It started with a tackle box, a little gray fishing tackle box. In 2015, Lauren Carpenter and I walked into the End Slavery offices with a tackle box of metal blanks and a few hammers. That’s the day we met K and B, the first survivors we hired to make jewelry. We sat on the floor under the florescent lights of a large conference room and stamped metal blanks with consecutive numbers: 1, 2, 3… and on we went. We then finished the blanks into shiny cuffs and sold them. We sold them as an invitation. An invitation to purchase and wear a beautiful piece of jewelry that boldly announces your commitment to end trafficking.
Each item we make is stamped with the initials of the young woman who made it along with that unique number. The number represents your place in our collective. So, way back in 2015 someone might’ve asked you, “Hey, why does your cuff have a #5 on it?” And you might say, “Well, let me tell you! This beautiful cuff means that I’m the 5th person to join a rather amazing movement. See this B here, that’s the initial of a woman recovering from trafficking. She made this cuff and the money I spent on it gives her a living wage!”
I know what you’re thinking… “Did that actually work?!”
Yes, yes it did. More on that later.
So, there we were, sitting on the floor stamping very small digits into metal blanks with two young women named B and K. To be honest, I was terrified. I’d never met a real survivor of human trafficking. Or at least, I didn’t think I had. The sad truth is, I now know that I very probably had at a gas station or a Walmart or just about anywhere. As we sat there and stamped 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… I learned something. For all our differences, K and B really weren’t that different from me. Yeah, I had a fancy college degree and a car and a house, but that’s not the stuff I’m talking about.
When K was little, she wanted to be a dancer. So did I! When B was little, she thought about a singing career. So did I! K always thought it would be super cool to be invisible. So did I! B had once thought she might grow up to work for NASA and get to walk on the moon. Yup, so did I!
Over the years at BRANDED we’ve had the honor to work with 26 women all healing from horrors I can’t understand. Even so, no matter their age or skin color or the secrets they’ll never share, I have yet to meet one with whom I didn’t have that moment when we were shocked to find that we both love honey on our pizza, or blasting the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman while we drive in the rain, or that we both still read Harry Potter despite the fact that we’re in our 30’s, or that the smell of strawberry Kool-Aid makes us feel 7 years old again.
There’s another thing we have in common… a job well done, and a paycheck earned gives us confidence and reminds us we are capable! Truthfully, some days jewelry making is a total bore. Some days it’s wonderful, other days it isn’t. All of us at the BRANDED studio feel this. But we’ll laugh and cheer each other on and remind ourselves that work is a gift. We’ve had artisans quit and we’ve had artisans thrive. At the end of the day, it’s a job. Like all jobs there are good days and hard days. We exist to give good work and good pay to the folks who are willing to say yes to the good days as well as the hard ones. We exist to be a safe, kind place for a young woman recovering from trafficking to learn what it means to step from financial dependence toward financial independence. All this is wonderful, but it is also hard and grueling and, well… work.
Here’s the deal, there is one thing that makes our job at BRANDED extra special. Actually, it’s not one thing… currently, it’s 47,568 things. You see every day we work; we get to add to our collective. Each piece of jewelry still has a number on it. And each number reminds us that there is someone out there having a very important conversation with a stranger…
“Hey, why does your cuff have a 47,568 on it?”
“Well, let me tell you! This beautiful cuff means that I’m the 47,568th person to join a rather amazing movement!”
And it is. It’s an amazing thing. Just one number can make a difference. Just one number can give a young woman meaningful, challenging, glorious, tedious, boring, honest, good, hard work. Just one number can remind her that she is capable, and she is safe.
So, dear reader, what number are you?
(originally posted on May 18, 2020 at www.endslaverytn.org)