Beauty for Freedom Engages the Fashion Industry in the Fight to End Human Trafficking By Katy Donoghue


This Friday, Beauty for Freedom (BFF) will host the Project Ghana Exhibition VIP preview. BFF is a New York-based organization that engages the beauty and fashion industries as allies in the fight to end human trafficking in countries like India, Ghana, Cambodia, and Haiti.

Its recent initiative, Project Ghana, took place in the summer of 2017, in partnership with Challenging Heights in the Lake Volta region of Ghana. BFF worked with the organization that rescues and rehabilitates children trafficked into the fishing industry to create workshops around photography, fashion, and art. The goal of the project was to bolster self-esteem through encouraging artistic expression among the survivors of labor trafficking.

The workshops resulted in a community exhibition of photos, textiles, murals, and more supported by JR’s Inside Out Project. To garner support for future workshops, BFF asked 15 artists—like Erica Simone, Mark Wagner, Jerry Chu, andSophie Bartsich—to re-interpret and re-imagine some of the photographs from the Project Ghana 2017 trip. The resulting mixed-media works are what will be previewed this Friday at The Flat NYC. All proceeds from the sale of the work benefit Challenging Heights and future BFF workshops.

To learn more about BFF, the preview this week, and the subsequent auction in March, we spoke with its Executive Director Monica Watkins.

WHITEWALL: What was the initial mission of Beauty for Freedom? How did your background and experience in beauty and fashion lead you there?

MONICA WATKINS: Beauty for Freedom exists to empower survivors and at-risk youth of trafficking through creative expression and art therapy facilitating a strengthening of empowerment and self-esteem while cultivating community engagement and awareness.

Many of our founding members come from the industries of fashion, beauty and the arts. We felt that these industries had great potential in the world of philanthropy, specifically in the abolitionist movement. Unfortunately, these industries have not done enough to cultivate freedom and equality and we all agreed that we could lead a movement aligning these industries in the fight to end human trafficking using our collective creative backgrounds.

WW: How do you choose which local organizations to work with and which countries to direct your resources?

MW: We start by choosing our international partner organizations very carefully. Beauty For Freedom has a strict vetting process. The on-the-ground partners identify high-risk youth and survivors who are recovering from the horrors of trafficking. These organizations provide services that include education, health care needs, nutritional support, recreational facilities, legal aid, and advocacy. We work in high-risk areas like India, Cambodia. and Ghana because the incidences of sex trafficking and labor trafficking of youth are high. Our non-profit partners are always grassroots organizations who have a need for creative therapies and outlets for their survivors that they cannot always afford having limited yearly budgets.

WW: For Project Ghana, you partnered with Challenging Heights. What about the organization is unique and made it an ideal partner for Beauty for Freedom?

MW: Challenging Heights is one of the foremost progressive organizations battling the crisis of child labor trafficking in Ghana. Their holistic approach to prevention, rehabilitation, reintegration, education and community outreach was really inspiring to our entire Beauty for Freedom team. Challenging Heights came highly recommended by one of our advisors and ambassadors Anna Ptak. Anna is an Anti-Human Trafficking Policy Consultant, trainer and speaker. She is close friends with Challenging Heights Founder and President James Kofi-Annan and has been a wonderful advocate for the incredible work that James and Challenging Heights are doing in Ghana.

WW: With Project Ghana specifically, what effect did you see on the students from the art workshops? Did any results surprise you?

MW: Our team witnessed some incredible effects of our workshops series with the youth of Challenging Heights. The first days we worked with the youth, they were timid and really shy with our team. We could see a lack of confidence and self-esteem throughout the young project participants. Our team jumped right in with one of the most challenging workshops, the photography course. We really spent a lot of time with the youth teaching them the basics on the DSLR Canon cameras and eased them into the community outreach they would be doing when asking permission to photograph community members and their families. We all were a bit skeptical that they would find their journalistic and creative voices in this way, but they amazed us all! The process of photographing the members of their communities brought them all closer to their subjects. In the process, they had an opportunity to bond with these wonderful families and even invited many of their subjects to view the exhibition we produced at the end of the workshop series.

WW: How did the students react when they saw their work on exhibition, with the support of JR and Inside Out?

MW: All of the photography students were filled with pure joy when we unveiled the Inside Out Project Walls at the school! The excitement was overwhelming! The entire school and all of the teachers walked by the wall every free moment they had throughout the day and by the end of the day, the head mistress of the school asked us to put more images up. We ended up expanding the project to include the Challenging Heights computer science class and their library. The whole school and all of the teachers were so proud! They wanted more and more images!

WW: For the preview this week, and auction in March, what will be on view?

MW: The pop-up preview this week and the auction in March will both feature the collaborative pieces. We won’t have the entire collection on preview this Friday at The Flat, but many of the pieces will be on view. These pieces are absolutely breathtaking. Each professional artist contributing had a different perspective and approach in collaborating with the Challenging Heights youth on their Inside Out Project photographs. Some of the artists painted or collaged directly on the photographs and some artists interpreted the photography shot by the youth creating original artwork inspired by the photographs. We even had an artist, Mark Wagner, who collaged his image made entirely from deconstructed US dollars. His artist statement about the project is really wonderful.

He said, “VALUE and WORTH are words that have been usurped by the world of finance. Making portraits from dollar bills is one way I try to reclaim these words. To take this paper thing of public value and with it represent something more personal. Here is a charming little boy who lives on the other side of the world. Though I’ve never met him, I’m certain he’s worth our consideration and compassion.”

WW: What is your plan for Project Ghana in 2018?

MW: Project Ghana 2018 will be an expansion of the work Beauty for Freedom started in 2017. This year we will start out by launching the children’s photography book Illuminate Ghana, a continuation of our book series we started last year in India. All of the photographs have been taken by Challenging Heights the youth from our workshops and Illuminate Ghana is a true community portrait of Winneba, Ghana, the small community where Challenging Heights and the Friends International Academy are based. This summer we hope to add fashion design courses (inviting community women to participate) and yoga and self-defense courses to go along with our painting, mural and photography workshop series.

Beauty for Freedom #ProjectGhana Documentary

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