“The fact is, every single item in this room is a product of exploitation.”
It’s a tough fact to digest, but one I don’t doubt at all. If there’s one dimension of globalization that’s been hammered down to me over the past four years, it’s been the role of economic exploitation of the vulnerable in the world’s current economy. Sadly, it’s lodged itself into the way the world works, and it won’t be removed easily.
“Even the materials of the room- the bricks, the paint, the walls have exploitation in their origin.”
It was a place that’s become home this month. The LiNK office. One of the perks of working for an L.A.-based non-profit is that you can often come in contact with all kinds of other non-profits. There was the REBBL tea launch last month. This time around, I was listening to a talk by Bonnie Kim, the founder and CEO of Freedom and Fashion- an organization empowering those on the front lines of reversing this global crisis.
Asked how she puts together her wardrobe in a way that avoids these ethic-traps, she responds by stating the inevitability of falling into this cycle of economic advantages and disadvantages. In a way, just as those on the production end are trapped by slavery, consumers are a different kind of trapped.
“I mostly shop at thrift stores,” she offers, as the lone bit of practical measures.
Instead, she launches into how this reality reveals a lot about human brokenness. The slave-owner, the consumer, and the slave are different kinds of broken. But they’re all broken just the same. Freedom, isn’t just the obvious freedom of slaves, but it’s multi-dimensional.
Bonnie speaks openly of her faith. When asked about nearly every decision that has gone into Freedom and Fashion, she discusses that it was ultimately through prayer that each step was dictated. She believes. She understands what it means to believe. She doesn’t hinder her faith from fueling her work and Freedom and Fashion has thrived so far, as she moves it forward, driven by her own convictions.
Nobody at Freedom and Fashion has earned a dollar yet for their work. It’s been a labour of love, and Bonnie aims to keep it that way. While the plan is to eventually make it a sustainable occupation, which includes pain, her prayers were answered with a test to her and her staff of what they’re able to do in spite of adversity.
So far, Freedom and Fashion has launched a number of successful fashion shows that have empowered many other non-profits worldwide, including LiNK.
Five years ago, Bonnie volunteered in Thailand for Nightlight, an organization that fights the exploitation of sex trafficking in Bangkok. Moved by what she saw there, and other organizations she encountered, she founded Freedom and Fashion as a way to showcase these different groups in fashion shows, bringing the fight of social justice to an audience who might otherwise not be as tuned in to the matter. She also sought to use these shows as a platform to promote ethically produced merchandise as a desirable alternative to the current system of the world.
Many years and many shows later, the mission has made an impact.
“All glory to Him,” explains Bonnie.
Bonnie is open about her faith, in a way that is very inviting. More so, she makes it clear that it is the engine of the work that she is doing, and therefore it is in the interest of total transparency that she makes note of its role in her mission. “I see the way Jesus dealt with people who were at the lowest positions in terms of status,” she explains. “And he gets it. The only group that he ever really seemed to voice displeasure with were the high and mighty religious crowds. He spent his time with people in serious physical need, and he met those needs. Even if I weren’t a Christian, I’d still think Jesus was on to something.”
Bonnie describes the moment she had to decide whether Freedom and Fashion would be a religious or a non-religious non-profit, while applying for 501c3 status. While “non-religious” seemed more straightforward and obvious, her prayers pulled her otherwise. Many non-Christians and people of other belief are also crucial to Freedom and Fashion’s role, and it’s mission does not directly entail proselytization, but it still proceeds with the “Christian charity” label.
It’s a topic I’ve had a lot of interest in for a long time. I personally believe believers have a mandated role to play in the front lines of social justice, and I also think churches largely fall short by a shameful extent. I think meeting people’s spiritual and physical needs are inseparable when one is, like Jesus, motivated by Love. And that’s the only way I believe in doing either.
At the same time, I don’t want to work in an exclusive Christian bubble. One think I Love about LiNK is that it’s enabled me to bond and befriend people of a variety of different beliefs and backgrounds.
Bonnie’s had to negotiate the often challenging waters between the two worlds. When I ask what great challenges and what big open doors have resulted from that decision, she mentions that it was the expected responses by secularist sponsors who refuse to support a group with Christian values or by Christian sponsors who will only support a Christian organization. With LiNK, I’ve encountered similar, but flipped, responses.
I don’t know the first thing about the fashion world. I wouldn’t put it past me to rip a pair of jeans on a catwalk. But I see a lot of overlapping areas of interest and motivation between the two of us. It was definitely a privilege to have heard her story.
At the Justice Conference in February, Rachel Lloyd once noted, “if the exploiters, the traffickers, the forces of injustice can be so heavily networked… why aren’t we?” Freedom and Fashion is furthering that idea, connecting all kinds of groups with a similar vision. I’m thankful to have gotten into that network.