Breaking the Silence: Alejandra’s Changemaker Journey
Today, at the age of 24, Alejandra Acosta is breaking the silent systems against human trafficking and modern slavery in her country of Spain and across Europe. When she is not leading her social venture, she is building a movement for other young people to find their power and drive social change. However, her success did not come from a degree or position, but rather a journey of finding her power, building a team, and working toward solutions that protect the fundamental human rights of young people and women.
Coming from a family that has dedicated their lives to social work, Alejandra knew that she wanted to make meaningful and significant change in her life. Unsurprisingly, in college, Alejandra studied social work and was determined to obtain her degree to learn how she could discover the right career path for herself.
While in college, 18 at the time, Alejandra says she “started to go to conferences and read a lot, learning what I could do to help. Then I went to a conference on human trafficking and how human trafficking worked in her city. I couldn’t believe that there were slaves in I city or even in a place like Europe.”
Exposure to staggering statistics of modern slavery and human trafficking attached to personal stories of survivors left Alejandra distraught. “I could never be the same again once I heard their stories.” According to the European Commision, Spain is for the most part a destination for victims, mainly from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America as well as for transit to other destinations. This discovery of a prevailing, yet hushed, social issue across her country sparked Alejandra to share her concern with others.
“My journey was pretty organic – it was not as intentional as I would like it to be. But once I heard the stories, I realized anyone could be a human trafficking victim.” She aspired to challenge the lack of awareness that civil society has about human trafficking, sex trafficking, and slavery. For her, awareness about the problem was the first step for large-scale action.
Alejandra’s first step was to further educate herself on sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. She read many books and articles, then conducted interviews with victims and experts to holistically understand the people and stories behind the statistics.
After curating knowledge, Alejandra remembers that she “thought about her high school. I wanted to go there and see if they would let me talk to students about human trafficking.” Once she hosted her first workshop at her former high school, the school leadership referred her to another school to give a talk. Soon, she was piloting and organizing several workshops across her city for high school students focused on human trafficking awareness and prevention.
“I think I started to do things without knowing I had my power. When I realized that this power was real, and that I had a voice, I was encouraged to do more.” But, once on her changemaker journey, it took Alejandra a few months to embrace her power. After six months or so of hosting workshops, she received an invitation to visit Parliament and talk to the President about how social awareness is crucial for teenagers in Europe.
When she received the invitation, Alejandra questioned her preparedness. She thought, “hey, I am 18 years old, I don’t even have a formal nonprofit, how did I get invited to this?” Building up Alejandra’s confidence, the Secretary of the President responded with, “there is not an initiative like this anywhere in Europe.” Gleaming, this moment was when Alejandra validated her inner power.
However, she was still unsettled by the systemic issues which perpetuate human trafficking. In response, she began to identify and map every potential stakeholder to revolutionize the systems that fuel human trafficking. This research is how Alejandra began to practice systems change, which means tackling a root cause for a social problem by changing the way a social system operates.
Alejandra, optimistic and sincere, founded Proyecto BTS, or Project Break the Silence, to break the silence about sexual violence against women. She rallied together a team of other young, ambitious females to combat human and sex trafficking through social awareness, political advocacy, and collaboration with major players. Even as teenagers and young adults, the team began to collaborate with local politicians and policymakers to prioritize and review national laws combating modern slavery.
The team also identified a commonly ignored, but uncomfortable stakeholder in the issue: transportation companies. Alejandra and her peers discovered that many of these companies in Spain were completely flabbergasted as to how their industry perpetuates human trafficking, unaware of their own power to fight against the injustice. Through social awareness, the team hopes that shedding light on the problem will reveal more gaps needing to be filled.
Although much of Break the Silence’s mission and activities are innovative, the team’s workshops stand out. Refining Alejandra’s first few workshops, the changemakers host a robust series of engagements for children and young people about the reality of human trafficking and why it matters, ranging from gender violence, sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation.
I hope one day I have enough power to pass it on to someone who needs their voice to be heard.
However, unlike traditional workshops, they use an experiential learning approach by offering participants the tools and knowledge to fight against gender-based violence and human trafficking in their own neighborhoods and schools. As of Summer 2020, Alejandra and her team have reached over 80,000 teenagers with their workshops.
“Sometimes when we are young, we feel so inadequate. We tell ourselves ‘wait to start your project until you have these features done.’ But you must start with what you have and then you will start progressing,” Alejandra shares, pushing other young people to stop waiting or wondering and start changemaking. “If you never start because you never feel prepared enough, then you will never launch anything. I am 24, and if someone told me when I was 18 that I would work with the United Nations and collaborate with major companies to address modern slavery, I would have never believed them.”
Along with jumping into action, Alejandra’s advice to everyone is to listen to people directly affected by the social issue to understand and empathize deeply with the problem. “Don’t just try to fix it rashly, but meaningfully research and educate yourself,” she says.
And, reflecting on her own power, she says, “I hope one day I have enough power to pass it on to someone who needs their voice to be heard.” Alejandra, looking ahead to a better world, is fired up “to leave a legacy so future changemakers can work on their own initiatives in better conditions than I did.”
Check out two of the TEDx Talks (2014 & 2018) Alejandra led describing her changemaking journey and passion towards social justice even further. Stay updated on Alejandra’s journey on her website and Instagram page!
This story was written by Pierson Gammage. This story was edited for length and clarity.