Trafficking in Justice

Image credit: Fernando Rodríguez

The first time I walked into a sweat shop, I thought to myself, “Hmmm. Not as bad as I thought it would be.”

I had “entered without invitation” the work rooms above L.A.’s Fashion District. Windows were flung open for ventilation. Women bent over sewing machines while men unrolled bolts of fabric. The manager worked alongside or sat in his office.

Sometimes the employees were open to conversation, and it was an eye-opening, challenging experience. I wouldn’t call the conditions good. But I also didn’t witness the “horrors” I’d expected.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about injustice. Everywhere you turn, there’s a blog post or an article or a documentary sharing someone’s story to highlight the need for change.

I love to hear people’s stories.

And as a writer who cares about injustice, I want to tell stories that matter.

In the last month, we’ve had four different opportunities to share Billy’s story as part of the larger narrative on immigration. We have been grateful for the invitations. These requests, however, have led us to some very interesting conversations about how we tell our story.

It’s easy to say Billy lived in a closet for a year and use that experience to further the message that immigration reform is needed. And we are passionate about advocacy.

The only problem is that Billy’s year of closet life was somewhat unrelated. As he points out, he asked to live in that warehouse and no one made him bunk in the closet. More importantly, due to his socioeconomic background, he could have moved back to Guatemala at any time.

Of course, his experience does not invalidate the truth of others’ stories that may include forced labor or restricted freedoms. Those tales of injustice are real. And the reality is, most people want to hear those stories.

It takes me back to my Evangelical upbringing. Everyone (well, most people) will acknowledge my three year old prayer asking Jesus into my heart as transformational. But let’s be honest, it doesn’t make as good of a story as the drug dealer turned youth pastor testimonial.

In today’s storytelling culture, the same remains true. We don’t just want anecdotes about everyday suffering or the structural presence of injustice, we want suspense, drama, pain and epic redemption.

Society’s love of a good story throws an interesting wrench into the social movements of today. Educating about an injustice is not enough, you must woo supporters with one incredible story.

But what if you don’t have one? What if you just have boring injustice?

Billy and I talked about the places injustice exists in his story. Not getting paid for a month’s worth of work with absolutely no option for recourse. Watching a former friend try to have him deported when he didn’t get his way. Walking through an immigration process that actually hadadvantages for us due to socioeconomic background.

But none of these facts are very gripping. And so, when we find ourselves passionate about immigration reform, it’s easy to question how we tell our story. I think this is true for many folks who work to eradicate plain ‘ole injustice.

I’ve been in conversations about how to incorporate human trafficking, a "hot" social justice topic, into the discussion of not-so-hot injustice. It actually relates to immigration, but it’s hard for me to accept that certain words will impact how interested we are.

And actually, even sex trafficking has chosen to upsell injustice sometimes. If you’ve followed the Newsweek story on Somaly Mam, it’s raising some interesting conversation about embellishing stories of injustice to raise big dollars for a legitimately important cause.

But here’s something Billy and I have talked about quite a bit this month. When you dramatize a story of injustice, what does that mean for the story’s protagonist? No one wants to be introduced as a victim, as someone to be pitied. And yet, for many of us to care about an issue, those heart strings have to be pulled.

We feel bad for Mam’s girls, for the tragedies they experienced. If the truth is a bit less horrifying, it’s not long before some blogger, news outlet, or weirdo on Twitter is citing all the ways they could have changed their experiences. Pointing out each instance where their lapse in judgment “caused” injustice to happen to them.

Do we need people to be completely helpless before they are worth helping?

But I actually hold a great deal of empathy when a story of injustice is exaggerated. I understand how those raising money or awareness (or both) need to make an impact to incite a response.

But I also hope we can choose to do things differently. Can we focus on the structures of injustice, even if they affect some people less dramatically than others? Can we choose to support causes because humans should have the opportunity for choice in their lives? Let’s do it!

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