Everybody has a dream, something they’re passionate about. It might be living in a world free from slavery, it might be mending broken relationships within your family, it might be impacting others through word or song or dance. Everybody has an ‘impossible’ they hope for. Through his debut book, Impossible is a Dare, Ben Cooley, co-founder and CEO of anti-trafficking organisation, Hope for Justice, challenges us, through the organisation’s amazing story, to see the impossible for what it really is: nothing but a dare.
Here, Ben Cooley speaks to us about leadership, trends and why he thinks the millennial generation will be the ones to see an end to slavery for good.
Ben, you were 26 years old when you filled Birmingham NEC’s arena to gather people together to talk about modern-day slavery, an event which soon led to the founding of Hope for Justice. Could you imagine then, that less than a decade later you would be where you are today?
No, never. When I sit in my office and reminisce over the last 8 years, I never thought we would end up where we are. When I first heard about the issue of modern day slavery, I literally thought I would put on an awareness event and promote other organisations. Never did I think that I would end up being a leader of an organisation that has offices all over the world, rescues hundreds of people, trains thousands and works with governments and businesses to address the issue of modern day slavery. I sit here in absolute humility in the fact that people have aligned themselves with us as an organisation, that they believe the same thing as we believe; that we want to live in a world free from slavery.
You’ve certainly come a long way. Can you even identify with that 26 year old now?
I am just as passionate as I am now, just as eccentric and crazy and off the wall. But I think what I have learnt over the last few years though, is the art of communicating that vision and knowing how to address an audience. I think back then I probably naively thought I could change the world, but now I think we can change the world. I think I’ve learnt more and more that to really do this it’s can’t just be the Ben Cooley show, it’s not just about my beliefs but about our belief. It’s about gathering people. If I was to put the success of Hope for Justice down to one thing, it’s not about me and my passion, but it’s actually about gathering the right people to sit in the right chairs to do the right jobs.
You’ve also managed to gather a number of high profile individuals who share the same passion as Hope for Justice, with Theresa May, Stephen Fry and many more supporting the work you do. How does it feel to know these people are behind you?
I’m incredibly humbled by the support of Theresa May, but I am humbled by anyone’s support because it is through the support of many people we are able to do the stuff that we do. I was with a seven year old girl a couple of weeks ago who has got her freedom and restoration because of the support of individuals – I’m incredibly grateful to her and to anyone who wants to live in a world free form slavery.
We’ve got incredible supporters that have got platforms, whether that’s into the celebrity world, the political world or the business world. If we get all those worlds aligned, then we’ll go a long way to actually make the issue known and make things happen. I feel like we’re in unprecedented days since William Wilberforce. We are in this unique time in history where now the world is listening to the UK because we are at the forefront of fighting this incredible, devastating issue.
Natalie Grant – co-founder of Hope for Justice International – mentions in Impossible is a Dare that the awareness around human trafficking has grown so much that it’s almost quite ‘trendy’ to be an abolitionist. Do you think there is a danger that people will move on from supporting this ‘trend’?
I think there is always an issue with people moving on to the next thing when there is popularity within causes, but I think that it is up to us as an organisation to always be innovating our communications to ensure we capture hearts and minds for the cause. But I do think it’s up to society to not move on as well. We’re coming on leaps and bounds here in the UK in terms of identifying victims of modern day slavery but if we were to talk globally it’s a different story. In Vietnam there are children in goldmines that are literally dying as slaves, we need to do something about that. The Trafficking in Persons Report says there are 250,000 sex slaves in Brazil. I’ve been undercover into brothels in Brazil and seen girls of 13 and 15 years old and so I think it is up for me as a storyteller to communicate the need for people not to give up. What we don’t need in our generation is spasms of passion but long obedience in the same direction.
Impossible is a Dare is the story of Hope for Justice and the lives changed through the work of the organisation, but it also speaks a great deal to young leaders. What is it about raising up young leaders that is so important to you?
I think there is so much to be said about leadership. There is a man called John Maxwell who says that everything rises and falls on leadership and I firmly believe that. I believe that if we are going to see an end to modern day slavery, we need systematic change through strong leadership. For me the one thing that I have learnt about leading Hope for Justice is how important it is to have the right leaders and one of my life’s passions is to raise up leaders to give young people, the millennials, a chance at leading so that they can start achieving great things. I want people who have the best hearts to be the best leaders because put them in the place of leadership and they will do the right thing.
How far would you say your faith has sustained you through the challenges you have faced both personally and professionally?
My faith is very important to me. I love the fact that the God I worship cares about the poor and the weak and the marginalised. But He has also made me – and everybody else – to care for the poor the weak and the marginalised. I celebrate the fact that there is such a diverse group of people who supporting the cause. I love the fact that as a Christian I get to stand with other people of other faiths, political or cultural understandings and have one thing that unites us: we believe slavery is wrong. I’ll stand with anyone who say that they want to live in a world free from slavery.
I love that in the Bible God answers the question our generation is asking right now: how do we become known? We want people to know about church so we put up our billboards, we try to get on the telly, produce amazing films, get into the newspapers, tweet, Instagram. But then Jesus says, “Hey, no. They shall know you because of your fruit.” I think that’s the great challenge to our generation: what is our fruit? I want my life to say ‘Hey, I helped thousands of people out of slavery, that seven year old girl has her home back, she knows what it means to be truly loved. I hope that in my life I look back and can say: “We equipped society to fight slavery, we got justice back in a fractured, broken system, we empowered the police to protect the poor”. That’s the fruit I’m looking for.
But what if people think seeing such fruit in their own lives is ‘impossible’?
That’s part of the reason I wanted to write Impossible is a Dare. I only took up my ‘dare’ to begin Hope for Justice because someone believed in me. When I shared my vision of putting on a major event to talk about trafficking, I was fully anticipating someone to say: “Hey don’t do that, you can’t do that, it’s impossible”. But what the leaders in my life did to me was say: “Go and believe in the dream, you can do this and I will help you”. I suppose I have written a book to speak to a generation of people who might have their vision, their dreams, their aspirations but who might not have someone saying: “Go and do it, it’s possible”. Great things happen because normal people step out of the line and speak for something that really matters.
To find out more about how you can support Hope for Justice visit hopeforjustice.org. Impossible is a Dare by Ben Cooley is available to preorder on Amazon, Eden and in your local Christian bookshop today.