNN’s year-long Freedom Project.
When “the world’s most trusted news source” is quoting Free the Slaves to their 200+ broadcast countries and territories, I guess this means we are not generally seen as insane anymore. What an incredible sea change. The issue of modern slavery is officially mainstream and poised to become a major political, business and philanthropic focus.
What is the next step? Invite another person to the kitchen table.
I am honored to introduce Free the Slaves’ new executive director, Indika Samarawickreme. Indika has the skills and the drive to lead Free the Slaves into its next phase of massive growth in impact and in size. Originally from Sri Lanka, she brings a global perspective and significant for-profit and nonprofit experience.
Welcome, Indika! Free the Slaves and the anti-slavery movement are ready for your leadership and bold vision.
I simply cannot wait to see what the next decade holds. I look forward to continuing to work with Free the Slaves to provide continuity and support as Indika leads the organization to new heights.
Outgoing Chief Executive Officer
The other kitchen tablemates of course were Kevin Bales, Peggy Callahan and Ginny Baumann. In addition there was an incredibly precocious four-year-old, Gabriel Bales who was making a volcano in the next room that actually erupted. We’re waiting for you to dedicate your Nobel Prize for science winnings to the anti-slavery movement, Gabe. Get cracking. There was also Lloyd Sutton, who would later joke about founding the ‘Free the Husbands’ movement for those spouses neglected by FTS workers, while at the same time giving absolutely serious support to FTS in countless ways. Jacob Patton, our first webmaster, was there too. Supriya Awasthi’s name was cited during those very first conversations as someone who already had long experience working against slavery in India and who would likely be willing to focus on eradication. Was she ever.
There are others over the years who have shown up at that proverbial table and made the same commitment to eradication, as volunteers, as donors, as staff and board members past and present. We are blessed that there are too many people to name here. You know who you are, and the world knows who you are by how you roll up your sleeves and get on with the job at hand. It’s still a hard slog, but one done in freedom, in joy that together we are making a difference, and in excellent company. —J.S.