Submitted by Jessica Hendricks Yee | Founder of The Brave Collection
Eight years ago I was a sophomore at NYU, majoring in, well, storytelling. I passed my days in drama classes, bopping around in leopard leggings and bright lipstick. I was challenged by Brechtian theory, and how to get the blue-eyed boy sitting next to me at the audition for the bubble gum commercial to look my way.
I loved the education I was getting, yet a big fat question lingered in my mind: In these sacred four years of study and contemplation that were supposed to be widening my eyes and preparing me for the rest of my life, was I truly seeing all there was to see? It felt rather that I was seeing a very small, very privileged version of this foray into adulthood.
I decided to travel East for the Summer – I’d base myself in Thailand as an English teacher and travel to dig deeper. Weeks into an incredibly beautiful, challenging and eye opening experience as an English teacher to local fishermen’s children in Thailand, I found myself on the short flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
On the open air taxi or “tuk tuk” ride from the airport to my hotel, my driver made desperate attempts to entice me to hire him for the length of my stay. “I will show you all the sites!” he promised, “The genocide museum! The killing fields! The shooting range!” I swallowed back my fear and sorrow at this strange and sad exclamation and smiled politely, promising to consider it.
We drove past barefoot toddlers on the street, too young to speak yet reaching out their hands to beg. We passed landmine victims with missing limbs, hobbling on makeshift crutches. And we passed girls – girls much younger than myself, lined up like dominos in front of restaurants and bars – fake smiles painted on their delicate faces, like porcelain dolls standing on the edge of a cliff. The visceral reaction of horror that I felt at the sight of people dressed up as items for sale marked my first glimpse into the world of human trafficking.
Infuriated and deeply saddened by the sight of those young girls, I returned home to New York and I read. I bought a book that would forever change the course of my life: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I learned that millions of people are being trafficked around the globe today. In Cambodia, girls as young as 4 years can be found in brothels. With more than two years of exceptional university level study under my belt, I instantly learned about something much more gripping and important than what was in my course load: Modern-day slavery is a global phenomenon, prying on our most vulnerable and turning bodies into property. Breathing the Cambodian air, connecting with the local people, and then understanding in a deep and personal way what some of the women I had met in this beautiful Buddhist country had been through, sparked an unstoppable passion somewhere beneath my rib cage that has yet to wane.
I committed to this fight and began to use every possible opportunity to educate my family and friends: subway rides, cocktail parties, lunch breaks! Yet I found that with a conversation topic so upsetting, most people got awkwardly fidgety, put on a rehearsed look of concern without letting the gravity of the topic actually move them, and then promptly changed the subject. I was bombarding them with heart-wrenching statistics and they were responding blankly with utterances like, “Wow.” We weren’t having a conversation.
I needed to find a way to take the information given to me by these writers and express it through a medium all my own, my story; one that was attractive and inviting enough to at the very least, open to the door to this difficult conversation.
Three years later, I returned to Southeast Asia on a solo journey. Inspired by the bravery of survivors in the East, and the people who brought those stories to the West, I worked with a team of talented, underprivileged Cambodian artisans to create The Brave Collection, a jewelry line handmade in Cambodia to employ local artisans and raise funds to empower girls against human trafficking. By wearing and gifting these colorful bracelets which say “brave” in Khmer (the Cambodian language), I am able to share a small piece of the strength of the Cambodian people with a western audience in an accessible, shareable and beautiful way. I finally found a way to introduce the dark issue of human trafficking to the people in my life in a way that was non-threatening enough for them to truly open up and listen. In addition, when someone wears a piece from our collection, it sparks an opportunity for them to bring this subject to light for others as well.
We are creating a movement, a global community committed to making this all too invisible cause, undeniably visible. People are inherently compassionate and philanthropic, we just get caught up in the chaos and excitement of our hectic lives and can forget to realize how massive and diverse this planet is. The potency of the survivors’ stories dared me to blaze past everything I knew and throw myself head first into the guts of this unbelievably important world issue. If I can inspire one person to do the same, and they can inspire one more – if we can get this conversation going, change can’t be too far behind.
This month, you can support both Free the Slaves and the amazing work of The Brave Collection! When you use the code “freetheslaves” on any Brave Collection purchase, the brand will donate 15 percent of the profits to FTS!
The Brave Collection is a line of jewelry handmade in Cambodia to support local artisans and fight human trafficking. Our Collection creates talismans of strength and spirit with the belief that true Bravery comes from a reverence for the past, connectedness with the present, and commitment to the future. Each piece is handcrafted in Cambodia in a Collection that fuses contemporary design with ancient inspiration to spark dialog. Our Signature Bracelet spells “Brave” in Khmer, the Cambodian alphabet.
Editor’s note: The Brave Collection is one of 12 ethical fashion brands that have teamed up with Free the Slaves in July for our 25 Days of Fashion Against Slavery summer campaign.