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CEO reflects on co-founding and leaving Arise

Outgoing CEO Luke de Pulford shares memories and lessons from his tenure:

I remember the moment that the vision for Arise became concrete. I was in Makati, an up-market hotel district in Manila in 2015. It was around sunset during one of those distinctive Filipino evenings: the dark orange hue of the moisture-laden sky violently contrasted with the busting neon streets leaving me in no doubt about my location. Two photographers were in tow - we were making a documentary about modern slavery. A moment later, two Sisters arrived, both of the Redemptorist congregation, beaming from ear to ear. Our plan was to film their outreach work.

What followed was surreal. The sisters walked straight up to the bouncers flanking a gentleman’s club entrance. The two guards asked the sisters a brief question in Tagalog about me and the photographers. After what we guessed was a stern admonition from one of the sisters, the guards got out of the way, and ushered us into the club.

Seven women, all of them young, all of them from rural Philippines, were lined up near the club entrance. We knew from previous correspondence with the sisters that most, if not all, of the women in this club had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. Upon seeing the sisters, the women ran into their arms, one by one. The sisters were smiling, but stoic. The women were relieved, relaxed. Their demeanour had seemed to change as soon as the sisters entered. They knew they were with people they could trust. The sisters (in full habit) and women together then proceeded to sing karaoke, in a show which must have left the normal punters pretty confused. As for myself and the hard-bitten war photographers: we struggled to process what seemed to us a deeply surreal and strange moment. We were left with so many questions: why did the bouncers let them enter? Why were the sisters singing karaoke? Why weren’t the sisters rescuing those women? What use is this kind of gateway work?

As I reflected, I realised that the sisters were offering something much deeper than service provision. They were offering unconditional, loving accompaniment. They were offering trust.

I found myself reflecting on how the impact of this work would be perceived within the human rights and development worlds. Answer? Not good. There weren’t any concrete, measurable outcomes. There wasn’t any overarching plan beyond simply accompanying those at-risk or suffering. No baseline from which to measure progress. No numbers. No demonstrable return on investment. Yet it was clear to me that these sisters were providing something profoundly valuable. They had access other organisations could only dream about, and they were slowly, patiently, creating the conditions for those women to safely exit. Moreover they were doing so in a sustainable way, from the vantage point of the affected communities themselves within which they were deeply embedded.

It was clear to me that if we in the human rights and development world lacked the ability to see the value of this kind of work, then the problem was with us, not them. Rather than seek to professionalise this kind of civil society work, or try to shoehorn it into the mould of a NGO, I resolved to build an institution which would seek to support them: by raising money for them, and by helping to demonstrate their impact so others would support them, too. A charity which prioritised prevention, with all its difficulties, and which would focus uncompromisingly on authentically frontline organisations and their networks.

In many ways, this is what makes Arise unique. The structure and culture of the charity has been built on an unshakeable determination to support people who others aren’t supporting; to look past the paper trail, to prioritise love and trust, to eschew the marketisation of charitable work. To hold in mind the unique dignity of every person in every interaction, and throughout all our systems.

This culture runs through everything we do. And as Arise grows, it becomes clearer every day that this culture has to be maintained by intention. This means that we try ever harder to prevent anything standing in the way of trusting partnership. It means that we have to work harder to maintain a posture of deference and respect towards cultures which are different to our own. It means that small things which might not seem important in the scheme of things, like the way we speak to our frontline network or conduct ourselves in their religious ceremonies, are very important to us. And it’s this we believe makes the difference - small details which enable Arise to stay at the cutting edge of civil society activity against slavery.

The process of building Arise would have been impossible without the constant generosity of time and resources provided by John Studzinski CBE. It was he who kick-started this whole initiative by employing me to work out what meaningfully we could do to address modern slavery, and he who had the generosity of spirit and foresight to allow me to paint on a broad canvas. Critically, it was he who saw the value in pursuing a lesser trodden path and created the conditions for the flourishing of Arise’s vision and mission. Since he passed the mantle of Arise’s Chair to Trixie Brenninkmeijer Schurholz, our charity has grown still further, extending our network to a new region, and, under her leadership, consolidating our model.

From the rural slums of India, to the Roma camps in Albania, to the vibrancy of Nigeria’s network, to the barangays of Manila, Arise’s work is flourishing and helping more people than ever. I am deeply proud of what has been achieved. Hundreds of thousands reached, and an unknown number prevented from suffering exploitation.

One core achievement at Arise has been the staff we managed to recruit. We have an extraordinary team, wholly committed to stamping out slavery. My very first recruit, Jessica Templeman, internalised Arise’s vision and helped to concretise it, building out a programmes strategy which has drawn the attention and admiration of many within our network and beyond. It is not easy to ‘translate’ between the work of civil society and the funding community. That she has been able to achieve this so robustly is no small feat, and something for which we all owe her huge gratitude. Arise wouldn’t be where it is without her. Similarly, the stellar work of Tove van Lennep, making Arise visible to the public and donor community, attracting huge support and doing so with such grace and warmth. Arise’s senior management team is second to none. Starting up a charity is never the work of a single person, and this is particularly true for Arise. Jess and Tove co-created much of Arise as it stands today, under the guidance of our board, and I’ll be forever grateful to them for the heart and soul they poured into it.

I also want to recognise our trustees who have given thousands of hours to this project, totally unremunerated. Some have been there since the very beginning. Thank you for the trust you placed in me, and Arise’s vision. And thank you for allowing yourselves to be persuaded to join Arise despite your heavy existing commitments.

There are too many people to thank, so I’m glad that I don’t have to do it all now. I’ll be a constant friend and adviser to Arise on an ongoing basis, and hope to have time to chat with everyone in Arise’s sprawling network over time.

As for me, I’ll remain heavily involved in anti-slavery work through my advocacy on issues related to China. There’s much more work to be done. More and more people suffer enslavement, and, if anything, it often feels that the political will to address it is diminishing. I’ll do what I can to change that in this new role, and will be looking fondly to Arise to provide the frontline perspective that is so often excluded from policy conversations.

There are many images used by founders who decide to move-on. There’s a lot of analogising about parenthood and the like. Yet the Arise vision is not the property of a single individual. The timeless truths it seeks to express are much bigger than that. I guess what those founders are really saying is that it’s hard to move on from something you have built. This is, of course, true. But, in the worlds of Winne-the-Pooh ‘how lucky am I to have something which makes saying goodbye hard”.

Onwards, towards abolition!


Above: Luke addressing a Filipino school assembly.

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