Ever had a moment when you wish the police didn’t pull you over? I had one of those moments recently. Not because I was doing something criminal, but because it would have been an awkward situation to explain. You see, in my trunk I had two big boxes full of used cell phones, most of them in very good condition, some of them still with full batteries in them.
My husband Jay and I do a lot of public speaking about sex trafficking, and we try to give people practical steps that they can take to fight exploitation. One of the things we recommend is donating their old cell phones to Phones 4 Freedom (a campaign of Survivor’s Connect), an organization that recycles or refurbishes them, and then sends proper technical equipment to anti-trafficking organizations and individuals on the ground in developing countries for anti-trafficking operations. You can read more about that here.
After one of our sessions in July, we had a man come up to us who said, “I think I can hook you up with some phones.” In any other context this would have been an odd thing to hear, and memories of persistent market vendors from our travels came to mind. As it turns out, Bill worked for the City and knew that when the city workers got new phones, there was not much they could do with the old ones. After clearing it with the security department and jumping through various other hoops, he gave us a call and told us he had a delivery for us. Of over 140 cell phones.
Much to my relief, on the way home we did not get pulled over by the police and therefore bypassed the necessity of “Oh, officer, this is not what it looks like, you see we know someone who works for the city…”
We are sending the phones to Survivor’s Connect. I had the privilege of interviewing Aasika Damodar, the founder of Survivor’s Connect, about where my shipment of cell phones was going.
What inspired you to start Survivor’s Connect and how did you get it off the ground?
I started Survivors Connect shortly after my first major job at Free the Slaves. I had worked, interned and volunteered for several anti-trafficking groups by that point and had a lot of ideas for creative ways for enhancing anti-trafficking work. It is often difficult to experiment with new ideas/projects with existing/established NGOs, so I felt like maybe starting a new NGO was the best way to do it.
Also, during this time, I had traveled to a number of countries and saw how even in the most poverty-stricken and vulnerable communities, families owned or had regular access to basic mobile phones, and mobile phones were increasingly becoming the first point of entry for people into the digital world. People were using mobile phones in ways that even we don’t – from getting weather alerts, learning about food prices at the market (before traveling long distances to get it), mobile banking and more. I thought that these very technologies could be used to advance human rights efforts as well and that’s where many of the ideas for SC’s work were born.
Photo: Courtesy of Survivor's Connect
Once the Wireless Source reburbishes/recycles the phones, what is the process of getting the phones where they need to go?
So first, the phones are fully recycled. Depending on the current value, the Wireless Source assigns us “points” or credits which are used to purchase back proper equipment for our helpline projects, and/or are cashed so that we can buy other equipment beyond mobile phones. We keep them in a savings until the $ is needed. For example, for a project in Haiti, we bought a few GSM modems, a small laptop computer and 10 smart phones.
Photo: Courtesy of Survivor's Connect
How are the phones used on the ground to fight human trafficking and sexual abuse? Do you have a story you could share about the real-life impact of the technology on the ground?
There are many! Check the story of our project in Haiti and in Guatemala.
Tell us about your new venture, Breaking Heels, and the top 3 reasons you are excited about it.
So this venture has been quite literally an adventure of a lifetime. While I was in college in the UK, I accidentally broke my high heel shoe when getting it caught on a cobblestone pathway. Upon arriving home, I was so frustrated that instead of simply throwing out the shoes, icing my foot and going to bed, I decided to bring out my sketchpad and draw concepts for height adjustable high heel shoes. Girls willingly suffer for fashion, and it was my goal to have the best of both worlds. After a few hours, I had some concepts down. I’ve been working with engineers since to make it happen.
The whole thing seemed very much out of scope for me. Me, the abolitionist? The non profit do-er, now into fashion? The irony was I’ve always loved fashion and fashion design and I found myself back in it again via this accidental invention. On my way to meet some engineers, I had my iPod on shuffle, and i got to the song “can’t stop pimpin” by lil job. I hate the song, but it was on my iPod because I used lyrics from this song in my senior thesis as an undergrad to discuss the nature of glamorization of pimping in popular culture. There is a line in the song where he says “bitch break your heels off and make me rich.” I dug into that phrase “break heels” further and found out that it’s used quite commonly to describe what pimps what women to do in order to meet their quota. This is when I decided that my new venture could actually be one for good – where we are literally “breaking heels” and reclaiming the phrase to be a positive statement against trafficking and sexual exploitation.
I suppose then my top 3 reasons for my excitement are:
1. The shoe is really comfortable and provides women with a 2-in-1 where the design isn’t compromised for comfort, and looks awesome!
2. Breaking heels is both a company and a cause, where with each pair sold, we’re sharing a survivor’s story (designs are inspired by survivors via fashion workshops as well as a song donated by an artist.
3. I firmly believe social entrepreneurship is the way forward towards creating socially and financially sustainable solutions to problems as relentless as this one.
If you could sum up your experience as an abolitionist so far in 5 words, what would they be?
Interesting question! I would say Exciting, Evolving, Trying, Inspiring & Innovating
What can people do to support Survivor’s Connect or Breaking Heels?
Survivors Connect – Recycle/donate your old phone to Phones4freedom.org. Canadian donations, please send your donation with Fedex (Account #183021400, for free shipping) to: The Wireless Source, 794 Industrial Court, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48302, Attn: Phones4Freedom Enterprise Program code: SCONNECT. Also, if you’re interested in piloting your own SMS resource line, contact us at [email protected]
Breaking Heels – Help us launch today by making a pledge! We have 11 days left to get to 25K. Make a pledge here! Or if you would like to volunteer/get involved, tell us about your skill sets and we’ll plug you in! Email us at [email protected]
Aashika, thanks so much for your passionate heart, and for using your innovative mind to fight injustice around the world! Everyone, don’t forget to check out the Survivor’s Connect and Breaking Heels websites.