The holidays are a great time to give back, especially donating time to a cause you are passionate about. Today we are excited for you to meet Blythe Hill, founder of The Dressember Foundation, an organization that is helping to stop human trafficking. What shocked us most about this issue is that this isn't just a problem that occurs in underdeveoped countres, rather, this happens right here in our own backyard. We chatted with Blythe about what prompted her to start her foundation, her new line of Dressember dresses and ways to get involved with the cause by participating in the dress challenge during the month of December. Read on to get inspired by a woman who is making a difference.
I started Dressember as a personal style challenge in 2009, and then it grew: in 2010, my friends wanted to join in, and in 2011, their friends wanted to join in. At that point, I began dreaming about what more it could be, and I dreamt about adding a heart to it. I had been passionate about ending human trafficking once I started learning about it, and so it wasn’t a difficult decision to align Dressember with anti-trafficking. In 2013, we had our first campaign season, and we hit our goal ($25,000) on day 3! We ended up raising over $165,000. In January of 2014, on the heels of such a successful campaign, I filed for 501c3.
What was your professional background prior to launching your company? I studied English in college, and got my bachelors and masters degrees in English. I worked for several years as an Account Manager at a trend forecasting company, which fed my love of fashion and shifts in larger cultural/lifestyle trends.
Your 31 day dress challenge started out as a grassroots movement among friends that slowly spread around the globe. How did you come up with the idea? While I was in college, I felt stifled by the academic routine, and needed a creative outlet. Since I had to get dressed every day, I decided to use it as a way to infuse creativity into my days. I came up with the idea to create a personal style challenge. I loved the idea of wearing dresses for a month, and I happened to have the idea in mind November, which led to the pun “Dressember,” as December was the next full month. It was never going to be something I did more than once; it was just a fun, one time style challenge that I was surprised to find appealed to others.
An alarming statistic is that human trafficking doesn’t just occur in remote or underdeveloped areas around the globe, but right here in America. Can you tell us a more about this? It’s absolutely happening here in the US, it just looks very different than it does in other countries. There’s a misconception that most trafficking involves kidnapping; in fact, abduction accounts for less than 2% of trafficking recruitment. Trafficking in the US involves a lot of coercion and manipulation—not always physical force—and a victim of trafficking may not even know he/she is one. While many victims are brought into the US from other countries, the majority are US citizens. There is also an unfortunate link between the foster care system in the US and trafficking: in Los Angeles, it’s estimated that nine out of ten female victims of sex trafficking are or were in the foster care system. Traffickers know to prey on children and young adults without a strong, supportive family; they recruit near group homes, alternative high schools, on the streets, and near juvenile justice centers. It’s estimated that one in three runaway children are recruited by a trafficker within 48 hours of leaving their home or group home. In this way, the foster system is a really unfortunate pipeline to trafficking.
You have raised an impressive amount of money, over $3 million since 2013. What do you think is the first step in eliminating this issue once and for all? Awareness is a hugely important piece. Awareness leads to education, which leads to prevention. Awareness also leads to a more evolved criminal justice system—we are still struggling in this country to treat victims like victims, instead of as criminals. Cyntoia Brown is an example of this.
Trafficking is a massive and thriving criminal industry, and until we as a society understand how this industry works, we can’t begin to outsmart and dismantle it. Beyond awareness, it will of course take money and resources to dismantle a $150 billion industry; but awareness is the first crucial step.
You recently debuted a line of Dressember dresses, which are made by women who are trafficking survivors from Nepal, who receive a living wage. How did you go about finding these women and what inspired the design, also where can they be purchased? This is actually our third year of offering an official Dressember Dress collection with our brand partner, Elegantees. Elegantees has a sewing center in Nepal that employs survivors of trafficking with a fair wage and dignified work. There is a waiting list of over 500 women who want to work in the center, so it’s beautiful that the more demand there is for the dresses, the more jobs we can create. This year’s collection is five designs, designed by five different women. They can be purchased on www.dressember.org.
Throughout the other months of the year, how can people get involved and give back to this cause? Since January is national human trafficking awareness month, we keep the campaign going as a way to honor that month, and then it ends in February.
In 2018, we will launch a monthly giving subscription; it will be an opportunity to give to a special project, and be part of a select community of donors. We will also host our first ever off-season event in the spring of 2018: a You Can Do Anything in A Dress 5K in Los Angeles. We also have a year round blog to keep the conversation going all year, and continue to educate our advocates and others who may be interested in this issue.
What is next for Dressember? This year, our goal is to raise $2M USD! In 2018, we’ll open up an application process by invitation to a handful of US organizations that are working regionally to dismantle trafficking. We hope to add 10-15 grant partners in time for the 2018 campaign, and the goal is to have them canvas the US so that all our advocates and donors (in the US) feel they have a local organization they are supporting.
We are living in a day and age where there are so many causes that need attention from human rights to environmental protection. What tips do you recommend for those that want to start a non-profit or foundation to help solve such issues? There are so many great organizations out there; instead of creating a brand new organization, look for ways you can join up with, collaborate with, or support other organizations, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. This is essentially what happened with Dressember—I’m passionate about this issue, but knew there were boots on the ground organizations doing much better work than I could do even if I spent ten years building an organization. So, I created a crowd funded foundation to help fuel the amazing work that’s already happening. We have got to work together if we’re going to get a leg up on this issue.
Let’s talk for a minute about gratitude. What are you grateful for this holiday season?
My husband is my best friend and biggest fan—he is always at the top of my list. Otherwise, I’m a big fan of the little things—Annie’s mac and cheese, super soft toilet paper, buttered toast, the smell of my in laws’ house on Thanksgiving, a commercial that makes you cry….all those little things add up!
Photographs by Kyra Rane | Portrait of Blythe Hill by Jordan Sabolick