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Exclusive – Meet Ishaan Shah, the Gen Z activist fighting modern slavery

We spoke with the 19-year-old UN Youth Representative and co-founder of Stolen Dreams – a youth-led collective driving action around ending modern slavery – about how he is guaranteeing that every human being has access to basic human rights.

Ishaan Shah was just thirteen when he learned that slavery is a very real, very current issue.

Upon coming to terms with the fact that exploitation isn’t confined to our history books alone, his first instinct was to share this knowledge with his peers, educate others on the nature of this exploitation in modern-day society, and hopefully instigate change.

Brought up on a teaching that strongly values selflessness and service to others, Ishaan’s innate altruism was obvious from the moment we began our interview.

As he tells me, his initial shock wasn’t solely based on slavery still existing today. Rather, it was the apparent ignorance (including his own) of his 150 schoolmates, all clueless to its prevalence.

This acted as the catalyst for his dedication to bridging the generational gap between young people and the anti-slavery movement.

A 19-year-old international human rights, gender equality, and climate action young leader, he is the Founding Director of Stolen Dreams, and Co-Founder of the Youth for Freedom Collective, two international youth-led collectives working with stakeholders to end modern slavery and human trafficking.

‘When I started doing my research in 2016, I found that the information available to me was difficult to understand,’ he says.

‘There was this disconnect between young people and the mainstream sector which was (and remains) reserved for the so-called experts.’

If Ishaan is anything to go by, speaking up for those without a voice doesn’t demand a certain ‘prowess’ that comes with age.

This is best exemplified by the collective Stolen Dreams. Since its launch not long after Ishaan recognised that in order to serve others he would need to dismantle the systems he himself benefits from, it has become a pioneering force in the fight to end modern slavery.

‘Returning to the UK from a trip to India in 2016 where I met children who were either vulnerable to or survivors of exploitation was a total reality check for me,’ he says.

‘Noticing how privileged we are, something inside of me said I couldn’t just sit there and ignore it. I wanted to contribute to fixing the issue.’

According to Ishaan, the collective’s original purpose was to make information about modern slavery and the structures of inequalities, vulnerabilities, and violence that perpetuate it more accessible for young people.

While this still stands today, its objective has developed over the years to better align with his improved understanding of how to confront the issue.

‘I quickly realised that there’s so much more we can do beyond raising awareness,’ he says.

‘We can actually begin to act, in our own lives and in decision-making processes. That’s where Stolen Dreams is angled towards now – a combination of education, advocacy, and policy.’

What this ultimately boils down to is an intersectional approach.

This is because, as Ishaan rightly emphasises, not only do historically exploitative practices remain deeply rooted in our socio-economic fabrics, but they’re being fuelled by a number of the global issues we’re also seeking to tackle.

‘It’s crucial that when we are confronting some of the greatest human rights issues of our time that an all-inclusive approach is taken,’ he said in a 2020 TEDx talk, stressing the importance of striving to abolish modern slavery as part of a common goal that incorporates wider advocacies.

‘The work we do at Stolen Dreams focuses on intersectionality and ensuring that anti-slavery efforts are integrated through each of these varied and thematic tracts.’

Here, Ishaan is referencing the countless challenges exacerbating the rates of modern slavery across the globe.

From poverty and political ideology to gender discrimination and even harmful cultural norms, there are many factors that exacerbate vulnerabilities and in turn increase the threat of someone being exploited into a form of modern slavery.

At the forefront is the climate crisis which, as he explains, continues to provide traffickers with ample opportunities to exploit vulnerable people, especially women and children.

‘When natural disasters take place or in situations of environmental degradation and displacement, the communities in those areas are more at risk,’ he says.

‘This desperation leaves people vulnerable and open to exploitation under the false promise of a better life. People don’t fall into modern slavery because they want to, it’s because they often have no choice.’

Of course, with the climate crisis being one of the most significant challenges we face at present, the prospect of fighting this systemic issue can seem daunting.

But there is hope. First, through the power of the individual, which Ishaan believes holds more influence than we give it credit for.

‘Modern slavery isn’t new, it isn’t happening in faraway countries or communities, it’s happening here, hidden in plain sight. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the technology we use – it’s all linked,’ he says.

‘Therefore conscious consumption is the primary role we ourselves can play. By slowing the rate at which you consume, you’re contributing to the end of modern slavery and addressing the climate crisis.’

‘If you’re dismantling harmful stereotypes and cultural norms in your community, you’re creating a more equitable world and reducing vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation in the process.’

In this respect, accepting that we may not see it physically, but that we’re encountering it daily in the spaces we occupy ‘from when we wake up to when we go to sleep’ is key.

That, and being mindful of our social and environmental responsibility to question the source of the goods and services we rely on, most of which are heavily tainted by modern slavery.

As Ishaan puts it, ‘reduce first, then start asking brands who made their products. We must collectively mobilise to put pressure on corporations and governments so we can work towards a more equitable model of supply chains, where people are put before profits.’

Unfortunately, it’s rare that companies will be willing to offer a concise insight into the repercussions of these industries on the people keeping them afloat.

Particularly amid the current online landscape, which actively promotes trend-chasing and doesn’t draw attention to its impact.

‘Often, you get responses from corporates with links to their modern slavery statement which is always a very toothless document that means nothing,’ he says.

Ishaan, however, argues we should use the Internet to our advantage.

‘When pushing for due diligence from a top-down level, social media is a valuable tool,’ he says.

‘Comment on brands’ posts and ask them what they don’t want to be asked. Engaging with them brings other people into the conversation and this is what’s essential. It has knock-on effects that will translate into more far-reaching comprehension and eventually, more action.’

As for the second method of combatting this issue head on, Ishaan says that it’s a matter of political and corporate will, that ‘the solutions are here, we just need people in positions of power to act on them.’

Reminding us that modern slavery has been around for centuries (the difference now being that it doesn’t only target BIPOC individuals and can affect absolutely anyone), he tells me that it won’t be fully addressed until these bodies take the necessary steps in accordance.

‘At its core, the forms of exploitation we’re seeing today are very much a continuation of what we’ve witnessed throughout history,’ he says.

‘Our world is running off exploitation and slavery, perpetrated by certain actors and upheld by the patriarchy and other systems of inequality, oppression, and violence. This is a systemic and structural issue which means we need systemic and structural change.’

Thus, Stolen Dreams’ overarching aim is the institutionalisation of young people as co-leaders, co-owners, and co-creators because, as is steadily being acknowledged, their passion, eloquence, and fresh perspectives represent immense worth in social arenas.

‘Introducing young people to the narrative is revitalising,’ says Ishaan.

‘Our innovative ways of thinking and relentless determination to spark constructive dialogues that look to review, strengthen and implement efforts will make an instrumental difference in this sphere.’

Yet enhancing youth participation and leadership has its complications and has done for the duration of young people’s involvement with activism.

These barriers, limiting attitudes, and logistical challenges that have been constructed to strategically exclude minority groups and those facing multiple and intersecting forms of marginalisation – or include them at the demoralising cost of tokenisation – are what Stolen Dreams is driving to eradicate.


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‘As a youth representative, it’s my responsibility to centre the voices of young people who are disproportionately affected by the issues they’re experiencing first-hand,’ he says.

‘We need to localise the agenda. This means taking the time to reach those groups on the ground and co-leading decisions with them or by them, not for them.’

‘At Stolen Dreams we provide support, resources, and directions to those who can help from the background, because it’s the young people who are there – who are leading on the frontlines – that know their contexts best.’

It’s Ishaan’s self-proclaimed duty to guarantee young people have a genuine say in what will define their present and future. He wants to see a transformational shift from superficial table invitations to substantive leadership and partnerships that generate truly unified solutions.

‘It’s about altering the dynamic, including power imbalances, so that young people are centred across decision-making processes, at all levels,’ he says.

‘We aren’t bothered about getting recognition, we want action from the relevant stakeholders and for that to happen we have to be viewed as partners, not just beneficiaries.’

But what good is intergenerational action if it isn’t holistic?

Referring back to the intersectionality that’s at the heart of his mission, Ishaan says that a multifaceted approach is, above all else, what we should be focusing on in the fight to end modern slavery.

‘If just transitions are being fuelled by forced labour they can’t be considered sustainable because it’ll give rise to a vicious cycle of exploitation,’ he asserts.

‘We’re in this for the long-run, this isn’t a short-term game, it’s genuinely investing our entire lives in social justice, environmental justice, and gender justice as a whole.’

Though, regardless of Ishaan’s eagerness to encourage young people to step up rather than shut down, he urges them not to shoulder the burden independently, to remember that they’re part of an international community, each member channelling their niches.

Given that Stolen Dreams is a network of thousands of young people taking action in their own spaces, for him, the biggest reward so far has been watching youth achieve their successes.

In the grand scheme of things, he’s sure this will amount in broader change.

‘Working in this sector sometimes feels like my foot is wedged in a door that’s being repeatedly shut on it,’ he finishes.

‘We’re opening a door with repeated barriers and challenges trying to keep it closed. There are times when my metaphorical foot is very sore and I trust that there are others there who will keep the door ajar when I need to take a rest.’

‘Together, we’re in it to end it.’