It may seem unimaginable in the modern world, but human trafficking is big business in today’s economy. According to the Global Slavery Index, 40 million people and counting are a part of this global issue. Whether it’s an exploitive labor situation, organ trafficking or traveling alone for a suspicious job opportunity, this issue is very real.
Freedom Project 58 aims to shed some light on this dark topic through education, awareness and art with an educational talk and reception at the Colorado Mountain College’s Edwards campus on Wednesday. “Faces of Freedom: Voices Calling for an End to Modern Day Slavery” will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Freedom Project 58, started by long-time Summit County residents Bob and Libby Swenson, works to guide and strengthen anti-trafficking organizations in the pursuit of justice. They work with non-governmental organizations like Love Justice International, which trains and places people who act as monitors at strategic transit points to discover and stop trafficking as it is occurring.
“Bob and I had been looking for a nonprofit for decades that had the heart, mission and message that could be life-changing for not only the poor and oppressed but for the people who loved world impact,” Libby Swenson said.
She soon found a small organization that dreamed of taking on some of the greatest injustices in the world. Love Justice International was fixated on the problem of trafficking humans, which had become the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world.
“We literally said, ‘game on’ as Love Justice International had the most unique strategy to intercept those unknowingly being trafficked, disrupt the trafficking network, help prosecute oppressors and were already expanding their model into 20-plus countries such as Nepal, India, Ghana and even the U.S. with pilot programs in many countries such as Mexico, Ecuador and Ukraine,” Libby said.
But how does art help tell the story and evoke a change? Libby and Bob often frequented the arts festivals in Breckenridge and Beaver Creek. One summer while at an art event in Beaver Creek, they were thinking about how to bring awareness to the horrific experience and hopelessness of sexual trafficking in a faraway place like Nepal or India to a beautiful place like the Vail Valley. They envisioned an art exhibit which would allow these survivors to tell the world their story by challenging portrait artists, who generally are commissioned to paint portraits of the noble, to give dignity, beauty and honor to the most violently oppressed.
“As we walked through the art show, one of the long-time participating artists, Judith Dickinson, turned to Bob and said, ‘what is your idea?’ and after hearing just a bit of the vision, she said, ‘I will do the first painting!’” Libby said.
“We took Judee’s painting and put the idea out to artists and to make a long story short, over 200 artists from the United States, Canada, Mexico and as far away as Ireland said they would donate a painting. Judee’s painting grew to 230 paintings and became known as the ‘Faces of Freedom-Voices Calling for the End of Modern-Day Slavery’ exhibit,” Libby said.
The ‘Faces of Freedom’ art exhibit aims to tell the stories of how non-governmental organizations like Love Justice International intercept people being trafficked. Some artists will take a story of young girls working in a gentleman’s club in high heels and focus more on the shoes than the person.
Faces of Freedom/Courtesy photo
The Swenson’s knew it would be hard to portray the story of someone who had been trafficked without exposing them or exploiting them. The artwork displays more of a vision of hope, because the people who are represented in the art have been rescued or were intercepted before they got to the point of exploitation. Artists may also do something more abstract. For example, the artists may take a story of young girls working in a gentleman’s club and focus more on the shoes and than on the actual faces of the victims who were forced to work there.
Long-time artists who exhibit in Vail or live in the Vail Valley such as Don Sahli, Mark Lemmon, Alyssa Rodriquez and Jami Nix Rahn have now expanded the exhibit to include contemporary, abstract, landscape, streetscape paintings as large as 7-by-8 feet. Libby says it has changed the artists as well.
“Artist Phil Ramsey from Virginia told me that he had no idea that, other than selling commissioned paintings, his art could be transformative and bring about healing not only for the vulnerable, but also for himself,” Libby said. “Don Sahli said that even after 40 years of painting, his career was inspired by ‘Faces of Freedom’ and gave his work new meaning in a worldwide social way and it put an image to modern-day slavery and its effects on all of us.”
Local artists Jami Nix Rahn, who will be speaking at the event on Wednesday, told Libby that after traveling the world and establishing a studio in Avon, it’s highly emotional work creating a painting on such a dark subject. “Jami wants to do it justice. She wants people to feel the same rage and injustice that she does every time she sees these paintings,” Libby said.
The exhibit was recently on display at the CMC campus in Breckenridge and moved to the CMC Edwards campus in May. Through the couple’s connections, it has gained more eyeballs that are learning about this dark topic. Bob Swenson was a linebacker and part of the famed Orange Crush defense for the Denver Broncos from 1975 to 1983. He has been able to share the issue with the NFL Foundation, which matched some of the former players’ donations to not only help intercept victims in Ghana but to also bring the “Faces of Freedom” to CMC Breckinridge and Edwards.
“I realized that there are other foundations and corporations that might bring the awareness and engagement to a new level and I was surprised how much impact we could have in places so far away,” Bob said.
“We all get asked to do a lot of things hoping to find the Google or Apple ‘all time’ investment, but this investment is an investment in our own healing and, frankly speaking, it is a privilege to be involved,” Bob said.
Libby is now a regional director of donor engagement for Love Justice International.
No paintings are for sale, as the exhibit is designed to travel to other high-traffic venues like corporations and foundations that realize the impact “Faces of Freedom” could have.
Freedom 58 Project, the nonprofit organization that started the ‘Faces of Freedom’ exhibit, tasks artists with bringing dignity, beauty and honor to the most violently oppressed.
Faces of Freedom/Courtesy photo
“We are still expanding the exhibit with the help of Love Justice International who will supply us with photos of consenting survivors and their powerful stories or Love Justice might supply us with photos of their strategic traffic monitoring stations so that we provide an artist with a subject, idea or even a location that can tell the story that evokes a cathartic response from the audience,” Libby said.
Colorado Mountain College is excited to have this exhibit and welcome the Swensons to the Edwards campus on Wednesday.
“In addition to community members and students who I’ve seen walk the halls and read the stories, Libby took the CMC Foundation board on a tour and they were all blown away by the fact that so much human trafficking happens and by the work that Love Justice is doing to stop it in its tracks,” said Diana Scherr, regional development officer for CMC.
CMC is hosting the event for the public but the teachers and students will use this as a learning experience as well.
“We will have a number of students joining us Wednesday night. Students from Sustainability class will discuss it as a social justice issue, the English Comp class will use it to broaden their horizons and have robust conversation afterward and the Psychology class will be discussing the impact practices like this have on lives of the most vulnerable,” Scherr said.
If you can’t make it to the educational talk and tour on Wednesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. the exhibit will be up until September 30. Campus hours are Mon. through Thurs., 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Fridays from 8 a.m. 6 p.m. For more information go to Freedom58Project.com and LoveJustice.ngo.