On Friday, February 21, the first ever benefit show hosted by Fashion For Freedom, a group that focuses on raising awareness for victims of sex trafficking, was held at Simmons College in Boston. Ayana Auborg, 19, and Adebukola Ajao, 19, are both students of the Colleges of the Fenway, a network of six neighboring Boston-based colleges in the Fenway area. While juggling their academic pursuits, together they planned the event which combined a fashion show featuring high-profile local designers with spoken word poems and music to aid Amirah Boston, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to the care of exploited women. By the end of the night they had raised over $500. I sat down with both Auborg and Ajao to talk about the Fashion For Freedom event and what inspired them to get involved.
What inspired the idea for Fashion For Freedom?
Ayana: Last spring, I read a book called Half the Sky. The book carefully shares true stories that highlight gender oppression, in its many forms, around the globe. The book not only addresses the oppression of women and girls but also the resistance and action of steps already taken to create more opportunities. I was inspired by their stories of transformation, which is often overlooked when raising awareness. That is the ultimate message that I hope people take away from this show. That a victim can become a survivor and a survivor can become a leader. Yet, we must work together to support this transformation.
Tell me more about the organization.
Ayana: Fashion For Freedom began as a project to raise awareness about sex trafficking and forced prostitution in Boston. We are not an organization, but a collection of student groups and individuals who are concerned about this violation of human rights and dignity.
Why are you passionate about this cause?
Ayana: Sexual exploitation of girls and women in this country looks the same as it does around the globe, but people never really think of it that way. Sex trafficking is a domestic problem that is hurting the lives of many young people in this very city. What makes matters worse is that the sex trade affects mainly marginalized groups like indigenous people, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. and low-income youth. We are passionate about this issue because we are young women of color and have a connection with our brothers and sisters in bondage.
Walk me through the events of the night.
Ayana: Fashion For Freedom will be divided into three phases where students will model “a walking transformation” through the use of clothes created by local designers. The clothes were designed to artistically illustrate the transformation from a victim of sexual exploitation to an empowered survivor. There will be three spoken word artists, who will introduce each phase to contribute to the narrative of the show. After the show, representatives from Amirah will lead a question and answer session about human trafficking and how they are confronting this problem in Massachusetts. The event will end with a small social, in which guests can interact with other community organizations that are working closely with this issue.
What was the process of planning this event like?
Ayana: Trial and error is immediately what comes to mind when I reflect on the process of planning this event. Nonetheless, our vision for the event has transformed into something greater than we had ever expected.
Adebukola: I agree. We definitely worked to the very last minute to make this show a success. The process was a beautiful struggle. We oftentimes had to do things by ourselves but it made us stronger and it allowed us to appreciate each other.
Where did the idea come from to speak to sex trafficking through fashion?
Ayana: We are well aware of how much the fashion industry exploits and degrades women and we wanted to use fashion, which is a form of art, to empower and reclaim identity. Often, the identity of those who are sexually exploited is stripped away from them. Our aim is to tell a story of transformation, which emphasizes survivor empowerment and the reclaiming of oneself. We hope this event will be a form of creative advocacy that will spark meaningful dialogue about what’s happening in our cities.
What are your highest hopes for the event?
Ayana: We want to make this a powerful night in the Colleges of the Fenway, for our peers as well as for young people living in the communities of Boston and Cambridge. Our highest hopes for this event is to bring different communities of people together to encourage action with the support of Amirah Boston. We hope that people will walk away thinking about how they can address this human rights issue in the work that they are already doing.
Would you ever consider making this an annual event if it goes well?
Ayana: Yes and no. I say yes because I would love to continue to raise awareness about sex trafficking and other systemic issues, which are related. However, I also don’t want to consume my time in event planning. I truly underestimated how long and challenging this process would be. I think it’s important that we do not get wrapped up in organizing events for people to just attend and then resume their normal lives. Instead, I hope to spend more of my time organizing with people who want to see the same changes as myself.
Adebukola: I would definitely strive to continue Fashion for Freedom as a movement, not necessarily a show. I would make smaller events that would address not only sex trafficking issues but issues dealing with marginalized people. It’s time to mobilize. Youth of today don’t want to sit at panels or lectures where people rant on about an issue. Youth need to be highly convinced nowadays before they join a movement and making this show is one of the strategies. Fashion for Freedom is entertaining but it’s going to hit them where it hurts, meaning people are going to leave heavy-hearted because these crimes against humanity have gone unpunished time and time again.