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Prayer Matters (And Advocacy Does, Too)
The theme for IJM’s Global Prayer Gathering this year was “Prayer Matters.” It was a beautiful testament to God’s work through prayer, and I was entirely on board. I always have been, as imperfectly as I’ve acted on my belief in prayer. IJM doesn’t stop there, though, and in a few months, it will host its annual Advocacy Summit. Its unofficial theme could be “Advocacy Matters.” I’m on board with this too, but I haven’t always been.
A year ago, I didn't believe in advocacy. There were plenty of lobbyists on the Hill, vying for attention about a host of issues, and it seemed that members of Congress all had their own concerns and priorities. What was the point of adding one small voice to the melee? Who on the Hill gave any thought to what I wanted to see done? The whole thing seemed like an exercise in futility to me.
Early last summer, I was 24 and new to Denver. I was also fresh back from an overseas internship with IJM and eager to stay involved, so I called a contact within the organization named Seth, who was in charge of IJM's work in Colorado. I didn't realize until it was too late that he worked with the Government Relations and Advocacy team. He began to “speak Greek” to me, waxing eloquent about in-district meetings and networking with government leaders. He was convinced that these things worked. I was skeptical and didn't know what an in-district meeting was, but I wanted to do what needed to be done, so I agreed to give it a shot.
Our first big goal was to work on getting a tiny bill passed. The bill would elevate the Trafficking in Persons Office to a State Department Bureau, effectively increasing its influence globally. There was no financial impact to the bill, and it didn’t sound controversial, so this seemed like a good way to get my feet wet. We met with Senator Udall’s office for two in-district meetings and sent him a petition that had garnered 200 signatures in three days. His foreign affairs representative was very interested in what we had to say, and Colorado's other senator had already co-sponsored the bill. Everything seemed to be in place.
The bill never made it to the floor for a vote, and it died with the end of session. Maybe I had been right about advocacy after all.
Meanwhile, outside of my range of vision, other things were happening. Advocates in Tennessee had gotten the attention of one of their senators, Senator Corker, after years of hard work. And just this year, he showed himself to be a leader on anti-trafficking issues by drafting the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act (S. 553; EMSI), a bill that will utterly change the game in the fight against modern slavery if it is passed. Advocacy has changed things. I realized exactly how wrong I had been.
When my fellow Colorado advocates and I heard about the EMSI Act, we eagerly took up its cause and announced it through a Town Hall event in March. To reach as many as possible, we gathered together 100 anti-trafficking leaders representing local organizations and groups, churches, law enforcement agencies, and the government sector. Seth even flew out from Virginia to speak. He spoke about IJM's work globally, and we heard the story of the Senator from Tennessee. Seth announced the bill and encouraged everyone to speak to Colorado's senators about our passion to see it passed. His goal was to convince people who were as skeptical as I was about advocacy that it can and does make a difference. We needed to understand that it mattered.
These abolitionists also needed to meet each other. There are over 50 unique groups in Denver, all working towards the same goal, and before our event, many of them didn't even know about the existence of the others or recognize them as allies. We wanted to change that. So we encouraged them to sit together and eat together and take pictures together. The event was a rousing success.
Six weeks later, Seth and I met in DC and walked into the office of one of Colorado's senators to represent the voices of my fellow abolitionists in support of the EMSI Act. It was incredible to sit in his office and hear that he cared about anti-slavery initiatives.
It is now three months later, and neither senator has yet co-sponsored the bill. What I would have loved to see—an immediate and eager co-sponsorship—didn’t happen. But I am no longer tempted to believe that advocacy doesn't matter.
Advocacy matters because the seeds we plant will often bear fruit in unexpected ways, often right after we give up on them.
It matters because we build relationships with others who are running in the same direction, and those relationships can become alliances, and those alliances can become grassroots movements, and those grassroots movements can become forces that change the world. Some of the deepest friendships I have built happened quickly and because of this fact - we were passionate about the same thing, and we worked together towards a single goal.
It is a long road. It took William Wilberforce 20 years to see the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and the full abolition of slavery in England didn't happen for another 26 years. I know what burnout feels like, and I have felt disappointment in the wait, but I haven't come close to that kind of patience. I pray for myself what I pray for anyone reading this: that the fire within us is real enough to last through every dead bill and every closed door. The EMSI Act will hopefully pass, and if it does, it will be the fruit of years of labor. But even if it doesn't, none of it is in vain. The movement is growing, and we have the opportunity to be a part of it. At the end of the day, God will be the one to bring about the end of slavery. We just get to be his hands and feet as he does so.
Today, I am proud to be an advocate.
Ashlee Stafford is an Analyst and English major turned MBA student in Washington, DC. She has completed two internships with IJM, including an HQ internship in 2012 and a Field internship in Manila, the Philippines in 2013. She hopes to utilize her graduate degree to contribute to the movement against modern-day slavery.
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