Why 'My Family's Slave' isn't moving the needle for human trafficking groups

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The blockbuster "Atlantic" story offers a real-time study in the limits of what awareness can accomplish.

Can a story move thousands of people to tears without moving anyone to action?

Judging by "My Family’s Slave," the Atlantic article that nearly broke the internet last week with its tale of a woman from the Philippines who was enslaved in modern-day America, the answer may be a disappointing yes. Because although it has inspired online conversations, according to anti-slavery nonprofits, it isn’t doing much to inspire actual donations.

"She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon in the 7,000-word piece, "and when my family moved [from the Philippines] to the United States, we brought her with us."

Her name was Eudora "Lola" Tomas Pulido, and Tizon’s posthumously published article goes into painful detail about the life she lived, absorbing decades of abuse while cooking, cleaning and caring for two generations of Tizon’s family, all without pay or even a proper bed. "No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived," he wrote.

The article quickly went viral. "It seemed like all anyone could talk about online," the Observer noted the day of its release (remarkable considering it coincided with President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey). A week later, it still sits atop the Atlantic’s "most read" list and has accumulated almost 20,000 shares on the magazine’s original Facebook post, which represents only a slice of the article’s actual reach. The article itself has more than 13,000 comments and counting.

But while the story has been aggregated and praised and critiqued—launching international conversations about modern slavery, and even inspiring backlash to the backlash—it hasn’t pushed the needle for organizations that combat slavery and human trafficking.

"I think it helps to serve as a good reminder that we should all be on the lookout for signs of trafficking," said World Hope International CEO John Lyon, praising the piece for raising awareness that slaves can be hidden in plain site. Victims of human trafficking are rarely in chains, he noted, but can easily be the maid in your neighbor’s house or a dishwasher at a local restaurant.

Still, Lyon continued, "We have not yet noticed an increase in conversations about trafficking or donations to our trafficking programs as a result of this article."

Saying why isn’t simple. As any fundraiser knows, moving people from bystander to donor is a psychological process that resists easy replication. But Lyon, whose group tackles issues ranging from education to emergency response to human trafficking, notes that the latter is particularly tough to raise money for.

"We find that donors have a hard time relating to human slavery," he said. "I think people are more likely to relate to someone that has no access to water than someone who is in human slavery."

"Articles like this help," said Lyon, who is promoting the article via his organization’s social media channels and weekly e-newsletter, "but we need donors to more closely connect with human beings that are subjected to this abuse."

Viral articles about humanitarian issues—even about modern slavery—have been known to spark tangible change. For example, the AP’s Pulitzer-winning 2015 investigation, "Slaves may have caught the fish you bought," led to the liberation of 2,000 slaves. Sarah Nir’s 2015 reporting on nail salon working conditions for the New York Times led to state regulatory reform.

But Nir’s piece was an investigative call to action, while Tizon’s was a reflective, even passive, personal essay. The women Nir profiled were still working in inhumane conditions, whereas Lola had already passed away. (As had Tizon, in March, and his mother decades earlier.)

Still, there are groups who are using Tizon’s story to further their message. Ai-Jen Woo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates for women living in conditions much like those Lola suffered, wrote her own article for the Atlantic that was published three days after Tizon’s.

"If Tizon had known there was an organization of women who shared Lola’s experience and helped her connect to them—and if Lola had known she was not alone, met other women like her, and seen that it was possible to rebuild and live a different life—would her story have ended differently?" she wrote.

Woo may have seen the emergence of Lola’s story as an opportunity to raise awareness about an important aspect of her charity’s cause. But Terry Fitzpatrick, community and advocacy director at Free The Slaves, thinks a lack of awareness is not the problem.

"Those of us in anti-slavery organizations realize that we need to move the conversations to solutions and not just recognizing the problem," he said.

Fitzpatrick said that his organization changed from awareness to action campaigns several years ago after seeing a study revealing that 80 percent of Americans are aware that modern slavery exists.

Although Free The Slaves posted Tizon’s article on its social media accounts—and it resulted more engagement than most other posts—the organization raises funds with articles and research about how modern slavery can actually be eradicated by giving at-risk communities more access to education, justice systems and money.

Tizon’s piece packed an emotional punch, and made slavery top of mind with thousands of transfixed readers. But unlike Nir’s piece, it posited no solutions, or even an optimistic outcome—something Fitzpatrick now believes is key to getting people to take action. 

"How do social movements take hold and catch fire?" he asked. By "talking about freedom and not slavery, about the positive aspects of eradicating slavery." For nonprofits looking to use Tizon’s article as a launch pad to action, the challenge now is turning the conversation he started toward practical solutions.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the study that prompted Free the Slaves to switch from awareness to action campaigns was commissioned by the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking. The article has been amended.