Interview: Ben Cooley and his mission to end modern-day slavery
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After learning about modern-day slavery at a Manchester Town Hall event in 2007, then-Opera singer Ben Cooley had a revelation about the 1.2 million children that are trafficked each year – about two every minute: “It’s always someone’s daughter.”
His life was instantly changed and had a new purpose. Thus, Hope for Justice was born.
“Modern slavery is a barbaric crime that shouldn’t exist in the world,” Cooley said. “Every person who joins the fight for freedom, the fight for abolition, puts us one step closer to living in a world free from slavery.”
Aided by his good friends Rob and Marion White, the ambitious Cooley set out to organise a stadium event at Birmingham’s NEC Arena to spread the word about human trafficking without having ever booked or hosted an event in the past.
However, Cooley would not let his inexperience deter him and after conversations that he could only describe as hilarious with sound and lighting companies, portable toilet providers and many others, the event came together and drew a crowd of 5,884 people who were eager to get involved.
Hope for Justice has grown at an exponential rate ever since that humble beginning. Its accelerated growth has forged connections with high-profile supporters including celebrities, established international organisations and multiple foreign governments.
In 2014, Hope for Justice merged with Abolition International, a Nashville-based group that was founded by recording artist Natalie Grant, who to this day remains involved with Hope for Justice and was recently recognised at the Gospel Music Awards for her anti-trafficking work.
The organisation also merged with Transitions Global in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which runs aftercare facilities and projects for girls who were rescued from trafficking, and has recently launched in Norway with the expectation to spread to even more countries.
“We have rescued hundreds of victims of modern slavery since the creation of Hope for Justice in 2008, including around 350 people in the last three years alone,” Cooley said.
“The work of our specialist and professional teams, who work closely alongside the police and National Crime Agency, is all made possible by our supporters and the wider abolition movement that we’re part of. We’re determined to change more lives, and to end slavery.”
Perhaps most importantly, Hope for Justice has assisted in furthering the modern-day slavery conversation among politicians across multiple governments, including the United Kingdom and the United States.
“Hope for Justice exists to bring an end to modern slavery by rescuing victims, restoring lives and reforming society,” Cooley said. “That’s why it’s so important to have the backing of politicians.”
In February, Hope for Justice was one of just six anti-trafficking non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, invited to the White House to brief U.S. President Donald Trump and his officials about the issue and to offer recommendations on how to tackle it.
“It’s great to see governments and world leaders taking the issue of modern slavery seriously, though there is still so far to go,” Cooley said. “The President was very interested in the subject matter, and his daughter, Ivanka, was very keen to make this happen.
"A strengthened U.S. government response affects everything – whether that’s working together with us on making sure that corporates are keeping modern slavery out of their supply chains, or sharing best practice on victim care. We are now working with the White House on those two key issues.”
Just a few weeks ago, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May proclaimed her support for the organisation and for Cooley’s forthcoming book that will be released July 20.
“I am grateful for the important work Hope for Justice is doing to tackle modern day slavery,” May said. “I wish Ben Cooley’s new book ‘Impossible is a Dare’ every success in its publication.”
The Prime Minister’s comments came shortly after the Commons Work & Pensions Committee in Parliament released an important report examining the government’s policies and processes regarding the treatment of modern slavery victims.
The report drew on insights and recommendations suggested by a number of experts on the issue, including Hope for Justice.
“We were glad to see one of our key recommendations being endorsed by the committee: that a ‘conclusive grounds’ decision that someone is a victim should entitle them to leave to remain in the U.K. for at least 12 months as they recover, which also acts as a ‘passport to support,’” Cooley said.
Hope for Justice’s focus in the U.K. is to identify and to rescue victims of modern slavery, then to advocate on their behalf to achieve restoration, while also seeking legislative and policy reform.
To accomplish these goals, the organisation provides awareness training for law enforcement, frontline social services and other NGOs. In other words, its work is split into three main strands: Rescue, Restore and Reform.
In response to the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, Hope for Justice also works closely with significant U.K. companies to help them assess and identify slavery in their supply chains.
“This is a hidden crime, but it’s present in all our communities – from car washes to nail bars, and from factories to farms,” Cooley said, “We’d love people to educate themselves about the issue and know what to do if they spot something they think could be a sign of modern slavery.”
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