By Melissa Jane Kronfeld & Megan Legband
At just a tender 25 years old, Nathaniel Erb is already an accomplished leader in the abolition movement. After spending his college career pursuing a biology degree, he switched majors to focus on Law and Society. But it was was during a summer in Nepal, volunteering at the Early Childhood Development Center that Nathaniel was introduced to the issue of slavery.
When he returned to school that Fall, Nathaniel ran an international law clinic for the UNESCO Center for Peace, and was named as Vice President of Operations for UNESCO’s organizing body, USFUCA, in 2013. After graduating college in 2014, Nathaniel cofounded the Long Walk To Freedom, now known as Worthwhile: GO. He and his co-founders biked across America and met with organizations across the country in order to educate them about human trafficking and learn more about the unique characteristics that different communities struggled with in different regions of the U.S.
Following his cross-country trip, Nathaniel volunteered at The Samaritan Women in Maryland, a long-term service provider for victims of domestic abuse. Though he planned on spending a few months engaged in pro bono work with the organization before taking a job in Shanghai, Nathaniel discovered the many complex challenges victims of abuse confront when going to college. Instead of moving to China, Nathaniel decided to write the first college access law for domestic survivors of trafficking.
His experience in lobbying the bill inspired him to found Erb & Associates Policy Firm, where today he works on multiple social justice issues, including human trafficking. Additionally, Nathaniel partners with Freedom Collaborative, the world’s first major global online community uniting the growing number of organizations and activists within the anti-trafficking movement!
Check out what happened when we caught up with Nathaniel to talk about the fight to #EndSlaveryNow!
What is one fact that every person should know about slavery?
That survivors were people before they were affected by this issue. If we only look at how to affect this issue from the time an individual comes in contact with a trafficker or related entity, we are not only missing a huge piece of the puzzle but an enormous opportunity.
One of our largest triumphs could come from us looking at what came before, asking what led them to that place of vulnerability in the first place. Not only is that necessary for us to write good laws and design effective programs, but it is this amazing opportunity for us to create tremendous strides. If you ask me, criminal justice advocates, LGBTQ rights advocates, poverty elimination advocates, etc. were doing “anti-trafficking” work before there was a name. We have to continually ask ourselves why people are vulnerable in the first place. No “ending the demand” conversation is remotely complete without looking at why these people were vulnerable.
With all the attention being through paid lip service and action by folks across the ideological landscape, we have an opportunity to take the folks with power back with us to look at what was going on in someone’s life two days, two weeks, or two years before they became a survivor and say “hey, if we really care about these people and this issue, then our attention and time has to be here as well.”
How did you first learn about modern slavery & what did you decide to do about it?
The issue of trafficking first hit me when I was working in Nepal. The issue, like many others, wasn’t hidden in the shadows. Being faced with the needs there and all that I was lucky enough to not have dealt with in my life, I was forced to change my mind on what I needed to be in the world. Prior to coming there, I had this vision of myself as a social justice crusader fighting as a lawyer in the ICC, ICJ, or other areas with the idea that if you kept the certain “bad people” away from everyone else the world would be fixed. However, living there made me realize that life was much more nuanced. I realized that even with all the necessary good that could be done going after the heinous people of the world, we still needed to address the issues caused simply by how we structure our society and how our society interacts with others.
That is what ultimately drew me into the international work I did next. It was a couple years later that I would be struck again by the issue. I was looking for something that I would want to give my all to. I had a friend and life coach tell me to look for things that either pissed me off or made me cry. One day, I was lent a documentary, the name of which escapes me, but it covered human trafficking and I was struck by it forcefully. I remember researching all I could, watching the TED Talks of Kevin Bales and Lisa Kristine, and knowing that the issue had hit me like nothing before. Since then, I’ve never really resolved to do anything, I didn’t think it was my place to dictate what people needed. Rather, I resolved to simply be available for what was needed.
What is the most critical obstacle preventing us from having a slave free world?
Simply, will. I don’t think there’s anything more basic than that. There’s no force of nature causing us to take advantage of one another, to put our interests above others’, even at the cost of theirs. We made this, we sustain and benefit from it. The lack of an overriding will to change things is the only thing stopping us collectively.
There’s a difference between it being a valuable thing and it being equally or more valuable than the other priorities in our lives. Many, if not most of us value, even highly value, the idea of a slave free world. But, the value of having a “slave free world” isn’t tangibly more valuable to us than a lot of other important things. That right there is the thing we advocates don’t get correct enough. We’re pretty good at going after the heart strings but just saying “do this for the sake of it being the right thing” is never going to make the world a better place. Back on that first law [the first college access law for human trafficking survivors], we worked with researchers to show that providing this basically free path to college for survivors wasn’t just an altruistic move. We showed that it was going to be a fiscal benefit for the state by way of many different measures. If folks weren’t going to budge for the sake of it being a right thing, we made sure the argument was going to align the action with their interest.
That’s the way have to pursue this issue. I fundamentally believe that there’s no such thing as a benefit to me and a loss to someone else; I think we can connect every exploitive move of our societies to tangible negatives that outweigh the positives for everyone. That’s hard work, work that I haven’t always done, but it’s work I’ll try to continue.
What is the most important lesson you have learned while fighting for freedom?
There are two that coincide. The first is there no reason to think you can’t change or have an impact on the world. All you need to do is A) show up and B) Ask “what do you need?”
After I first entered the policy realm I realized there were a lot of amazing people with real knowledge about what change was needed. Rather than spending decades trying to become an expert on some areas, I resolved to work on behalf of the experts already there, especially those who were dealing with things first hand. I decided to just continue to ask what they needed and work to create space for their voices to shine through. I think that remains central to my practice and it’s why I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work on so many amazing initiatives.
The second is the importance of creating space for many different voices; and that most importantly applies to within own minds. These issues are too large and each of our perspectives are too small for any of us to have a clue what needs to change and how it needs to be done by ourselves.
Why do you believe the Millennial generation will be the one that can end slavery?
I look at this generation as the one that can because every generation could have. It’s just a question of whether we do.
What does a slave free world look like to you?
A slave free world will only exist when the highest value in our lives is that our actions have a net positive effect on every person touched. Right now, at least from an American standpoint, that’s not where we are. Whether it’s our kids’ health, our deadlines, our stress, or the clothes on our back, many important things come between us and taking the time to make sure our actions don’t leave others worse off.
To me, a slave free world is one in which I see the other people around me as directly tied to what seem to be my own interests and values. It’s one in which I consciously know that the wellbeing of everyone sets the limit for my own and thus I would never let myself take an action that could harm someone or let myself not intervene between someone and harm. I truly believe that that is the way things are but there’s no regular concrete proof holding me to each action. Because it remains a belief, it’s not something I fundamentally know to be true so I still let myself off the hook and make short sighted decisions. We have to continue to fight to find and give ourselves that knowledge in order to make a slave free world.
We don’t have a choice over whether we will impact the world. The only true choice is what type of impact that will be.
What is one thing every reader can start doing right now to help end slavery?
Know who you’re voting for when it comes to state, judicial, and congressional elections; further, show up to meetings and hearings. These are the people that can stand in the way of holding businesses accountable for their actions, providing services to bring people out of vulnerability, and keeping innocent people out of jail. And if you’re an NGO or community leader, join the Freedom Collaborative.
Profiles In Abolition is an in-depth look at the influencers, innovators & thought leaders in the modern anti-slavery movement. An accompaniment to Millennial Magazine’s ongoing 10-part series exposing modern slavery – a project of the Nexus Global Youth Summit (catch up with Part One, Part Two, Part Three & & Part Four) – Profiles In Abolition will examine a diverse & inspiring array of advocates whose critical voice must be heard.
Want to learn more from the world’s leading luminaries in the fight to #EndSlaveryNow? Sign up for the Nexus Anti-Slavery Speaker Series, a weekly conference call with the men and women on the front lines of the modern abolition movement! This call is open to the public and everyone is welcome to listen in! Click here to register for free. Then learn more about modern slavery by following Nexus on Twitter, Instagram & Millennial Magazine!