The transformative power of street art

March 20, 2019


Art exposes social justices. Street Art for Mankind (SAM) is a non-profit organization rallying famous street artists from all around the world to support the fight against child slavery. One of the stories published on 50 for Freedom inspired them and led to a first collaboration between SAM and 50 for Freedom. ILO talked with Audrey Decker (AD), co-founder of SAM who strongly believe in Art for Social Change.


ILO: Can you tell us more about the genesis of SAM: why the cause of forced labour, trafficking and modern slavery in particular?

AD: SAM was born from an encounter with the Nobel peace prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi. As we were learning the scale of the forced labour issue and the lack of public awareness, we also felt that we had a powerful way to help. We were already working with prominent street artists and thought that offering them to engage their art “from the street” for the children “of the street” would appeal to them… and it did.

ILO: What is the impact of a street art piece? What do you want to achieve through SAM?

AD: Art is a universal language. It speaks to the souls of nearly everybody and has always been used as a powerful weapon to promote social change. With our innovative festivals, exhibitions and murals, our goal is to engage the public, governments, corporations… and virtually everybody to take action to help eradicate forced labour, trafficking and modern slavery. We also sell paintings on our website (streetartmankind.org/shop), to fund programmes on the ground. Last year, these funds allowed the rescue and rehabilitation of 64 children with the Kailash Satyarthi Children Foundation.

ILO: How did your relationship with the ILO begin?

AD: ILO has been a partner since our first exhibition at the United Nations in January 2017. This exhibition, also created in partnership with the French Mission to the UN, was the first Street Art exhibition ever at the United Nations. This relationship has continued since, with more exhibitions at the UN and other collaborations.

ILO: How do you choose stories and artists and do you match them? (Do you propose a particular story to a particular artist or do they choose amongst several stories?)

AD: Child labour is sadly a broad scourge that touches many industries and countries. We try to choose stories that represent this complexity to better educate and engage with the public. Then we match the artists to the stories that inspire them the most, based on their background, sensitivity and technique.

ILO: Amongst the different testimonies published by 50 for Freedom, the story of Henriette inspired a piece by Jo di Bona. What particularly touched you, and the artist, in Henriette’s story?

AD: Testimonies published by 50 for Freedom are all moving and thorough. The story of Henriette particularly caught our attention, because it is a vivid reminder of something most people forget: child trafficking happens everywhere, including right here, in the “higher-income” countries.  Jo di Bona was particularly moved by this story because it takes place in the city he calls home, Paris.

ILO: The artist though did not represent Henriette, unlike other pieces showing Kailash for instance. So could you explain why you wished to use a true story nonetheless?

AD: We usually choose not to represent the survivors under their real physical appearance but as symbols of the story they represent. This is a way to show that their story is universal and could happen to anybody, we are all “Henriettes”. This also allows to protect the privacy of survivors, especially when huge murals are executed in their home town.

ILO: There’s yet another dimension to the pieces created through the use of augmented reality: how do you use it? What difference does it make? (If it was used for Henriette, you could develop this example in particular)

AD: We have created an innovative app called “BehindTheWall” that activates all our paintings and murals. Simply by directing the phone to the painting, anybody can get information about the story or the survivor (with an audio), the artist, the statistics of ILO on child labour or forced labour and different ways people can help make a difference, including joining the 50 For Freedom campaign. This app is a powerful tool to educate and engage in an unprecedented way virtually anywhere.

ILO: In 2019, the ILO is celebrating its 100th birthday. What does that mean to you?

AD: ILO was born in 1919 from the Great War trauma with a dream: advance social justice for all. Huge progress has been made, which is fantastic. Yet social justice needs to be fought for every day. US President, Theodore Roosevelt, used to say: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, handed on for them to do the same”. And it is the same for social justice. This is the responsibility of each one of us to promote and protect social justice. As we say at SAM, we must all “do our share for a child-friendly world”.