Human trafficking is a crime that is quite overlooked sometimes as people do not think it is still happening in this day and age, but it does happen and is growing fast, especially when people do not pay much attention to this issue. In this episode, Douglas Nelson interviews musician and philanthropist Paul Brandt who spearheaded the #NotInMyCity movement under his Buckspring Foundation. Listen to the podcast as Paul sheds light on his mission to educate the human trafficking issue that is growing rampant in Canada.
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Paul Brandt: #NotInMyCity At Victoria’s National Philanthropy Day
We have a very special guest, Canadian country recording artist, Paul Brandt. Paul sets an example through his advocacy and commitment to stopping human trafficking. Our conversation was recorded live at the National Philanthropy Day festivities in Victoria, British Columbia, and put on by the Victoria Association of Fundraising Professionals. Through his own Buck Spring Foundation, Paul and his wife, Liz Peterson, launched the #NotInMyCity movement, which brings together organizations dealing with human trafficking. #NotInMyCity deals with an important issue and the stories he shares are very powerful. To learn more about Paul’s work and the issue of human trafficking in Canada, visit NotInMyCity.ca. Our discussion traces his commitment to the community, his music career and how giving back has always been a part of his life.
In getting ready for this interview, I had the chance to listen to some great music and read a number of accounts of your life and your journey. I thought it’d be a good place to start to talk about the thread that seems to go through your career and your life. It has been one of giving back, one of being connected and being in service. How did that get started? How did that sense of being a bigger part of being a part of a bigger community start in your life?
Motivations for giving are important to search for. If you have always been the type of person who feels like you want to give back, it’s important to figure out why. That’ll take you to where you’re going related to what you believe the agent for change is and how you can affect change. At an early age, about six years old, my parents started attending a church. We had never been to a church before. It was interesting because it was a very legalistic church. There were no instruments allowed in the church. There was only acapella singing. I didn’t have a radio. We didn’t have a television. We were only allowed to listen to very limited recorded music.
I remember at an early age trying to figure all this stuff out. This is not in any way to throw any religious groups under the bus. I remember going downtown to the speaker’s corner where there were a number of people down there who were struggling with substance abuse issues. The preachers would rail on these people who were down there suffering and struggling. Their intention was, “We’re going to fix this for these people. The way that we’re going to fix it is by ramming a message down their throat.” At six years old, I remember thinking to myself, “Why don’t you buy these guys a sandwich? Why don’t we look for that practical thing that we can do to try and make a connection?” Seeing some of those things at an early age started to move me in the direction of being outward-looking and trying to find the most efficient way and effective way to be able to make a difference in someone’s life. I’m thankful for that.
I don’t want to come back to what that meant for your musical career that you didn’t listen to recorded music, but you go into nursing. That was your choice, which is a great caring profession. How did you make that decision?
My dad is retired. He was a paramedic for 43 years and 40 of those years were in the city of Calgary, which is remarkable. That’s a high burnout rate job. Probably the only way that he was able to make it through for as long as he did it was because of the way that he approached his job. It was definitely a passion of his and he loves people. That was clear. Even on his four days off, he would often go and visit patients he had picked up on the four days on and check in with them at the hospital to see how they were doing. That was a great example to me and my two younger sisters. My mother decided to go back to school after raising me and my two sisters and became a registered nurse. She was a year ahead of me in nursing school, which was a little bit awkward. You’re going into college and trying to make an impression.
When you’re talking to that one special person, your mom comes up and kisses you on the forehead. It’s a little bit daunting. She was always on the Dean’s honor roll and always pushing me, but they were both people attracted to caring professions. It was an easy choice for me. I felt that the call on my life was to be a doctor. That was my dream. I wanted to be a pediatrician. I thought a good way to do that would be to learn the ropes from a different place. Working as a registered nurse was an opportunity that had been presented to me. There were not a lot of men in that profession at that time. They were looking to expand the number of men that were there. I went to Mount Royal College at the time. I started my job initially in home care and then I worked at the Alberta Children’s Hospital for two years. The dream for me was to work at the Children’s, get as much experience as I could and finish my Bachelor of Science and see if I could apply for medical school. That was a bit of my background from a medical standpoint.
Did you get interrupted somewhere on your journey to a medical school?
I was working at the hospital and I love to tell this story. It was my days off and there was a little boy I was told who is about seven years old and he’d been playing football with his friends. They got the football stuck up on the roof of a house. His friend sent him up there to get it. You can guess what happened next. He fell off and shattered his arm. It was a bad break. They rushed him into emergency, into surgery. When I came back on shift, he was getting ready to go home. It’s my job to go in, get him packed up and ready to leave. I walked in and he’s by himself watching cartoons. I said, “Hi Billy, my name is Paul. I’m going to be taking care of you. We’re going to get you to wiggle your fingers.” He wiggles his little fingers and I said, “That’s great. We’re going to get you packed up. We’re going to get rid of your IV and you get to go home with mommy and daddy.” He looks at me and he says, “You know what you’re doing, right? Because you’re the doctor.” I said, “Billy, I’m not your doctor. I’m your nurse.” His eyes got even wider and he says, “You’re a girl?” He could have handled me being an ugly girl, but not a guy and a nurse.
I was in the middle of all that and still mooching off my parents living at home. I came home from work and dad’s sitting on the couch. I had been entering talent competitions. Music was a hobby of mine. It’s a passion, something I loved. Dad was sitting there with this awkward look on his face. He said, “There’s a message on the phone for you.” I picked it up and I heard something. It was a lady from Tennessee. She said, “My name is Paige Levy. I’m with Warner/Reprise Nashville. I signed Dwight Yoakam to the record label and I heard your demo. I think you’re good. I want to come up to Calgary and hear you and your band play. Give me a call.” I’m looking at my dad. I’m trying to process all this stuff. I hung up the phone, picked it up again and called her back and said, “Yes, come on up and hear me and my band play.” I hung it up and called a friend of mine and I said, “You have to help me put a band together.” I didn’t have a band. That was the beginning. About a month later, I signed a record deal and we started the journey in music and took me in a different direction.
As you went on that journey, and lots of great stories in there I’m sure, how did you keep in touch with that service mentality of wanting to give back? How did that play a role in your development as Canada’s most awarded country musician?
I remember doing a lot of interviews and introducing my music and my vision for what I wanted to do. There were some days we would fly through five cities in one day doing interviews. You get a lot of cameras pushed in your face and a lot of microphones. You have to figure out pretty quickly why you do what you do because people want to know. I leaned on this crutch for a long time, that I want to make a difference. People will accept that for so long, but eventually, they want to see where the rubber meets the road.
For me, there was a moment in my career where I had to make a decision between doing things the way that other people wanted me to do it and following what I believed was good, true and right. It was put to me like that. The question that was asked was, “What’s more important, what you believe or your career?” It’s a great question for everybody to ask themselves. At that moment, it began a chain of events that started to help me to see that philanthropy and making a difference aren’t an add-on; they’re a lifestyle. It was asked in hostile circumstances, but I’m glad that it was asked.
I was going to say the tone of voice in that question makes a big difference. Stephen Covey’s line is that, “No one ever built a reputation on what they say they’re going to do.” As you’re going through the process, you said the ten years in Nashville, that’s coming to an end and you start to get involved in international development organizations. How did you find them or did they find you?
The week that question was asked, “What’s more important, what you believe or your career?” that came from the label. It was a question that they meant to pressure me into recording a specific song that they wanted me to sing that I didn’t agree with the message of. I started thinking, “What is more important?” I felt like all these circumstances had come together in my life to put me in a position where I got to live my dream. All of a sudden, it felt like they were being yanked away. That gave me pause to think, to pray and to try to figure out what my identity was and what was important. I had a lot of soul searching during that time. In that same week, I was approached by the Humanitarian Organization World Vision. They knew of my medical background and my platform. We had sold about one million records by that time and had a high profile. They felt it would be advantageous to the children that they were trying to help if they could have a spokesperson like me come and learn more about what they do and share that message with the rest of North America.
I was skeptical at first because I didn’t know a lot about their organization, where the money went, how it got to people and the change it was making. I said, “I need to know more about what you do. I want to see your books.” I said, “I want to see what you’re doing in action.” They said, “We’ll fly you and your wife to a country in Southeast Africa called Malawi.” It was at the height of the AIDS epidemic in that region. The things and the suffering that we saw there changed our lives forever. That started to pull me in the direction of understanding that what I do for a career can be used as a tool and a platform. That was the beginning of that process for me.
Were you aware of what it would mean for them if you joined them in this and shared your story and acted as that spokesperson?
I don’t think I knew what it was going to mean for them or for me. I’m so glad that I went on that trip. It changed my life. I remember being in an area where there was a community development project that they had been working on and we had seen a horrific need. Children who were 6 and 8 years old were caring for young infants. They were their siblings, but the parents had died. These 6 and 8-year-olds were eating dirt to fill their stomachs. They were carrying these babies around trying to take care of them. They were babies themselves and they all had AIDS. The things that you would imagine that the end of the world is going to look like, that’s what we saw.
Trees were clear cut for fuel with no knowledge that they needed to continue to allow them to grow for the future because of the desperation that was there. It was almost like you’re watching it on television. You can’t process it. It sinks in, but you deal with it later. We went to this community development project where we would do a need story and we would do a success story. This was a success. We were in an area where they were building homes. The homes were about the size of an eight-seat table. There was a woman in this room, this wonderful Malawian woman, who had very charismatic gestures. You could tell that she was excited about life. She pulls us into her house and it was built on a small concrete platform. They had a good corrugated tin roof. This was stepping it up. She makes this contact with Liz through a translator. She’s trying to make a woman to woman contact because clearly, only Liz would understand this.
She introduced herself and said, “I’m a kitchen technician. I teach the women in my village how to cook, clean, take care of their families and keep them healthy. I show them how to do this.” She points to a little brick and mortar box in the corner with the opening in the front of it. She starts speaking slowly and she says to Liz, “This is a stove. You take this pot full of water and you put it on top of the stove. It boils the water. It makes it safe for us to drink.” I looked at Liz and she looked at me and we’re bawling our eyes out. It made a deep impact. We got back to Nashville later that month. It was Thanksgiving and we were standing in a grocery store. All these things, once you see them, they fade. We’re standing in a grocery store over a freezer full of frozen turkeys. We were arguing over what size of turkey the two of us needed for Thanksgiving that year. All of a sudden, all of that stuff came back. It was right there. Our eyes met and the two of us are bawling over a freezer full of frozen turkeys, realizing how ridiculous it was that we were thinking about the way that we were thinking. It changed everything for us.
You start this journey. You’re working with World Vision for a long time. Walk us through the end of that and the start of your own.
I think that working with World Vision was wonderful. They’re a great organization. They do wonderful work. We started looking into what were the marketing messages that were being sent within North America related to World Vision from a US standpoint, from a Canadian standpoint. What messages did we want to send? We started to titrate a little bit more. We’re trying to figure out why we do what we do and what we believe the agent for change is and how we can best send our messages and overlap with culture.
I don’t doubt that the early example that the people in that church were trying their hardest to do was what they thought was important, but they were not making a connection with their audience. Sending messages is a very challenging thing to do. It takes a great deal of skill and forethought. The more that I started to think about my role in the philanthropy world, the more I realized that maybe the spokesperson wasn’t the best role for me. Maybe there were other things that I could do. I wanted to have a little bit more control over the outcome.
We were in the middle of doing an eight-episode television series. The idea behind this television series called Build It Forward was that we would ask families at risk of homelessness in Alberta if they would be willing to go to a developing country and build a home for someone else. We asked them this question and if they said yes, we said, “That’s wonderful because we’re also going to build a home for you.” It was amazing and an incredible journey. We took these members of seven families to post-earthquake Haiti and to various areas in Southern Mexico and built homes with them for other people. They made incredible connections.
The thing that was amazing about it to me is when we got back, all of these family members, every single one of them, they had abandoned something in their lives. They had abandoned their love of art, hope for education, passion for sports. All of them had given up on something, but when we came back from this trip, it was revived. There was hope because they had been put in a situation where they saw someone else in need and they realized that when they invested, they could affect change. We were in the middle of that project and we decided that we wanted to start our own foundation so that we could start to direct our funds in ways that we felt were going to be the most effective. That was the beginning of the foundation side of things for us.
You’ve mentioned agents for change a couple of times through your discussion. Tell us what’s your definition of agents for change.
You hear that axiom all the time, “You give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Whenever someone is making a decision about how they want to try and help, it’s important to dive into your motivations. It’s important to do a lot of research to find out what history has shown, what data has shown is going to change this need that you’ve discovered. I don’t know if that completely answers the question, but that’s how I think about it when I walk into this. I can walk into the room with a patient when I was working at the children’s hospital and I need to get that dressing changed. I can walk in and rip it off, put a new one on and be very curt about the way that I do it. That kid is never going to want to come to a hospital again and receive help or I can go in and sing him a song and soften those defenses and build a relationship. I’ve got a long-term person who’s going to be happy about helping himself in healthcare in the future. It’s important to think about how can I make a long-term change.
That’s a powerful message to a room full of fundraisers. In our work, we often are talking to donors who are leading with their heart, emotion and connection to our causes. Some donors lead with, “Show me your books.” Most donors lead with their hearts and ask those questions or think they’re going to eventually ask those questions. It’s the people in this room and all of your colleague’s jobs to help navigate people to that place where they can make that change.
It’s got to be both. There needs to be a passion, but it needs to go through the heart and through the head. That’s a lesson that I’m learning over and over again. It’s the foundation process for us in doing agency agreements with organizations that are doing good work overseas. It’s the accountability side of making sure everything is documented the way that it needs to be, but also taking that trip, holding people accountable, taking the pictures and making sure that the work that was paid for is getting done. It’s evaluating whether or not that money was well spent. Those are all lessons that I’m learning every single day.
With starting your own foundation, my favorite question to ask the founders of organizations is what advice would you give to other founders? What advice would you give to others?
Surround yourself with great counsel and people who have walked this road before that are willing to help you to answer some questions and help to lead you through it. Your structure, board governance and the people that you welcome to be a part of it need to share your vision, but they also need to be willing to hold you accountable and to push you in ways that might make you feel a bit uncomfortable to get to where you stated you wanted to go. We were fortunate to have those types of people and that helped to guide it for us.
Can you share a story of a lesson that you learned that you weren’t quite expecting to learn as you went through starting your own organization?
Talking about the passion side and the use your head side is an important conversation to focus on. I’m an artist. I wear my heart on my sleeve and my wife, Liz, she has a degree in pure mathematics. She’s very binary. As a matter of fact, we complement each other well. We were doing this television series called Country Couples one time where they were profiling our relationship. It was in a beautiful setting near the Rocky Mountains. We’re being filmed. The interviewer is asking the two of us what our roles were like. As he asked the question, the disc ran out and he needed to change the disc. Liz starts rambling. She’s saying, “It’s interesting that you would ask a question like that because Paul, he approaches the world the way he does. I’m binary. I’m strategic and logical in the way that I do things. I’m not very emotional. He’s an artist. He writes songs, breaking to tears at the drop of a hat.”
She pauses and goes, “In a lot of ways, it’s like I’m the guy and he’s the girl.” I look up and the camera was shaking because the cameraman was laughing so hard. He had changed the disc and film the whole thing. It made it into the special. I’m like “Great.“ It’s important to lead with your heart, but you have to have those people that are going to be around you that help to make sure that you’re not missing anything when you’re going out to try and help people and trying to make a change in society and culture. It’s easy when you’re speaking from the heart on topics to get ahead of yourself and that passion can sometimes get you in trouble.
You’re sending the wrong messages because you’re so passionate about helping people that you forget that it takes time and it takes a change of heart to change a culture. That’s something that I’ve been learning a lot about, especially in the work that we’re doing related to this anti-human trafficking movement, #NotInMyCity. There’s an urgency because we know that every 30 seconds, there’s another victim of human trafficking in the world. At the same time, we need to build a firm, solid foundation to be able to make sure that there will be lasting change. We can’t be shooting from the hip. That’s a lesson that I’ve been learning.
You’ve been doing very well at it. I want to spend some time with #NotInMyCity. I was speaking to someone who said, “When we think we know the answer is the time to ask at least two additional questions before providing that answer.” It’s making sure that we’re hitting the culture or the changes we’re proposing stand a chance of being implemented or being sustained. This is a very powerful topic and a very important story. I thought we could start by telling us how this became the cause that you and your wife took off.
There’s a great organization in America, in the States that we learned about. We were at the World AIDS Symposium in Washington, DC. There was a speaker there named Gary Haugen. Gary founded the organization, The International Justice Mission. Law professionals, whether they’re police or lawyers or judges, people who’ve been involved in justice work with IJM and give off their time to look at injustices around the world and bring justice to those situations, working with the laws of the land. If the law needs to be changed, they make sure that is a process that begins. We were inspired by the work that he was doing and not long after saw a program on Dateline NBC. It was within the same time period. Dateline had done a story called Children for Sale.
It’s a powerful expose. There was a lot of controversy around it. They wanted to feature the issue of child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of children. They worked with the Cambodian government to do a brothel raid to rescue some children. They filmed the entire thing undercover. The controversy surrounded the fact that under Cambodian law at that time, and my understanding is that this has been changed, that children who were being controlled in this way in a brothel were seen under Cambodian law as owned property. They rescued these children out of this situation. At the end of all of it, they had to take them back because those brothel owners owned them. They figured it was worth the risk to blow the top off of this issue internationally. My wife and I were shaken by this. Most goodwill people would never imagine that this issue is even an issue.
Right around the same time, another humanitarian organization offered us the opportunity to go on a donor trip. They work in over 90 countries around the world and said, “You can go anywhere you want. Where would you like to go?” We said, “We’re going to Cambodia because we wanted to learn more about this issue.” While we were there, we were introduced to an organization that was facing similar challenges. They were able to pay the rate that someone would pay to have sex with a child, to take that child out of the brothel situation for the day and put them in a safe location. At the end of the day, they had to take them back. It shook us. It rocked our world.
In very deep ways, it’s even to the point where it impacted my wife’s health as well. She’s given me permission to talk about this. As a victim of abuse herself when she was a child, she felt a real connection with these children who were being abused multiple times a day. We knew at that moment this is it for us. This is going to be our life. As she recovered, we got the counseling and support that she needed to be able to get through all of those feelings that she was feeling. We thought that rehabilitation, reconciliation, prevention, all of those issues related to fighting human trafficking would be a wonderful way to invest our lives. That was the beginning of this journey for us. It’s been an amazing one.
One of the things that were stark for me in learning about this topic and preparation for this conversation was how much of it is happening here in Canada.
When we returned and I started to research the issue of human trafficking, I was shocked at what I found. The truth is that human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes in Canada. The average age of being trafficked in Canada is thirteen years old. A lot of this is related to organized crime. Each victim is worth $280,000 a year. It’s a huge business. Sex trafficking alone internationally is the second-largest source of illegal income. Estimates are putting in at about $99 billion a year. We know that in Canada, since 2014, incidents of cybersex trafficking where victims are abused remotely at the pleasure of people who are paying to see these things happen online have increased by 600%. It’s a jaw-dropper.
When we hear about this type of thing, like I said, “Goodwill people don’t even imagine it.” People who are reading this, if you didn’t know about this, it’s going to take you a while to process this. The initial reaction I see in most people is, “No, there’s no way.” It was one of the reasons that we called it #NotInMyCity is that’s your first reaction. There’s no way this is happening here. Two or three days later, we start to get texts and phone calls. People follow up and they’re like, “I did the research. It’s true,” or “I looked at what was going on in that sketchy area in my neighborhood. I realized I’m seeing this there.” They see evidence of these types of things happening online.
One of the most harrowing realities that I’ve encountered was talking to an FBI agent, who we’ve been working with out of Arizona. He’s a great, big tall, strapping six-foot-something guy who poses as a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl online and jumps into social media. He said, “Invariably within five minutes, I’m being propositioned and sent bus tickets.” The best part of that story is that he gets on the bus and goes across the country to meet these guys who would victimize these girls and puts handcuffs on them.
There’s hope. When we educate ourselves and we know that this is an issue, it makes it hard for these traffickers to do what they’re doing. It’s a high profit, low-risk business. It’s a good business from a business standpoint to be in. They’re making a ton of money. When we get over our discomfort and have this discussion, it creates a scenario for them where all of a sudden, it’s a high risk, low-profit business. That’s what we want to continue to see happening, especially for the sake of our children who are being trafficked here in Canada. Over 93% of victims who are trafficked in Canada are Canadian. They’re not coming from some other country. They’re not being shipped in. It’s not that image that you get of kids in trains, buses or boats. These are our children. It’s important for us to stand up.
It’s a very powerful message. As I was reading through this, I had exactly that reaction of, “What do they mean by trafficking?” There must be some absurdly broad definition, but it’s not. It is exactly what you think it is. I heard a story that you told me about realizing that some of the girls you were seeing were the same age as your daughter. We have daughters almost exactly the same age. When I heard you say that, I can’t even imagine.
One important thing that I want to say, and I want to take people to that moment where there was that transition point for me related to trafficking, but #NotInMyCity is not an additional anti-human trafficking organization. We have enough of those. There are a ton of them. This is an important topic for philanthropy in general. We need consolidation. We need to make sure that groups are trying to find ways that they can work together and make the most of the dollars being spent. What we decided right from the beginning with #NotInMyCity is that we would be facilitative. We’re pulling groups together that are doing great work.
It was an exciting moment for me. One of our first meetings was at West Winds, the Calgary Police Service Headquarters. In Calgary, we facilitated a group to come together and it included social workers. Edmonton City Police, Calgary City Police, FBI, Border Services, all these great organizations that are doing great work, fighting human trafficking. None of them were talking to each other and they’re not sharing data. They’re not sharing common definitions. When we started to pull them together, they were able to look over their dividers for a minute and go, “You’re doing that. We’re doing this. We can work together on this.” That’s what we’re doing.
I went back to Cambodia after that first trip. Liz hasn’t made the trip back yet. She wants to go and I’m excited about what that trip will be about. We went into an area with an organization called Ratanak. They’re based in Vancouver. It’s run by Brian McConaghy. He’s a former RCMP member. He’s done great work for decades in Cambodia, fighting human trafficking on the labor side and sex side. He brought us to that street where that Dateline NBC special had happened. It was one of the darkest places that I have ever been to. You could feel the evil. You would have needed armed guards to go with you a couple of weeks before we were there. There had been some changes and we were able to go down the street.
On one side of the street was a warehouse where children were drugged during the day so that they would sleep stacked on top of each other and kept like animals. They were given amphetamines at night and taken to work in the brothels. There was another building on the other side of the street that was in the process of being constructed. Behind that construction, they were literally burying children. These are the kids who had been used up by this industry. It was being built by a California-based businessman. He was constructing a three-story building to be used as a sex destination hotel to accommodate busloads and planeloads of men from around the world to exploit young children.
You see this and you’re going, “This can’t be.” There were a bunch of kids that were in the street and social workers who were working in that area. The people who owned these children were allowing them to wash their hair and try and take care of them. They saw it as good for business because they were caring for the merchandise. All these kids were running around in the street and I got to sing for a couple of them. I didn’t know exactly what was going on. Part of me was still processing all of this, but I saw one little girl, I sang for her and someone came, tapped her on the shoulder, took her, put her in a cab and away she went. Someone pulled me aside afterward to explain what had happened. He said, “Did you notice those earrings?” I’m like, “Yes.” “Did you see the earrings that some of those other little girls had and they’re all the same?” “Yes.” “Those are marks of ownership. Someone owns these kids and she was being taken to go to work.”
She’s five years old. She’s being sold 6 to 8 times a night. I knew at that moment that I was always going to look back on that situation and I was going to be confronted with what did I do? I thought about my little girl and I thought, “What am I going to tell her that I did when I found out about this?” I thought about my son, “What am I going to teach him about the appropriate way to respect and interact with other people, with women?” It was a crossroads for me. There is hope for the story. When that California-based businessman saw us interfering with what he was doing in that area, he got nervous because that’s what bullies do. They run away when people stand up to them.
He decided to move on before he did put the building on the market. There’s a small group of us there and we pulled our resources and we bought it. We decided that we would take that resource that he was building and turn it into something good. We turned it in cooperation with Ratanak into a church, a health clinic and a school with the renewed purpose to educate young Cambodian minds who would someday go on to affect change for their nation. When I came back years later to evaluate what had happened there and see it again, that whole community had changed. It was a place of life instead of a place of death, a reminder to me that there is hope in the situation.
One of the questions that I had for you, this is the best time to ask it. You are representing a cause that inspires aversion. As you’re telling these stories, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s feeling like, “I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think that this exists in the world.” How do you tell that story in a way that brings people to it, that people will listen long enough to get to that story of hope?
There’s a certain part of it when it’s a harsh reality where you have to rest in the idea that it’s up to people to choose what they want to do with this. It’s a very either/or, a black and white issue. You’re either for fighting human trafficking or you’re choosing to ignore it because it’s a reality. There’s that part of it, but at the same time, you do want to be engaging. You want to be winning in the way that you bring messages to people. When I tell some of those stories to groups of people on our last tour, we went across the country and we had a short video, but I got to meet with VIP meet and greets and some of the sponsors of our event.
I would tell these stories and I would see that wall go up. It’s like, “Do we have to talk about this? We came here for a good time.” I mentioned it and said, “That feeling of discomfort you have, that’s exactly what the traffickers are hoping that you won’t be able to break through because it helps them to keep what they’re doing in the darkness.” One of my favorite phrases that a friend of mine said to me once who had been involved in humanitarian work his whole life, he said, “With knowledge comes responsibility.” We all have different capacities to affect change, but with knowledge comes responsibility.
I try and encourage people to bite off what they can bite off with this situation. Maybe your role is to get over your discomfort and talk about it. Maybe it’s to use the assets that we have at NotInMyCity.ca and post it on your social media. Maybe it’s to wear one of these little yellow pins that we have, the yellow flower. What happens is the police will tell us in every community, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We need the community to engage. We need them to talk about it, to know about it, to be educated about it. Maybe that’s your role. I’m a guy who sings and wears a hat. I’m still trying to figure out how I got here and to these types of gatherings and rooms.
My role is encouraging people that there is something that can be done. From a message and branding standpoint, we were strategic in trying to use a clear visual like this yellow rose where we could have the uncomfortable conversation once and we didn’t have to harp away at it all the time. People see the rose. They know it’s for a good thing, that it’s protecting children and we don’t have to go back to that dark place again. We just can talk about what we’re going to do to change it. Those are some of our thinking around that.
One of the other things that jumped out at me is that you did start your own foundation, but you didn’t start another organization as you referenced. You talked about your work as the mission. That comes through very clearly in all of the messaging around #NotInMyCity. As fundraisers, we work in organizations that some of them are very institution-based. We’re within four walls. We represent the hospital or the school and the good work that happens outside. Others of us are in mission-based organizations that happen not within four walls but throughout the community. We talk to donors very differently when they’re interested in mission versus when they’re interested in the institution. With the mission, there’s great power because people can get behind the energy of it, but it’s often harder to put that energy into positive action. How have you approached being this facilitative mission in Canada and beyond?
I was reading about and talking to some of my colleagues who are helping me with the work of #NotInMyCity. You can be focused on the outcome and celebrate when you reach that goal that you had set or you can be focused on the system. Whether or not that system that you’ve put in place worked and if you can tweak it to make it even better next time or not, and if the system is successful, you should be able to take that and place it on a number of different projects and reach the outcome. Rather than focus on the outcome, focus on how are we going to get there. That’s something that we try to make a part of the DNA of #NotInMyCity right from the beginning.
I was telling some of the stories that I’ve told you in my role, at least academic title, as a storyteller at Mount Royal University. I was asked to come and work with the business, marketing and branding students in the business program there. They took the Paul Brandt brand and dissected it. Figured out what made it tick and then decided that they would build a business or social enterprise projects based on my brand and bring them the real world. I told them these stories about trafficking overseas and here in Canada. They said, “We want to do something about this and we want to use your brand to do it.” We started brainstorming. They all came up with different projects. We wove some of them together and came up with #NotInMyCity.
Since we started with the concept over a few years, it’s raised over $1 million and we’ve partnered with the Calgary and Edmonton International Airports. This is a movement that’s moving right across Alberta. My dream is that it would do the same across Canada as well. A part of that has been not only being emotion-driven and focused on making sure that we’re doing this on behalf of our children, but making sure that we’re building strong, tightly woven systems in place and building a firm foundation and doing this. Part of that is bringing the right people on board, people who’ve had these experiences before.
Part of it is having a wife with a degree in pure mathematics.
That doesn’t hurt. She often looks at me and goes, “Why would you do it like that?” She helps a lot with those types of things for me.
You talked about having these conversations with people and you can see the barriers go up. What makes the barriers start to come down?
I was asked in my role as a storyteller in residence. I was accessible to all the faculty at the university to come and speak to a small group of student leaders. The dean who was running this group, they’re all senior students. She was as nervous as can be. She’s breaking out in a sweat. She’s like, “This is a leadership group and it’s going to be great to have you come and speak to these kids. I need you to remember they’re all Millennials and they hate the idea of leadership because it’s too patriarchal.” She was completely in a tizzy over this. I’m going, “Okay?” She goes “Good luck.” I walk in and I’m talking to these students. They were great students. They’re checking me out and looking at me up and down like, “What does this guy know? I don’t even like country music.” There was a bit of an attitude there. I said, “I understand you don’t like the word leadership.” You should’ve seen the body language. Arms are crossing and people are folding their legs.
It’s like, “Here we go. It’s time for the war.” Let me give you an example. I said, “If you move forward with anything that’s important to you and you take a risk and everyone who’s watching, you can tell that if you fail, you’re going down in flames. You’re putting it all on the line. You’re going to go for it and they’re all watching you. If you move forward with authenticity and accountability, you’re going to turn around one day. There’s going to be a bunch of people and they’re all going to be following you. I call that leadership. I don’t care what you call it.” They all stayed for 45 minutes after the talk because they wanted to talk because they got it right. They understood that I was willing to put it all on the line to have that talk with them.
People are programmed to follow that authenticity and teachability. We saw this with what’s happened with Don Cherry. As a public figure, I always get nervous about saying the wrong thing. What if I get on the microphone and I say the wrong thing and I offend somebody? I go through scenarios. It keeps me up at night. When they ask me this, I’m going to say that. Liz, she’s like, “You can always say you were wrong.” What a novel concept. You can always say, “I made a mistake. I meant to say this and I’ll do better next time.” That’s teachability and humility. That’s what creates movements. When people see that they want to follow and get behind that. That’s the spirit that we’re trying to move forward with when we’re doing the work that we’re doing for these kids as well.
That has such a connection to how I’ve heard you talk about your musical career. You were sharing that other people were getting record contracts, so why not you and just show up? It worked out all right for you.
The idea with all of that is making decisions based on fear is always the wrong decision. I gain a lot of inspiration by looking at people around me who have done great things, who have moved the needle in some way. I look at that and I go, “Why not me?” I’d at least like to go down trying. It’s an important approach.
You’re certainly a great living example of that and an inspiration to many people. How have your colleagues in the music business looked at this transformation from the golden voice crooner to the international crusader?
It’s been a part of the way that we’ve tried to use this platform from the beginning. They’re pretty used to seeing me get emotional about different ideas and causes. My hope is that it’s encouraged my contemporaries and people who are coming up after me to look at their careers in a bit more of an empowered way. I was reflecting on this and I think my job hasn’t been to be a musician. My job has been to use musicianship as a tool. That’s the way that I see it. Jessica was talking about the idea of the whiteboard. It came from a great book, an older book by a fellow named Bob Buford called Halftime.
I would highly recommend people read this book. He’s got a number of different follow-ups to it as well. Halftime was where it all started. He recounts the story of a crossroads moment for him in his life where he went through something called success crisis, where he’d had a huge success with business and it was like, “Now what? What do I do now?” He calls halftime, that moment where you make the decision to leave success and move into significance. For artists, that crossroads happens at an earlier stage than maybe it does for business people. As a business person, you spend your whole life with those blinders on, trying to reach that goal, and then you get to put your head up when you reach it.
For artists, we’re already trying to think about ways that we can change the world right from the get-go. He ended up meeting a fellow named Mike Kami. He’s again one of those binary thinkers, a ruthless tactician and not afraid to ask the hard questions. Mike helped Coca-Cola through the new Coke debacle, one of the worst marketing decisions ever where their stock plummeted. In the emergency session, they’re in a board room and Mike says, “What did you put in the box?” They’re like, ‘What?” He said, “What did you try and sell people?” They white boarded everything that Coke was about and it was a great taste. It was the first cola product ever. It was all these things that Coke was about, a Coke and a smile, happiness, the American tradition, all these things.
They said, “These are all the things that Coke is about.” He draws a box and goes, “What did you put in the box?” They said, “Great taste.” He says, “Let me get this straight. You got rid of American tradition for great taste?” They went, “No.” They put American tradition back in the box and came up with Coke Classic. The stock rebounded and everything started to go well for them again. The interesting point in all of this is that all those things on the whiteboard didn’t have to leave. They all of a sudden line up underneath the box. They served American tradition. They could still have great tastes, but it all had to go through that one main thing. That to me is the way that I’m trying to use this platform. Can I help neighbors to help neighbors? Can I get people to ask themselves what do they think? What did they believe by doing this work that I’m doing? I would say that those are the things that are in the box for me and the music serves that.
Did you have anyone say all of these international rights, this trafficking stuff is going to interfere with your career?
Some people very close to me are involved in the business and they’re like, “You need to run from this. This is the last thing on earth that you need to do.” They started to see the work and the way that it was moving people and see the statistics, meet people with lived experience. They proudly wear their yellow rose to every event that we go to. What I found is you’re always going to hit roadblocks when you’re moving towards trying to make a cultural change like this. We had people very powerful business leaders within our community who said to me, “Do you think you’re going to affect change with this?”
That was daunting. They, in the early stages, stood against what we were doing and tried to push back. I always think, “Either the person who’s doing that is complicit or they don’t get it.” I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. That’s been good practice for me because I bleed with my heart so much. I want to get angry and destroy them because I care so much about these kids. I found that I need to have some patience and realize that with education, on my behalf, if I continue to move forward and not compromise and stay in the long game, eventually goodwill people will come around and understand this issue.
It’s good that you brought so many of them along and set such a great example for others. We have people who work in many important organizations in the Victoria and the Greater Victoria community. What advice would you give to them as they pursue their mission for the organizations that they work with?
I think at that moment when I was in that board meeting at the label. We sold a million records. Stakes were high and this was the second album where we’re going to make the money. They were talking about me like a box of cereal, which I am, I’m a product. “What’s Paul going to wear? What’s he going to say? What is he going to do and what song is he going to sing?” We got into that moment where I stood up against not wanting to sing that one particular song. They said, “What’s more important, what you believe or your career?” I don’t think that those things have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, the way to look at it is that what you do with your career can be a part of your identity in a healthy way. Looking towards the things that you think are important that you want them to write on your tombstone someday, it seems a bit morbid, but that’s the way that I’ve often looked at it from a career standpoint. What are they going to say was important to me when I’m not here?
I want to live my life fueled by those types of things. If that pushes me to a different career, so be it. I don’t want to be moving forward trying to move on to the next thing in my career so that maybe I can put a little bit of money in the bank account or put food on the table. One of the things from an identity standpoint at that moment when I left the record company, all of a sudden, I wasn’t an artist anymore. My identity was shaken to the core because I didn’t have a record deal. I started to think about it. The greatest artists in the world were the ones who did what they did even without an audience. They did it because they believed in it. If it was an audience of one or an audience of millions, they were going to do it because they were compelled to do it, because it was something that they believed in. If we can comport ourselves in that way with our careers, it pays dividends. People can tell if it’s real or not.
We end this with a message. For the room full of fundraisers realizing what Paul said about wondering how people are going to think about him when he’s not around anymore, all of us as professionals think that way. What are they going to think of us? What measure of impact are we going to have in our organizations? It’s also true that our donors are asking themselves that question when we’re sitting in front of them. It’s important to give space to people to ask those questions of what’s meaningful, what’s important? Hopefully, all of us and our donors will make the great choices that you’ve made, Paul. Thank you so much for being here.
It’s a privilege to be here. Thank you.
How many hats do you have?
I only ever had one. When that one got worn out, I’d buy another one. We created a partnership with Smithville Hats in Calgary. They’re over 100 years. We created a product called The Black Hat That Does Good Things. My son, he’s eleven-years-old, he’s like, “Dad, the black hat is always worn by the bad guy.” I’m like, “Yes, that’s true.” He goes, “What’s the deal?” I wanted to try and create something that we could use the hat for. We picked different causes that we want to support as an aside from the work that we’re doing with #NotInMyCity. The insert for this hat that I’m wearing is a symbol for Music Counts, an organization that supplies music training and instruments for students in schools. Every time one of the hats sells, there’s a portion of proceeds that goes to Music Counts and we pick a different cause every year to make it the Black Hat That Does Good Things.
We talked about self-care a lot in rooms full of people who give so much of themselves. How do you draw the line for yourself and your family?
You get into conversations about codependency and the need to rescue and all of those types of thoughts. For me, I come from a long line of caregivers. There’s something about our family that drew us in that direction to want to help people. Sometimes those motivations aren’t always healthy. Another thing that is important to recognize, I learned about this working as a registered nurse. One of my very first jobs as a student was working at an old people’s home. It’s a common phenomenon for caregivers to believe that the sector of people that you’re caring for represents the entire world. You start to believe that every old person is sick, needy and having a tough time with life when the reality is there’s a lot of healthy older people.
It’s important, on that self-care note, to take a step back, to make sure that you have people who come from various backgrounds around you. That diversity piece is important. You’re taking a 30,000-foot view of the work that you’re doing as well to give yourself a break for it. It’s easy to also even suffer from PTSD, from some of these stories that you’re dealing with. Talking to friends who’ve worked fighting human trafficking for sometimes 20 to 30 years, it changes you as a person. If you can’t talk about those things with other people and offload those stories, you’re setting yourself up for a big crash. It’s important to surround yourself with a caring community.
Aside for yourself, were there some other artists in the industry that you’re inspired by?
I had one artist, he’s having a lot of success and he’s great guy, and he’s trying to figure this philanthropy thing out. He said, “I can’t wait until I get my job to a point where I can start doing the stuff that you’re doing.” I was like, “No, you got to start now. That’s how you build that foundation.” For me, I don’t want to be an activist. I don’t want to be another artist on a soapbox and maybe he goes this way a little bit sometimes, but I’ve always looked up to Bono from U2 and the way that he does the work that he does. He’s entertaining people and doesn’t forget that that’s his job.
That’s the product that he’s bringing to the world. At the same time, he’s using the platform to raise awareness for different causes that are authentic to him and true to him. Artists like that are inspirational to me. They’re the people who keep an eye on those social issues and at the same time don’t make that their profession. They’re weaving those things together. That’s a goal of mine. The last thing I want to do is to be an activist. It’s important to have the passion and to move forward, but you have to do it with a sense of being willing to enter into the conversation with people instead of ramming things down people’s throats.
I love to get some background on the symbolism. Is it exclusive to your #NotInMyCity Foundation?
The trademarking process is there for the yellow rose and for the #NotInMyCity. The yellow rose was developed by fashion designer, Paul Hardy, who’s basis himself in Calgary, but shows internationally. Paul’s become a good friend over the years. He picked the yellow rose because it’s often a symbol of friendship, a gesture of friendship. It’s that concept of beauty being juxtaposed with the thorns and the pain. He came up with this design and we have it on a number of different items, the bracelet, the pins, scarves. We partnered with Hillberg and Berk, the jewelry company, and they’ve made some beautiful necklaces and bracelets as well.
We started a campaign in Alberta called the Seen Yellow Campaign where we invite other businesses to use the products that they sell or the services that they give and turn them into something that’s representative of the rose or the yellow color. If it’s a cupcake company, it’s all their cupcakes that month or they have a special #NotInMyCity cupcake. It’s become a powerful symbol. NotInMyCity.ca is the best place to go to learn more about the products. It’s an outwardly visual way to be able to signify ally-ship in the fight against trafficking.
I’m curious about some of your on-the-ground experience with fundraising. The fundraisers often have the opportunity or decide to engage our leadership or some of the more notable people in our organization in order to interact with donors or asks you things like that. I’m curious about your experiences with the #NotInMyCity campaign from that fundraising donor lens.
When we first started, the activities of #NotInMyCity, we’re primarily supported by our foundation, the Bucks Spring Foundation in a seed money type way. As we started to grow, there were greater needs. We needed to bring more people on board. We’re in this awakening and awareness side of what we’re doing. We knew that there was going to have to be some investment to raise the conversation. It ended up being a lot of grassroots and a lot of bootstrapping and getting out there. Fortunately, I was able to leverage my platform as a celebrity because I carry a big megaphone a lot of times whenever I’m walking around.
That was definitely helpful. When it came down to it, it comes down to whether or not the story can resonate with people’s hearts. For some reason when I speak, people listen and I am a storyteller. That’s a part of who I am. It’s an important part of fundraising. It’s the difference between I want to make a difference to this is a great concept and story and it’s something that the world needs. Before I create anything, whether I’m writing a song or starting a fundraising campaign or anything, I ask myself, “Is this something that the world needs?” Coming into our third year of #NotInMyCity, we decided not to have a fundraising event because we didn’t think the world needed it.
People were talking about #NotInMyCity, we had great buy-in from people. It was time for us to get more resourceful in the way that we were going to try to find resources and invite the rest of the community to come on board without it being that campaign where there wasn’t that big ask all of a sudden. You have to be tasteful in the way that those things are being done. The world doesn’t need another rubber-chicken dinner. We have to be aware of that. It can’t be about entertaining people and giving them a chance to feel good about themselves in a moment. I feel strongly about this. It has to be about engaging people’s hearts and minds and putting it to them to make a decision because in the long-term, what’s going to change our society is when people take these things to heart. I don’t want to give people the opportunity with human trafficking to write a check and feel better. I don’t want to do that. I want their minds and their hearts to change.
This is a question about some advice. For instance, I got into fundraising through my enjoyment and love of philanthropy, but especially you’re talking about that such a global initiative, what is your advice around getting involved and making a difference on a personal level? You talked a little bit about sharing and conversation in social media, but what’s your best advice on getting involved and making that difference in an organization?
Do you mean for you personally or do you mean the people within your organization that you’re inspiring?
More personally because it’s easier to do that in the institution we work with and with 5zthe product, it’s hard to lose sight of the reason why we got into fundraising and philanthropy.
You do what you believe. I have a lot of artists who come up to me and are young, want to get into the music industry type people. “How did you make it? How did you get into the hall of fame? How did all this stuff happen for you? What did you do? What was the secret?” The secret was I did it because I loved it. I did it not worrying about whether anyone was going to notice or not. It’s the same type of thing with philanthropy. You do it because you’re passionate about what it is that you’re representing. I don’t love everything about getting up on stage every single night.
That’s not a popular thing to say in the music industry. My job is to sell an image and a dream. That’s not my main job anymore. I’m not a musician. I’m someone who’s trying to effect change. I get up on stage and I sing Alberta Bound for the 5,000th time. When I think about someone in Haiti getting a house and I think about that little girl in Cambodia, when I think about disaster relief in Slave Lake, when I think about flood relief in Southern Alberta, I could sing that song every night on my life because I know that the reason that we’re doing it is for that. You find those things that motivate you and move you in the work that you’re doing and you let that be the source that it all springs from. I’m experiencing it in my life amazing things happen when you can focus on that stuff.
I was curious to know about the work that you’re doing, #NotInMyCity. You talked about all of the agencies that are working more collaboratively. Does that include agencies that work with identifying those children who are at risk and looking at preventative measures to help them?
One of the conversations that come up in the topic of human trafficking and most people who are looking at this issue and wanting to learn more about it, the first question they’ll ask is, “What’s the difference between prostitution and trafficking?” You start to get into morality and social issues. I had a very interesting conversation in Toronto as we started to make inroads there. I was speaking with a woman who was responsible within the city hall for bringing social issues forward within the city. She said, “I don’t know how you do it in Alberta, but the way that we do it here is we bring these delicate, difficult topics that are social issues to the community. We let them decide what they want to do with it. It’s not up to us to impose our morality on others.”
I said, “That’s a good way to look at it.” She said, “Yes, it’s a gray area. What if she’s sixteen years old and she wants it?” I was shocked, but there are people who think that way. One of the things that we focused on with, #NotInMyCity purposefully is we don’t want to get into all those issues about whether someone chose a lifestyle or didn’t choose a lifestyle. What we do know is that the majority of people who end up in the sex trade and one attribute to people who become more vulnerable to being trafficked is that they’ve been abused at some point in their life. There are chemical and physical changes to the brain that occur as a result of that impact decision-making processes. They become more vulnerable. We know that one of the tactics that traffickers will use, there are more violent tactics than this will be to go up to a young girl on public transit.
If she’s looking at her feet more than maybe some other girls on the bus, she probably has low self-esteem. Playing the odds will walk up to her and say to her, “I was abused too,” with the hope that he’ll make a connection with her and she’ll trust him and he’s got her. That education piece and the early intervention, helping parents to understand that leaving an open computer or a cell phone in the hands of a child is like leaving a loaded gun on the table related to the issue of human trafficking. We better understand how we’re going to deal with that issue. These are all huge parts of it and we also know that statistics are showing us more and more now that children in care are highly vulnerable to this. We’re working closely with some of those agencies in Alberta.
Thank you very much. Thank you for being a part of this. Thank you so much for sharing your stories.
That was Paul Brandt in conversation at the National Philanthropy Day in Victoria, British Columbia. The event itself was sponsored by Coast Capital Savings, The Victoria Foundation and The Discovery Group. It was phenomenally organized by Jessica Bell and an outstanding organizing committee. Thank you very much for reading.
- Paul Brandt
- Buck Spring Foundation
- The International Justice Mission
- Smithville Hats
- The Black Hat That Does Good Things
- Music Counts
- Coast Capital Savings
- The Victoria Foundation
- The Discovery Group
About Paul Brandt
Paul Brandt is the most awarded male Canadian country artist in history.
His 1996 debut RIAA certified Gold album Calm Before the Storm went on to sell one million albums internationally, propelled by the #1 single and wedding classic “I Do”. Stateside, his #5 and #1 charting songs “My Heart Has A History”, and “I Do” were the first to chart by a male Canadian Country artist on the US Billboard Top 20 since 1976.
Throughout his remarkable career, Paul has always focused on using his celebrity to help and shine a light on the lives of those less fortunate, and has encouraged others to do the same. He has traveled extensively to developing countries around the world raising awareness for various humanitarian aid organizations.
His 11 career albums have spawned hit singles, multiple Album of the Year awards, gold, platinum, and multi-platinum performances. According to Nielsen BDS, of the Top 25 Canadian Country songs, 6 were released by Paul Brandt, and his song “My Heart Has a History” is the most played Canadian Country song since the chart began. Paul is also the most played Canadian Country Artist on Country Radio in history (Nielsen BDS). He has had 27 top ten songs at Canadian Radio.
His song “For You” (Brandt/Rosen) was selected to promote the 2002 major motion picture We Were Soldiers, and was performed by Dave Matthews and Johnny Cash. In 2015, Canadian Independent Music Association celebrated Paul’s reaching “Road Gold Status” as a top headliner and major box office draw in Canada, and his most recent EP Frontier was nominated for Album of the Year at The 2016 Juno Awards. The hit single “I’m An Open Road” from that collection is certified Gold.