I am co-owner of an online boutique store that empowers survivors of trafficking with employment.
I am a social entrepreneur.
I am an abolitionist.
I am…uncomfortable with these kinds of labels.
Because at the end of the day, I’m very ordinary, and these descriptors seem to imply that I’m not.
I live an ordinary life. I wake at the crack of dawn to drive my kids to school and then return home to work, trying to get most of my business done during the hours that my children are at school. Snow days and random holidays are the bane of my work life, and the words, “Sorry, hon, I’m working right now. Give me a minute?” come out of my mouth more than I’d like. I spend the lion’s share of my days on my laptop, troubleshooting, responding to emails, thinking about future lines of clothing, and making sure that the expenses won’t be more than that month’s income. Sometimes, in the midst of the daily humdrum of life, I forget that what I’m doing really does make a difference, half a world away, in the lives of survivors of trafficking.
This journey began on a sweltering day in November 2006 when two friends and I visited Cambodia. We were asked to remove our shoes before entering a blessedly cool office building on a quiet street in Phnom Penh. We had been given the name of the woman we were meeting by a friend back home, and we knew only a bare outline of what her work was—with survivors of sexual trafficking—and what I knew about human trafficking at that point was not much. Nevertheless, since I considered myself to be world-wise, I recall being shocked by her stories. And yet…there are some stories that should be shocking, no matter how much you’ve seen of the world.
I remember sitting in her small office, looking down at my dirty, sweaty, bare feet against the clean tiled floor while listening to tales of women and girls whose innocence had been sold. At one point, my friend looked at her and said, “We just don’t understand. The three of us are all mothers, and we don’t understand how a parent could sell their own child?” I will never forget this wise woman’s answer: “You have no idea what you would do if you were in their situation. You have lived a life of privilege, but if you had lived your entire life in the kind of grinding poverty in which three dollars means the difference between a life-saving medicine and a child’s death, but those three dollars are completely out of reach, do you know that you could say with absolute certainty what you would do?”
Over the course of time, that question has rattled my brain in many ways. But that day, it brought home one simple idea to me: that the problem of human trafficking is inextricably linked to extreme poverty. What if that mother had another choice? What if she had the opportunity to do living wage work? Was there a way we could empower her with opportunity?
Through many twists and turns, we eventually found our way to the business that we now run: Imagine Goods, Sustainable Supply Co. We sell clothing and home goods that are made by survivors of trafficking or by those who are vulnerable to being trafficked. And although most of my days are spent in the ordinary work of running an online business, there are days when I remember that our work is out-of-the-ordinary.
Like the day that I heard the story of five new workers in one of our production partners’ workshops. These women had been tricked into traveling to China with promises of work in garment factories. Instead, upon arrival, they were sold as brides to men they had never met. After finding each other and bravely seeking help, they found themselves on a plane home but with little certainty of what reception they would find from their families and no prospects for work. These two facts made them extraordinarily vulnerable to being trafficked again. But through a providential hand of Grace, they were connected with our production partners who were able to offer them a place to stay, medical support (three of them were pregnant), and work in the facility where our products are made. Once their children were born, the babies were cared for in the on-site nursery and, as with all the women employed in our partners’ production facility, the women continue to receive health care, free lunch, a living wage, and continued literacy education. These women are why I work so hard to make our business succeed—so that we can continue to empower more and more women with employment.
Whenever someone asks me about Imagine Goods, I try to make sure that they understand my work is quite ordinary and that I am not special. A person does not need exceptional talents or higher degrees to make a difference. In the words of Miep Gies, one of the women who helped to hide Anne Frank and her family, “But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”
Aiyana Ehrman believes in taking from her margins to create margins for others, and she imagines products that both look good and do good. Comfortable in New England, she lives there with her husband and two children. They like her a lot. (She’s also an introvert, so her husband wrote her bio.)