The Elephant Marches On, Heedless of the Barking Dogs. This Nepali folk saying means that no matter what anyone says, and regardless of the negative voices, you need to keep moving forward in the direction of your highest goals. If I had a dollar for every hour I have wasted worrying about a difficult conversation or someone not approving of me or my work, I could fund all my projects right now! For me, like many women, the ‘disease to please’ is a huge challenge. It’s a game you can’t win, and a huge waste of your precious time as a leader — and I am grateful to have made great strides with this. The needs of the girls we serve, and those still waiting for our help, are too urgent to waste time worrying about what other people think.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Symons. A former recording artist and music composer for television, Sarah Symons is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Her Future Coalition, an international charity combating human trafficking and gender violence with education, shelter, and training, serving some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Over the past 15 years, Her Future Coalition has helped more than 3,000 survivors and high-risk girls in India, Nepal, Cambodia, and Thailand. Symons and her husband, John Berger, started the organization in 2005, selling their house and using their life savings after being deeply moved to action by a documentary about the gravity of human trafficking and exploitation. Symons is an author and frequently tapped expert speaker and media guest around the issue of human trafficking and gender violence. Her acclaimed book, This is No Ordinary Joy, details the journey of her work with trafficking survivors and how it has transformed her life. She is a recipient of the Sam Walton Foundation Entrepreneurship Award and the Count Me In Micro to Millions Award for women entrepreneurs and has been honored by the V-Day Foundation and the Governor of Massachusetts for her work fighting violence against women. She lives in Florida with her husband and is mother to two college-age children, Maya and Luke.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for the opportunity! 18 years ago, I was on a completely different path in my life and career. I was a songwriter for TV music, mostly the love and death scenes of soap operas. But then, one of my songs was placed in a film that was featured in the Tribeca Film Festival. I was given a pass to see anything at the festival I wanted, but I had limited time. The only film being shown when I was free was ‘The Day My God Died,’ a documentary about the human trafficking of young girls between Nepal and India. To be completely honest, once I understood the subject matter, I was resistant and slightly fearful, telling myself: “It’s too upsetting, I’m here to celebrate. I’ve got two little kids. This is not the right time to see this. I won’t be able to do anything about it.”
But I went — and that documentary changed the course of my life. It was ninety minutes of unbelievable suffering and abuse, loss and despair, courage and relentless hope. Tears flowed down my face throughout the entire movie. I had understood vaguely that there was slavery in the world. I had thought it was a relatively rare occurrence, tragic but rare; an individual crime affecting small groups of unfortunate individuals. I had no idea there were millions of slaves in the world (40 million according to the 2017 UN report). I couldn’t believe that many victims are children and teenagers; that people are enslaved in every country of the world for sexual exploitation, for domestic service, on farms, in factories, in quarries, making steel, making bricks, and worse. I was devastated by the fact that trafficking preys on the most vulnerable members of society. In Nepal and India, that means young girls from poor, mostly rural communities, who were already devalued and often not allowed to go to school.
I found it impossible to accept that slavery was occurring at this magnitude and that most of the world was oblivious to it. There should be a deafening international public outcry, an uproar that could not be ignored. Instead, for the most part, there was silence — silence, and inaction. I’ve since come to understand that many people are afraid to look at the issue of slavery at all, not wanting to be pulled down into that darkness, afraid that they will not be able to do anything — similar to my own response that that day in New York.
Luckily for me, ‘The Day My God Died’ was not just a shocking exposé: it was a call to action. Beyond all that inhumanity and pain, there was something even more powerful. There was hope. There were courage and selflessness. Survivors in the film, who had been sold into brothels as children, had created an Underground Railroad to rescue others and to prevent them from being trafficked in the first place. The girls went back into the brothels from which they were rescued, alongside rescue agencies and police. They used their unique knowledge of the brothels to pull other girls to freedom. They knew to look under the floorboards, behind the walls, in rolled-up carpets. The trauma and fear they faced must have been monumental, going back to the places where they were hurt and humiliated, tortured and treated as less than human.
Survivors in the film were going door to door and village to village in the remotest areas, handing out flyers and telling their stories in an effort to prevent other girls from being tricked or sold. In societies such as Nepal, where so much stigma is attached to prostitution, it is an act of heroism for a survivor to share her story with strangers. Two things were clear to me after seeing that film: I knew I had to find a way to help these girls, and I knew that my own life would never be the same.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
In this work, building strong, effective and trustworthy partnerships is absolutely key to our success. We are incredibly diligent in the vetting and selection of our program partners and put significant time and energy into building long-term relationships based on a shared vision, trust, and communication — which enables us to work effectively and cost-efficiently in the global communities we are serving. But some partnerships don’t work out — for a variety of reasons, ranging from bloated management and fiscal waste to inconsistent standards of care, poor communication, and outright corruption. In some cases, a partner’s work simply no longer fits with our direction and priorities.
This is a difficult moral quandary because, despite the problems, people in very vulnerable situations are still benefiting from these programs. For me, personally, the most difficult part of losing a partnership is worrying about what happens to the girls we have helped, and who we have come to know and love. We try to keep track of the women and girls we have helped, but it isn’t always possible.
In one case, I had lost track of a group of girls who I worked with at a shelter in India just days after they were rescued. One of those girls, Grace, had been trafficked at the age of 11 from her village in Nepal, when her father, the village schoolteacher, died. Her mother became severely depressed and unable to protect her daughter. A year after I met her, Grace and the other girls who had been rescued in the same raid were repatriated back to Nepal. A few years later, friends from the shelter in Nepal visited us at our home in Florida. The Director of that project was flipping through some pictures on an iPad when a picture of Grace popped up on the screen. ‘That’s Grace,’ he said, scrolling quickly on to the next photo.
“Wait, can I see that one again?! Is that Grace Tamang?” And, it was the same Grace. I ran and found the card she had made for me at the shelter, sharing her story. Trafficked girls have been betrayed so completely, they have to start all over with learning to love and trust. In this way, they are like small children, and it is impossible not to love them fiercely. It takes patience, extreme gentleness and restraint to break through the barriers that recently rescued girls have built around themselves. When it works, and you are able to forge a relationship, you are intensely grateful for the honor that has been bestowed on you — being one of the first people that a survivor chooses to trust. I have had that honor a few times, and in Grace’s case, the connection I felt with her was mutual, undimmed by the three years between our first and second meetings. The next time I visited Nepal, Grace was there to meet me at the airport. We ran into each other’s arms and hugged it out for at least five minutes.
After reconnecting, we have stayed in close contact. Grace has a dream to reopen her father’s primary school in her village so that the children there would have an alternative to being trafficked or forced into child marriages. (The area has a critically high rate of trafficking and other forms of severe gender violence). We have had the privilege of supporting this dream by sponsoring Grace’s high school and college education and look forward to walking beside her every step of the way and supporting her work to create bright futures for children in her home village.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Working in foreign cultures — and often very rural settings in this line of work — you’re bound to have communication challenges. And I certainly had (and still have!) my share and have learned to be prepared for everything, with Plan A, B, and C in place. But the early days were especially challenging. On my second trip to Asia, I traveled to Chiang Rai in the northernmost part of Thailand, near the Burmese border, to scout for potential partners. Alas, things did not get off to a smooth start. A representative of the organization I was meeting with was slated to pick me up at my hotel and drive me out to their center 45 minutes from the city (I did not know the exact location). After more than 45 minutes of waiting hopefully on the hotel steps, I began to feel anxious and deflated. Everything was so new to me — travel to Asia, the issues of gender violence and running my own nonprofit. It didn’t help that it was hot and ridiculously humid, and my hair was soon hanging in limp strands.
The doorman offered to call my contact on his mobile phone, as my phone was giving me challenges. It was then that I realized, to my chagrin, that the name of my contact and her phone number were on my laptop, which needed recharging after the long trip to Thailand. The voltage and plugs are different in Thailand, and I was also confronted with the fact that I didn’t have the correct adaptor. I’m fairly resourceful and incredibly determined — and managed to jury-rig an electrical adaptor (fitting a square peg into a round hole), plugged in my laptop, and found the name and email address of my contact. I sent her an email but had no confidence that she would check her email in time. Meanwhile, the helpful doorman tried to look up the phone number of the agency I was visiting, which was apparently rather obscure. Thankfully, he was persistent, as well, as it took 45 nerve-wracking minutes and many phone calls to other agencies before he finally tracked them down. My contact was gratifyingly apologetic for the mix-up and immediately dispatched a tuk-tuk to pick me up and bring me to the center, where I enjoyed a very productive visit.
From this experience — and my early days running the organization — I learned that my innate blind optimism was not the correct strategy, especially when traveling alone to low-resource or even dangerous environments, and that in future I would need to plan ahead and anticipate challenges. Over the years, I’ve made some progress in striking a balance between visionary and administrator, and have also been blessed to find team members with complementary skill-sets to fill in the gaps.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Her Future has helped over 3,000 women and girls on their journey to freedom and independence. We provide long-term, intensive services including education, shelter and vocational and entrepreneurship training that enable survivors and high-risk girls to recover from extreme trauma and build brilliant futures of their own choosing. We build, expand and support shelters so rescued girls can heal and grow in a safe, loving environment. We provide high-quality education and support services (tutoring, enrichments, transportation to school, etc) to over 500 girls each year. We send survivors to college so they can pursue professional careers. We provide dignified, well-paid employment in our three Entrepreneurship Centers. We also support survivors and shelters in launching their own businesses. We keep 250 red light area children safe and educated in our Red Light Resource Centers.
Our social impact is also measured in the everyday miracle of lives transformed:
- The satisfaction, mixed with disbelief, on a young woman’s face as she receives her first paycheck.
- The pride of seeing a girl — once abused in a brothel with no hope of any kind of future — graduating from high school or college and often helping others
- The transformation of a room, a building, or an entire community.
- Hundreds of children, born into brothel communities, in a safe space every day and night at our Red Light Resource Centers
- The flash of hope returning to a person no longer endangered or enslaved.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
Puja is 21 years old, 4’10” tall, mischievous, beautiful and smart. She came to us through a vocational training program we were running at a rescue shelter outside Mumbai. Today she works in our Kolkata Entrepreneurship Center and is one of India’s first women goldsmiths.
When Puja was little, she lived with her family under a tarp in a Kolkata slum. Her parents sent her to the train station to work when she was ten — sweeping train floors and begging. A few years later she was trafficked out of the train station to a brothel in Mumbai. After a short time, Puja managed to escape through a barred window in the bathroom. Incredibly, she found a police officer and bravely returned to the brothel to rescue three of her friends, risking her own recapture because the police are often complicit in trafficking and accept bribes to keep silent, or to actively participate in trafficking.
After her escape, Puja was sent to a Rescue Foundation shelter where we operated a vocational training program. After a year in that program, Puja received her orders from the Indian Court system to be transferred to a shelter home in her native Kolkata. The goal was for her to be reunited with her family. Puja was desperate to see her mother and father again, so we were happy for her, although sorry to lose her from the program. Thankfully, we were able to arrange for Puja to be transferred to the Women’s Interlink Foundation shelter in Kolkata, where we also run programs.
Sadly, when Puja first returned to Kolkata, she learned that her father had died while she was trafficked. Her mother and siblings blamed her for his death and for being trafficked and threw her out into the street. Sadly, it is very common for families to blame and reject the victim. Like Puja, many survivors can never return home, which is why it is so crucial to provide long-term, intensive support, including safe shelter in the years immediately following rescue. The situation was devastating, but thankfully Puja had the support and love of our staff and other survivors to help her through the loss. She has made a strong recovery and is now a leader in our program.
Puja is just one woman. Helping one person — or even a few thousand — is a small accomplishment in the eyes of many, especially given the magnitude of the problems we face. But I’ve learned that addressing large endemic problems takes time and unbelievable perseverance. Success is measured in small increments — one girl at a time. If through this work, I can offer even one girl the tools to build a beautiful life out of the ashes, then it is worth it. Every time a girl grows from a place of hopelessness and powerlessness to the first small step in directing her own life, I celebrate. These everyday miracles give me the energy to keep going.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
To address the root causes of gender violence, the three things most needed from the society and politicians are large-scale public awareness and culture change — particularly in gender violence hot-spots — better law enforcement (including appropriate sentencing for offenders) and good quality universal education.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is standing firmly in your own truth and vision while creating space for others to use their talents and ideas in service of the highest good. I could never have achieved what I have without the support of an exceptional team. We are a very diverse bunch, both in terms of ethnicity and culture, and in terms of our working styles. Some of us are artists, some are social workers, and some are business professionals with a very direct manner of communicating, which can be jarring to the artists and social workers. Conversely, the spontaneity and creative approach of the artists and social workers can feel chaotic to those on the business/administrative side My job as a leader is to enable everyone to bring his or her unique gifts and styles to this work, while holding firmly to our vision and ethos of the organization. Our differences make us stronger.
However, if a team member has a vision of her own that diverges from the organization’s vision and ethos, then part of good leadership is knowing when to let that person go, respectfully, encouraging a different direction. You have to have confidence in what you have already created, and not become reliant on any one person to save the day or to move things forward.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The Elephant Marches On, Heedless of the Barking Dogs
This Nepali folk saying means that no matter what anyone says, and regardless of the negative voices, you need to keep moving forward in the direction of your highest goals. If I had a dollar for every hour I have wasted worrying about a difficult conversation or someone not approving of me or my work, I could fund all my projects right now! For me, like many women, the ‘disease to please’ is a huge challenge. It’s a game you can’t win, and a huge waste of your precious time as a leader — and I am grateful to have made great strides with this. The needs of the girls we serve, and those still waiting for our help, are too urgent to waste time worrying about what other people think.
Don’t Climb Every Mountain, Don’t Fjord Every Stream
No one organization, or anyone approach, can solve complex problems such as trafficking and gender violence. In the early days, I cast too wide of a net, trying to address too many problems at once, and not having a tight enough focus on our core competencies. I tried and failed at many things, including running large-scale awareness campaigns about slavery on college campuses, opening a shop to sell survivor-made products, running a school sponsorship program in Uganda, and getting involved in political advocacy groups. These directions were not fruitful for us, because they weren’t our area of expertise or focus. Now I rely on collaboration more than ever and trust other organizations to do the work in areas where we don’t.
Solutions (Usually) Come from Inside
It is very tempting to want to jump in and create immediate new solutions to fix problems when you’re first exposed to them — especially something as dire and emotionally-charged as human trafficking. A lot of people and groups have come to India over the years and set things up — with the best of intentions — but only to have their efforts eventually fall apart. People get frustrated and give up when their ideas don’t work. It’s important to remember that local people (who understand their own culture and challenges) have been working on the issues in their community for a lot longer, and they have refined some fantastic solutions. India has literally had an anti-trafficking movement since 1949, while ours in the US is only a few decades old. Rather than repeating the stereotypical (and often ineffective) Colonial approach of coming in blazing with all the answers to an issue and funding to throw at it, I propose we look first to local solutions and possible partners and see where we can support and add to what is already working, rather than constantly (and expensively) trying to reinvent the wheel.
Try, Fail, Pivot, Repeat
I used to be afraid of failing and embarrassed to admit it when I did. Thankfully, I now have lots of experience and am much better (and faster) at failing. We had many failures in the early days of our jewelry training and employment program. For example, we tried running the training in a remote rural shelter, which didn’t work because it was too difficult to get staff and materials out there. In another case, all of our trainees were suddenly repatriated to Bangladesh after Bangladesh was compelled to take back their trafficked women citizens from India. We have experimented with many product types that failed, such as doing a high-end jewelry line with gold and diamonds, or pink purses for breast cancer, or embroidered pants (yikes), and a line of bags made from garbage (they were cooler than they sound!). As I mentioned before, some of our partnerships have failed, and in a few cases, we lost money and time on those ventures. In each of these cases, we had to admit we failed and pivot.
Nobody loves to tell grantmakers about failures, but I think it’s important, to be honest with them too. In nonprofits, just as in business, nobody succeeds 100% of the time. Lately, I’ve been making it a practice to include a section for failures and setbacks in every grant report.
Let’s be real. If you are going to try new things and take on hard problems, you have to be willing to fail — again and again — in order to succeed, and more importantly, to be truly responsive to the needs of the people you serve.
Take the Long View
An Indian folktale tells of a young boy who has to walk three miles to another village, late at night. The boy is frightened because it is dark and the way is treacherous. His grandfather gives him a lantern (in modern versions a flashlight).
‘Grandfather, it is three miles to the next village! I can only see three feet ahead with this flashlight!’
‘Just start walking. Walk those three feet and then you will see another three,’ the grandfather tells him. ‘That is the only way forward’
It’s important to stay positive, and I mostly do, but this work can be really tough. This issue is painful and it hurts to see women and girls suffering in such extreme ways, to hear their stories and hold space for them. We’re a small team and there’s an infinite amount of stuff to do for these girls. It can be hard to ask people for money to keep it going.
I used to enjoy saying how overwhelmed I felt. I found relief in admitting it, and it made me feel virtuous in a pleasantly martyrish way. And I was, in fact, frequently overwhelmed in the early days. But I’ve learned that communicating that we are overwhelmed is counterproductive and reinforces a sense of being powerless, which we are not.
Now instead of saying I’m overwhelmed, I say ‘I take a long-range view’. When there are (seemingly) insurmountable problems, I take a long range view. When a girl acts out in a self-destructive way, I take a long-range view, because I’ve seen it all before. I’ve seen many girls come through that phase and start healing and making their own lives work. When there isn’t enough money in the bank for our programs, I take a long-range view because I believe that there are many more people out there who are going to learn about this work and find joy in supporting it and being part of it. I do as much as I can do each day (and sometimes a little more after that) and accept that I will never get to the bottom of my to-do list until I die, and in this I am no different from any person I know.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would like to join Michelle Obama in inspiring a movement for girls' education globally. If a girl is educated through the 10th grade, she is much less likely to be trafficked or forced into early marriage. Educated women know their rights, and have more tools to protect themselves from other forms of gender-based violence, and to protect their daughters and other girls in their community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Mother Theresa
There is a huge emphasis on ‘scale’ these days in the philanthropic community. Everyone is looking for models or technology solutions that enable you to help more people for the same amount of money, and it’s easy to devalue your efforts if they are helping hundreds or thousands — rather than millions — of people. Of course, the needs of the world are great, and we need big ideas and large scale approaches. But we also need intensive, hands-on, long term, grassroots approach. Helping girls to rebuild their lives after such a profound trauma as trafficking requires time, patience, care, and investment. Change happens one girl at a time, and then creates a ripple of change in her family and community, which ultimately creates a groundswell of positive change in the society.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Mindy Kaling or Reese Witherspoon both inspire me hugely, as feminists in the entertainment industry, using their huge influence to uplift other women and create more opportunities and awareness in a male-dominated industry. Plus, they are hilarious. I watch a lot of TV and movies to relax, but nothing with sexual violence and nothing too dark. There’s enough of that in my work, so I look for entertainment that is funny, heartwarming or inspirational. Thank you!
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