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Alamo's Slavery Fighter: Justin Dillon

He has dedicated his life to combating human trafficking and curing the world’s ills. He thinks you should do the same.


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Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Justin Dillon can’t forget the 10-year-old boy he saved from a slave labor factory in India.

Dillon was working undercover with a team of local police to identify a sweatshop that was kidnapping boys from Nepal to work on decorative textiles. Dillon posed as a textile buyer from the United States to gain access, used hidden cameras to gather evidence, then led a raid to shut down the operation and move the boys—some as young as eight years old—to safety.

“When you walk into a room that is filled with kids who have been forced to work for the last three years, all they know is someone forcing them to do something,” says Dillon, a mid-40s Alamo resident who has spent most of the past two decades fighting human trafficking. “So, when we came in, the boys just turned around and kept working.”
Dillon’s team took the boys to a safe house to interview them and prepare their return to their families in Nepal.

“We gave them food, and they were eating voraciously,” says Dillon. “I took one of the boys aside to play with him and treat him like a kid. With an interpreter, I started asking questions: ‘Would you like to go home?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ ‘Would you like to see your mommy and daddy?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ ‘Would you like to go to school?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ Finally, I asked, ‘What would you like to do when you grow up?’ ”

The boy spent a while discussing the question with the interpreter, then looked at Dillon and answered enthusiastically. The interpreter turned to Dillon and said, “He wants to do what you do when he grows up.”

Dillon had only known the boy for about 10 minutes. But the East Bay native’s passion for changing the world had already rubbed off on the child, a ripple effect heading in the right direction.

 

The Early Years

Justin Dillon was only 12 when he realized he was put on Earth for big purposes. Raised in an Evangelical Christian family in the East Bay, Dillon had a feeling that he had something to share with the world—or at least with a community bigger than his neighborhood church.

“I agreed with most of the tenets of the church,” says Dillon, sipping a coffee at Cherubini Coffee House in Alamo, a few blocks from the modest house he shares with his wife and young son. “But I felt like we were building a club. I wanted my club to be much bigger.”

The big club that Dillon soon discovered was rock ’n’ roll music. One concert that was particularly life changing was a U2 show at the Oakland Coliseum—an enormous spectacle, with singer Bono leading tens of thousands of fans through a set list of songs that were political, inspirational, and raucous. A teenage Dillon soaked it all in, thinking, “I want to do that when I grow up.”

“Immediately after I learned three chords [on the guitar], I had a band name, and we went to San Francisco to try and play nightclubs in between the strip clubs and the gay bars,” says Dillon, with a laugh. “Once I played my first show in a club on Broadway—which was two blocks from my office now—that was it for me: I was on my way.”

 

Chasing a New Direction

For most of the next two decades, Dillon chased his dream, and his passion for music was rewarded with a two-record deal at a division of Universal Records. His band, Tremolo, toured incessantly, put out a critically lauded LP called Love Is the Greatest Revenge, and had songs appear on various movie soundtracks and MTV shows.

As Dillon was in the studio working on his second album, he came across an article in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. “Kristof did a piece about two girls that he bought out of slavery in Cambodia and [then] followed their journey,” says Dillon, who adds that the article had a similarly eye-opening effect as the U2 concert 20 years before. “When he reported on human trafficking, it all started to light up for me. I felt that it was an injustice that was happening out in the open, and at the time, it did not seem like anyone was doing anything about it. It became my goal to learn as much as I could about what was going on, and to find out who was doing something, good or bad, about it.”

What he discovered was tragic. According to the United Nations, modern slavery has ensnared more than 27 million people, including millions of children. And that doesn’t even include the millions of men, women, and children working for literally pennies.

Dillon decided to make a documentary, Call + Response, which juxtaposed musical performances by Moby, Cold War Kids, Imogen Heap, and other artists with discussions about
human trafficking with authors Kristof and Cornel West; activists Ashley Judd, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Ormond; and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Call + Response was released in theaters to critical acclaim in 2008 and has since been screened all over the world. As pleased as Dillon is with the film, he’s even more delighted with the dialogue that the film provoked.

“What I wanted for the film was to make people feel the same way I did about the topic when I first learned about it,” says Dillon. “I did not want to expose people to this issue and give them no way to do anything about it. So, when the film came out, I created some online platforms to give people ways to donate, spread awareness, and use the film in all kinds of campaigning.

“One thing we did was give consumers a way to talk about their awareness of this issue, and talk to companies in a polite and respectful way to say, ‘Hey, I’m a consumer, and I love your product, but I now know that there is slavery involved [in the making of it]. What are your policies about this?’ ”

Such corporate engagement won the support of some influential backers to Dillon’s cause.

“The first e-mail I sent, as a test, was to Steve Jobs, and he wrote back within four hours,” says Dillon, adding that while mobile phone production creates numerous supply chains that exploit workers, “Apple has done exemplary work: If every electronics company had done what Apple has done, the world would be a much better place.”

Dillon’s dialogue platforms created enough buzz that they eventually caught the attention of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wrote an Op-Ed about how consumers can make an impact against human trafficking. Soon after the column ran, the State Department contacted Dillon and requested that he create a website called Slavery Footprint. Like Carbon Footprint, a website that lets users measure their impact on the environment, Slavery Footprint would let people find out how their purchases and activities encourage human trafficking, particularly in the supply chain of global consumer products.

“I said, ‘As long as I can create something that is not just a bummer calculator and is more about consumers getting involved, I’ll do it,’ ” says Dillon. With the help of a small grant from the U.S. State Department, he designed a website that broke down 400 products and their slavery footprint. (The lithium batteries in your phone? They’re responsible for an estimated one million child laborers who work in the mining industry.) When users visit the website, they are directed to take a short survey, starting with the question, “Do you want to know how many slaves work for you?”

“That one question went so far and created so much attention because it does not have the word if,” says Dillon.

Dillon and his team launched Slavery Footprint within the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2011. The team hoped to collect 150,000 completed surveys by the next year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

They got that number sooner than expected. A lot sooner.

“We had that many people within the first couple of days,” Dillon says. “The website took off, and it kept going. It was recognized because it did something unique. It got people to interface and discuss a problem that they would not think about.”

When the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation rolled around in 2012, President Obama lauded the website during his speech on slavery at the Clinton Global Initiative, calling on every citizen to take action—and to visit slaveryfootprint.org. To date, more than 30 million people have done just that.

 

Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Changing the World—One Company at a Time

As Dillon continued to work on other projects—he visited Haiti with rapper Common to examine child slavery for a CNN documentary, and exposed human rights abuses in the fishing communities of Lake Volta, Ghana—he also explored how capitalism might be a more effective tool to fight slavery than charity.

“What I and my team started to understand is that tracking what consumers buy is very important, but it is difficult to maintain their attention,” says Dillon. “The reality is that where big, big, big purchases are made is in business-to-business purchases. These are the billion-dollar purchases. We wondered, ‘How can we get in on that? How can we influence that world? And quite frankly, how can we help that world?’ ”

Dillon’s solution was to create a company, Made in a Free World, which produces software (appropriately called FRDM) that lets businesses run risk-analysis reports to measure the likelihood that forced and slave labor practices exist in their supply chains. Dillon says that numerous Fortune 100 businesses—including big-box retailers, global consulting firms, and electronics companies—use the software to do all they can to reduce the chance that any kind of slave labor is involved in making their products.

“The companies that work for us—we call them the leaders for the free world because they use their money to do everything they can to change the system,” says Dillon.

Meanwhile, Dillon has published his first book about his approach to altruism. Entitled A Selfish Plan to Change the World, Dillon refers to it as a “self-help-others” tome, and suggests the most effective way to cure the world’s ills is to ask people to push aside their benevolence and solve problems using practical—even selfish—methods. If doing good makes us feel better about ourselves and improves our own lives, he argues, then we should fully embrace the selfish desires behind our compassion.

“Changing the world in the 21st century isn’t about pure charity. There is no reason we can’t use our own selfish needs to solve the world’s problems,” says Dillon, as he watches a snarl of Lexus SUVs and Mercedes sedans navigate the coffee shop’s parking lot.

“Look right here at Alamo,” he says. “I would rather see this community ‘give in’ than give back. That idea has upset many nonprofit groups—the idea of emphasizing discretionary talents over discretionary income or resources.

“That’s what this book is [about]—how can we take your discretionary talents [and] resources, and deploy those into something that might change the world?” he says. “It’s not to just follow my way—I found my own way and have done things that frankly, I would have never imagined. I get to advise the United Nations and the White House and Fortune 100 companies about how they can use their discretionary talents, power, and resources to disrupt this problem.”

And as Dillon continues to lead the charge against slavery, he looks forward to a day when every man, woman, and child is truly free. slaveryfootprint.org.


 

3 Easy Steps to Start Changing the World

While slavery is what “hijacked [his] heart,” that doesn’t mean it’s the right cause for everybody, explains Justin Dillon. Diablo asked Dillon for three steps toward taking on a world-changing cause and making it yours.

1| Find Your Riot.
“I believe that all of us have [a cause] to riot—something inside of you that you see and you say, ‘That’s unjust.’ This sense of injustice—if it is not fed, it starts to calcify over our hearts. So, embrace what makes you cry, what makes you angry, what seems to be broken about the world. Then do something about it.”

2| Be willing to do something new, and don’t ask for permission.
“We see something broken in the world, and we look for someone to fix it for us. You might be the person who can fix it. [My] book is to deputize ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

3| Start to do things that scare you (just a little bit).
“It can be as simple as doing a Facebook campaign about something you care about or gathering people in your home to watch a film about something you care about. When you make yourself vulnerable, you will invite incredible generosity from others. You can create a wake of opportunities for others to find their own purpose.”


 

Slavery and You

Here are some items used in everyday products that rely heavily on slavery.

Palm Oil
This versatile oil is found in many food products—and the industry developing it utilizes a huge number of slave laborers in Indonesia and Malaysia. As America’s food system increases its reliance on the oil—about 50 percent of supermarket products will include it as an ingredient by 2020—the use of forced labor and child labor will increase.

Technology Minerals
While smartphones, cars, and computers improve our lives, the mining industry that produces the gold and cobalt to make lithium batteries creates a horror show for millions. According to a report by Amnesty International, children as young as seven were forced to carry “backbreaking loads and worked in intense heat for one or two dollars a day.”

Cotton
The United States has its own nightmarish history with the cotton industry. But even today, in Uzbekistan alone, an estimated one million workers are forced to pick cotton every year.

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