Revealing Q&A with Mercy Links ‘New Yorker’ Isabel Salter

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Isabel (Izzy) Salter is an ACRATH SA Member. She’s an amazing young woman currently in New York undertaking a 10-month internship with Mercy Global Action (MGA), the justice arm and United Nations office of Mercy International Association (MIA). MIA is the international body which represents the Sisters of Mercy, their Associates, and their partners in ministry around the world.

Izzy, 22, joined ACRATH in 2022 and is participating in a Q&A, sharing her insights into the views and actions of her contemporaries. It’s an important reflection from a young woman who is likely to have an impact on justice issues in the future. 

1. Izzy, how did you first hear about ACRATH and what inspired you to become involved?

For over four years, I have been a volunteer at Young Mercy Links (YML) SA, a youth social justice group supported by ISMAPNG (Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea). Among a range of other initiatives, YML has a particular focus on accompanying members of South Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker community as they settle into Australian society. The connections I made through YML sparked my interest in migration and motivated me to get involved in advocacy efforts for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.

When I stepped up as a Program Support Coordinator at YML, I was invited to join ACRATH SA and lead the collaboration between the two groups. Eager to deepen my understanding of the connections between migration, human trafficking, and labour exploitation, and already passionate about ethical fashion, I readily accepted the opportunity. I’m very glad I did! 

I have felt embraced by ACRATH SA from my very first meeting, and have received constant encouragement – particularly from Angela Hart and Sr Meredith Evans rsm – to continue growing within the group.

2. Many young people are familiar with modern day slavery through fast fashion. How did you first learn about modern slavery?

I first learnt about modern slavery through the Justice and Mercy group at my school (St Aloysius College Adelaide), which is fondly known as ‘JAM’. Each year on Fairtrade Day, we would run a coffee stall out the front of the school using Fairtrade certified beans. Some years we also put on a clothing swap or a thrifted fashion parade. These initiatives sparked my awareness of the ethical implications of consumerism from a young age. When grocery shopping with Mum, there would always be a new product I’d plead with her to boycott… From palm oil, to chocolate, to cotton pads. Here, a quote by Pope Francis stands out to me: “Every person ought to have the awareness that purchasing is always a moral – and not simply an economic – act.”

3. Is it an issue that is on the radar of your friends and networks, or is it still to gain traction as a justice issue?

Yes, human trafficking and forced labour are on my friends’ radars, predominantly in relation to the fashion industry. I’ve noticed a lot of my friends and people my age being more conscious of where they buy their clothes and rejecting notorious fast-fashion brands. It’s now considered really cool to purchase from thrift stores, and to reinvent, repair, and re-wear old items. I think social media has played a huge role in this, especially organisations like ‘Fashion Revolution’ which have a big presence on Instagram.

However, exploitation isn’t really something my friends discuss in the context of other industries, such as technology, coffee, or chocolate. For technology at least, it’s kind of impossible to shop ethically when certain brands have such a monopoly on the industry. Food products can be difficult for a few reasons… It can be tricky to identify the ethical option with so many businesses greenwashing and creating their own certifications, and even when the ethical option is clear, it’s often the more expensive one, which is difficult for young people to afford.

4. You are currently in New York, can you talk a little about your work there?

Yes! I’m currently undertaking a 10-month internship with Mercy Global Action (MGA).

MGA has held special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) since 1998. This allows MGA to place items on the ECOSOC agenda, attend UN conferences, and submit oral and written statements. The role of the office is to maintain a reciprocal relationship with the Mercy World, on one hand bringing the best practices and grassroots expertise of the Mercy World to the UN, and on the other, bringing the goals of the UN back to the Mercy World for consultation and implementation.

My role has involved identifying opportunities to engage with the UN on MGA’s priority justice issues – ‘degradation of earth’ and ‘displacement of people’, participating in issue-based NGO working groups at the UN, assisting with research and drafting processes for MGA publications and position statements, representing MGA at UN conferences, and writing about MGA’s work in our monthly newsletter.   

Highlights so far have included representing MGA at the Commission for Social Development and the Commission on the Status of Women, organising and attending an advocacy ‘mission visit’ to the Permanent Mission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hosting the 9 women from Cohort 3 of the MGA Emerging Leaders Fellowship during their New York City immersion, and hearing the extraordinary Malala Yousafzai speak at an event about women’s rights in Afghanistan. It’s been such an extraordinary experience, and it feels very aligned with what I want to be doing. 

5. What are you learning in this internship that is likely to influence your work/life in Australia?

This experience has solidified my passion for developing and advocating for policies which address the real needs of people. I’ve also learnt a lot about the invaluable role of civil society – especially faith-based organisations – within governance structures such as the UN. They tend to bring a lens of human dignity and compassion that is easily lost in the bureaucracy of UN processes and the political manoeuvring of ambassadors. They also make room for the voices of people with lived experience, which is key to developing effective policy solutions. 

6. When you finish the internship, what work will you be involved in in Australia?

I came to New York with the hope of narrowing down my professional interests, and instead they’ve just about multiplied by ten! I’m not quite sure which path I’ll take next, but what I do know is that I’d like to continue working in a space where I’m advocating for the rights of people and the planet – perhaps through policy design at the national level. 

7. You are attending the Talitha Kum gathering – what a year of big events for you! What do you hope will come from this gathering?

Yes, I feel very blessed thinking about the opportunities that have unfolded for me this year. It still feels surreal to be working across from the United Nations, a place I admired from afar throughout my International Relations degree. And now, as I prepare to journey to Rome for the 2024 Talitha Kum General Assembly, I am filled with hope and anticipation. 

On a personal level, I hope to deepen my understanding of the diverse regional experiences of human trafficking, and to learn from seasoned advocates who have many years of experience in advocating for victim-survivors. I’m excited to bring these insights back to ACRATH SA.

For Talitha Kum as a collective, I hope the conference serves as a moment to reflect on and celebrate the organisation’s profound impact over the past 15 years. I also hope it will ignite a renewed sense of purpose and determination, reaffirming our commitment to ending human trafficking despite the challenges which lay ahead.

8. How do you see yourself making a difference to those who are trafficked?

I see myself making a difference by sticking with ACRATH and continuing to educate myself, raise awareness, and advocate for policies which not only improve the lives and wellbeing of victim-survivors, but which prevent human trafficking and exploitation in the first place. 

Coming from ACRATH SA, which isn’t involved in the direct accompaniment of victim-survivors, it can be easy to feel disconnected from the issues of human trafficking and modern slavery at times. So, doing this work requires a degree of faith. My true work will be maintaining that faith and understanding that even when the suffering is not visible, and when the outcomes of our advocacy aren’t immediately apparent, we are still contributing to a future free of exploitation. 

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