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Web Feature Posted November 23, 2015

A Conversation With Lisa Slavovsky of International
Justice Mission

What Does It Mean to Seek Justice?

Interview by Jeffrey Overstreet (

Lisa SlavovskyLisa Slavovsky (Photo courtesy of Lisa Slavovsky.)

On October 20, 2015, Seattle Pacific University welcomed Lisa Slavovsky, aftercare specialist for International Justice Mission, as the keynote speaker for the 14th annual Day of Common Learning. This annual, campus-wide event invited the SPU community and the public to listen, learn, and discuss timely questions about social justice — starting with Slavovsky’s address, “Who Is My Neighbor?”

Slavovsky discussed her work with International Justice Mission, an organization that protects the world’s poor from slavery and other forms of violence. Her information about human trafficking around the globe was sobering. But she also told compelling and inspiring stories about her journey from working in foster care to her six years of experience as a leader of Cambodian social workers, providing aftercare services for over 350 women and children removed from commercial sexual exploitation.

Today, Slavovsky assists IJM’s global teams in designing and implementing effective models of service for child trafficking survivors, helping survivors safely return to their communities, and equipping local social service experts to work for sustainable rehabilitation.

During her day at SPU, Slavovsky followed her morning keynote by answering questions at a faculty luncheon and interacting with SPU students in an afternoon talk-back session. Later, she took time to discuss her stories and insights with Response. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

Response: What sparked your interest in and passion for fighting injustice and serving those who have been harmed by it?

Slavovsky: It started in childhood. I grew up in a family of faith. My parents lived their lives viewing people as people, engaging everyone as equals, and that was really shaping for me as a child. When you then see something different than that — true injustice, where people are being treated differently — then it stands out. So issues of injustice always popped out for me.

Here’s one example: My father was one who could make friends with anyone. He built a friendship with a man who was homeless in our community, and he just became part of our family. He was over every Sunday. He sometimes came to church with us, sometimes didn’t, and was over for Sunday dinners all the time. I was probably about 9 or 10 at the time, so for me Joe was just a part of the family, just a friend who taught us magic tricks. When I was older, I was able to look backward and go, “That wasn’t normal. Not everyone opens their home in that sort of way and treats everyone so equally.” So when I went to university, there was this tug towards working in a helping profession, working with people who were marginalized and in need.

“I think it is possible for every country to have strong laws related to human trafficking, slavery, and exploitation.”

In my (Day of Common Learning) keynote, I spoke about starting off working in foster care and how that start to my career was so shaping: When people are in a place of safety, they are able to experience flourishing and healing, especially as that relates to trauma and abuse. I saw story after story, example after example, of children who experienced tremendous recovery and tremendous growth in a place of safety within foster homes. Some kids were able to return back to their families, some kids went on toward adoption. Seeing the transformation in their lives for this period of time that I got to walk alongside them really built this vision that safety allows for growth and transformation.

So how did you end up working with IJM?

It was an unexpected journey. I had heard of IJM while I was working in Atlanta, working in foster care. I heard Gary (Haugen, founder and president of IJM) speak at a church. This was the early 2000s, and it was still a time where there wasn’t this kind of integration of social justice and faith in the same way that there is now. When he spoke about our calling as believers towards matters of social justice, it was so exciting to me, as I also strongly believed that my calling was one that was birthed out of my faith. But I was happy in my career. When I was in graduate school, I happened to come across the fact that they had international fellowships for social workers, so I initially started with IJM in a fellowship role, going just to volunteer for a year in the Cambodia office. That quickly transformed into a job opportunity coming available.

Can you describe what an aftercare specialist does?

The role of our aftercare specialists, especially those based here, is really one of supporting and equipping our field teams to carry out the mission. We help provide training on a wide range of needs. We look at the needs of survivors of abuse and exploitation. So we look at economic empowerment, housing, health, protection needs, trauma recovery, and social support systems. Our programs are then designed holistically toward services being available to meet those needs.

Whether we are providing services directly, or whether we’re partnering with other organizations and referring to their services, our aftercare specialists do a combination of program design, supporting teams within their programs, building up resources, connecting with NGOs, build partnerships, and providing casework support for teams.

What’s the most rewarding part of this work for you?

For me, it’s seeing a networked approach to care for survivors. The needs and issues are so complex that a complex response is needed. I love seeing a network of organizations coming together in collaboration with one another, rather than being competitive; seeing them say “Let’s all join hands and do this together.”

At the end of 2013, we started a new office in the Dominican Republic. They did not even start casework until August. One of the key needs we identified within the Dominican Republic was the need for strong aftercare services. There is a government entity that addresses child protection issues, but they are fairly limited in their scope; and there a few NGOs that are addressing the issue of human trafficking, but for the most part there is just very limited service availability for survivors. Our team was able to pull together the few organizations that are working on these issues and say, “Here’s a model of what we have seen work in other contexts — this networked approach of some organizations providing economic initiatives, job training, counseling services, safe shelter. Where do you all see yourselves fitting within this picture? Is this where you also see the needs of survivors? Do you have another vision for what that looks like or does this align with your vision?”

The responses of this collaboration in the room — that stands out to me as an example of exciting synergy. They were saying, “This range of services is exactly what survivors need, and here is where I see my organization fitting in. Here is where we would like to grow and provide more services — we don’t have any shelters available for children within the country. We’d love to start something like that.” Or, “We don’t have counseling services that are trauma-informed. We’d love to tap into that.”

As headlines and debates and speeches heat up this election year, what kinds of things related to social justice do you listen for as candidates present their visions and promises?

That is a tricky question. For myself, I listen for how candidates talk about our global responsibility to one another — whether that’s about the needs here in the U.S. and within our own community, or whether that’s about how we in the U.S. are part of a global community.

2014’s Day of Common Learning Speaker — Andy Crouch, editor of Christianity Today — talked about America’s need to understand and appreciate the value of cultural lamentation. I heard you saying the same thing in your keynote address. What would it look like for Christians to regain a proper appreciation for and demonstration of lament? How can we lead in lament and cultivate compassion culturally?

The church needs to lead in that, and take moments to pause — in a situation like the Charleston shooting, for example. Pausing not to just engage in political debate around these issues, but pausing, recognizing injustice, and being willing to “mourn with those who mourn” before we jump straight to solutions or debate.

Are there conceivable goals for social justice that you would like to see fulfilled in your lifetime?

I think it is possible for every country to have strong laws related to human trafficking, slavery, and exploitation. Most countries already do, but I also think that it’s possible to have a strongly equipped justice system. As countries take their own national initiatives to (strengthen those), and as we hold one another accountable as a global community, creating structures by which pressure is brought to bear, then public justice systems can strengthen.

It’s just been amazing to see that happening in country after country that we work within. I really believe it’s something that’s possible within my lifetime — (Laughter) — and I’ve got at least another 50 years in me.