A Tale of Two Poverties
How one Cal State East Bay alumnus is abolishing slavery
The year was 2003. Headlines about violence in Darfur sprang off the pages of newspapers, during morning broadcasts and on car radios.
“First genocide of the 21st century.”
“Darfur genocide has caused the death of 400,000.”
“Genocide displaces more than 3 million people.”
Thousands of miles away in Oakland, a young musician and Cal State East Bay alumnus found himself captivated by the words of journalists and documentarians covering the crisis.
And within a few years, Justin Dillon, now CEO of FRDM — a software platform that helps companies measure risks of slavery in their supply chain — was a full-time modern-day abolitionist.
An Early Nomad
As a child, Dillon’s family lived all over the East Bay. He attended four different schools by fourth grade and called Fremont, Oakland, Berkeley and Danville all home. But he argues that frequent moving helped shape him into someone who consistently looks beyond his own neighborhood.
“[Moving] gave me an interest in being out in the world,” Dillon said decades later from his co-working office space in the heart of downtown Oakland. “What I love about the East Bay is that it offers a vantage point to a capital city. You have the ability to be near such an influential city and are able to interact with it while also having the freedom to create, to have a family … to me that’s been an incredible balance.”
Dillon’s nomadic heart has served him well allowing him to travel the world as a musician, then as a documentarian and the head of FRDM.
“Life has offered me unique opportunities which I’ve said ‘yes’ to without really knowing where they would go,” Dillon said. “I tend to pursue ideas that both interest me and are hopefully meaningful to society.”
For a long time that was music.
After completing his degree in psychology from Cal State East Bay, Dillon began pursuing his passion for music, eventually signing record deals with companies like Universal Records, touring the world and appearing in soundtracks for full-length movies and various television shows.
But all the while, the headlines about Darfur and human trafficking continued.
After several benefit concerts raising funds for various human rights organizations working to end the slavery and other human rights grievances, Dillon decided to make a documentary blending music from artists such as Imogen Heap and Moby with footage of human trafficking.
The resulting film “Call+Response” juxtaposes performances from artists with interviews from journalists and activists including Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“When I started making a movie, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just trying to make something that could move the needle on the issue,” Dillon said. After draining his savings account (which Dillon still attests may have been a “dumb thing to do”) and finding friends from the industry to work for free, he rented a studio and invited artists to come and perform for the film.
“It was a big life lesson for me,” he said. “When you put yourself in a vulnerable position to make a difference, it creates a sort of invitation for others to join you with skills they are already good at and resources you don’t have. People want to make a difference with who they are, not just what they can give.”
As he continued working on the film, it opened Dillon’s eyes to how widespread, yet unseen modern day slavery is in everyday life. According to the International Labour Organization, there are 40 million slaves worldwide in industries ranging from electronics to the cotton used to produce clothing.
“We are enjoying products produced with slavery every day,” he said. “We owe those forced to produce our lifestyles a debt of attention and a commitment to buy better. Getting to live where I do, getting to live as I do … I am benefiting off other people’s grief.”
"Call+Response" premiered in November 2008, the week the U.S. market crashed. Giving was the furthest thing on people's minds.
But something shifted. A conversation started.
“[The film] touched on two types of poverty - what I call the poverty of means and the poverty of meaning,” Dillon said. “The poverty of means is a lack of access (such as lack of clean water or basic human rights), the poverty of meaning is a lack of purpose and meaning. This poverty affects us all and pulls us into social media apps to look at other people’s lives. We’re looking for someone to tell us we matter.”
Dillon argues the film worked because it addressed both poverties at the same time. Viewers heard from celebrities or people they could relate to, but also the harsh reality of children working and living in brothels.
“You were drawn to something that matters and given something that matters to you,” he said. “I believe change now and change going forward must address both poverties unapologetically.”
Ultimately, within the first few weeks, the film raised $250,000 for projects around the world. But more than that, Dillon said it encouraged people to leverage their wallets, to talk directly to the companies they buy from.
Made in a Free World
Within the first year, “Call+Response” gained national and international attention and the Clinton Global Initiative reached out to Dillon about creating a platform called SlaveryFootprint.org. The website, which has now seen more than 30 million footprints, asks a simple but poignant question — “how many slaves work for you?” Visitors can select various household/everyday products and see how many slaves may be attached to the production of those items.
“Slavery Footprint became a massive story all around the world,” Dillon said. “Our office was full of bright-eyed millennials just cranking out the message; people were using our mobile app to spread awareness and sending emails to companies to let them know as well. It just went everywhere.”
President Obama spoke about Slavery Footprint on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation which ultimately made way for Dillon’s next endeavor — a charitable organization called Made in a Free World. The mission was to create awareness around slavery in supply chains.
Companies were coming to MIAFW looking for solutions. So he founded a software company called FRDM which allows businesses to analyze the likelihood of forced and child labor practices in their supply chains. Companies large and small including big-box retailers and well-known electronics companies alike use the software to reduce the chances of slave labor being involved in everything from copy machines to employee polo shirts.
“Consumers increasingly expect the companies they buy from to offer them products that have value and values like no forced labor … FRDM connects buyers and sellers with the same values,” Dillon said.
Dillon says the 50,000 or so businesses on FRDM are indicative of a more significant trend of companies looking to be proactive about making sure their practices are sustainable and humane.
“It’s not enough to simply have a policy statement anymore and cause marketing is not getting the return it was eight years ago; now you have to walk your talk,” he said.
In this way, Dillon says, companies (and consumers) are taking an active role in abolishing slavery and building the world they want. And yes, FRDM has had its critics. People sometimes argue it’s bad for business, but Dillon said he and his team try to take the criticism in stride and use it as motivation.
“We want to make these purchase decisions easy and non-emotional,” he said. “With FRDM we’re leveraging an activity you do every day (buying) and helping you do it better, and in doing so make the world a better place. On the outside, buying better doesn’t look like traditional human rights or international policy work. It’s marketplace work, which when done right, can scale on its own without the need of additional donation dollars or laws … and I love that.”