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Ashleigh S. Chapman: “Leadership is stewardship”

We are a world of people scrambling to understand how each of us is unique. Evidenced perhaps best by how many personality and aptitude tests there are on the market! But I believe what makes us unique is what makes us uniquely positioned to help others. Which shifts our focus from ourselves to others. If […]

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We are a world of people scrambling to understand how each of us is unique. Evidenced perhaps best by how many personality and aptitude tests there are on the market! But I believe what makes us unique is what makes us uniquely positioned to help others. Which shifts our focus from ourselves to others. If we think about our unique talents, skills, and interests in the context of how that keenly positions us to help our fellow man, then I think we would see innumerable miracles happen on behalf of all those in need. And our communities, our world, and ourselves, would be the better for it.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashleigh S. Chapman.

Ashleigh S. Chapman, JD is the founder of Justice U™. A human rights lawyer and social entrepreneur, she has worked solely on combating human trafficking and protecting vulnerable populations for the past 20 years. Ashleigh presently serves as the Founder/CEO of Altus Solutions, a Wyoming corporation dedicated to strengthening community response for vulnerable populations everywhere. Prior to Altus, Ashleigh served as: the President/CEO of the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice (AFRJ), the co-founder and Director of the Center for Global Justice at Regent University School of Law in Virginia, the Director of a non-profit serving thousands of at-risk youth in Tennessee, a children’s pastor and a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in foster care. Her international efforts include helping the Senate of Mexico establish their first comprehensive legislation to combat human trafficking, serving as an advisor to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to create the End Modern Slavery Act, establishing the Freedom Council (an assembly of business leaders and global companies dedicated to this cause) and training over 100 cities and eight nations on how to collaborate across sectors and increase their effectiveness to end and prevent human trafficking. A native Nashvillian, Ashleigh and her husband, Sloan, now reside in Wyoming.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was 11, my parents took into their care three young children who had experienced nearly every form of abuse and neglect. It was my first introduction to the horrors that exist for vulnerable souls in our world, particularly children. What struck me the most, however, was how very broken our systems of care were in our community, and how that brokenness had failed to prevent their harm and made it very difficult to keep them safe and sound even after they were removed from that situation. The end of the story is a good one. All three siblings were eventually adopted together by a loving family, and I found my life’s calling. I told my parents then that I felt I had been put on this earth to help end abuse and to reform systems of care, and that I would need a law degree to do it. Which is the only path I have been focused on every day since. Today, I am a human rights lawyer, social entrepreneur, and steward both a global nonprofit and a business for good — both dedicated to building solutions to end human trafficking and protect the vulnerable.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

That’s a hard one. But I think the important thing always in this work is that you must always be “on”. Human trafficking, and all forms of exploitation, are happening every minute of every day. If you keep your eyes open, no matter what you’re doing on any given day, you’ll find that you encounter ways to make a difference everywhere, sometimes in ways that save lives. Which leads me to one of the most interesting stories of my journey so far.

Years ago, my husband and I decided to take a much-needed vacation to a resort we had been to before in Orlando, Florida. At the time, we lived in Nashville, TN and so we set off in the morning to make the drive. As we drove through Atlanta, GA, we saw an Amber Alert highlighted on a sign over the interstate. A young girl had been kidnapped in the Atlanta area, and the make, model, color, and license plate of the car was displayed. We began praying then for her safety, and committed to looking for her all the day long. Which we did. At every rest area, every restaurant, every gas stop, all along the interstate, but we did not see the car.

We arrived at our resort 8 hours later, signed in at the front desk, and took our bags to the room. I suggested that we go ahead and make a grocery run before we went to sleep, and I remembered that there was a Walmart not far away in Kissimmee, FL. So we drove there, encountered some road construction which slowed us down a bit, and when we finally turned into the Walmart parking lot, the car that pulled in directly in front of us was THE car we’d been looking for all day long.

We parked next to it, the kidnapper got out of the car, grabbed the girl by the neck, and walked her into Walmart. My husband followed and alerted security, while I stayed by the car and called the police. When he came back out with the young girl, the police were waiting and ready. They arrested him, and returned her to her family that night. And we went back to the resort, so very amazed and grateful we had found her after all.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I became a nonprofit director when I was 19 years old, and at my first board meeting, I learned a big lesson about board management. We were gearing up to provide over 10,000 gifts to at-risk children and youth for Christmas, and somehow, I shared the color of the T-shirt we were giving to every kiddo in a way that somehow solicited feedback. Forty-five minutes later, we had gone through every color combination on the planet, only to land on the color I had originally planned to order. Lesson learned: don’t bring up details that do not warrant a discussion.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Our work, in both the nonprofit (AFRJ®) and business for good (Altus™), is to develop solutions that will mobilize a world of people to make a world of impact in the fight to end human trafficking. Because we have supported thousands of justice advocates and initiatives in the United States and all around the world through the AFRJ, we know the problems that are impeding success. So we built a team of experts in every relevant field to develop solutions to those problems, including human rights lawyers, business developers, technologists, educators, community consultants, impact analysts, and more. And we built Altus to power those solutions. All profits support the global work to end human trafficking.

Our solutions fall into three buckets: education, community strengthening, and innovation. Our education solution, Justice U™, has trained over 3,000 individuals in 47 states and 8 countries so far, with a plan in place to train 1 million more. Our community strengthening solution, Engage Together®, is equipping thousands of local justice advocates and hundreds of communities with the tools, insights, and resources they need to succeed. And every day our amazing team is working to innovate new solutions to help those in need and support all those already engaged in the fight.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are so many stories to tell. But one that comes to mind immediately is that a little while ago, I did a training for business professionals in Minneapolis, explaining how the business community as a whole — and business leaders individually — are uniquely positioned to help end the business of human trafficking. A couple of weeks later, I received a call from Houston. One of the women who had attended the training in Minneapolis was on a business trip, and staying at a hotel in Houston. While working at a table around the corner and out of sight from the front desk, she overheard the manager of the hotel taking an “order” from a man who came into the hotel explaining what “flavor” of woman he wanted delivered to his room. A clear sex trafficking operation. Because we had also recently been in Houston supporting the anti-trafficking efforts there, I had met specifically with the law enforcement official in charge of human trafficking operations in that area. We were able to reach out to that unit immediately, which triggered an investigation and intervention that night. It was a powerful moment where our education and community strengthening initiatives collided across state lines to provide rescue for victims in need. And a powerful testament to the miracles that can happen when we get equipped to make a difference (such as in the case of the businesswoman who attended the training) and keep our eyes open to what is happening all around us, many times, in plain sight. If you’d like to know more about how the business community can make a difference, go to https://learnwithjusticeu.com/pledge and https://afrj.com/business.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

All those who learn of human trafficking — whether they are an individual, an organization, or an entire community — immediately ask, ”How do we end this?” Often, their next instinct is to immediately dive in and engage. While that is an understandable and noble reaction, if we truly want to end human trafficking, we need to walk through three critical steps BEFORE we engage in order to create a strategic plan of action that will help end and prevent it. We call this “the SPACE between” framework, “SPACE” being an acronym for the steps involved.

Before we engage, we must do three things: understand the Strategy, the Possibilities, And the Context, then Engage. And when you engage, you also have three options available: enhance what you are already doing, come alongside those doing it well, or fill a gap. Taking the time to walk through these steps (a literal space between), become aware, and taking action, will lead to true and lasting impact. You can learn more about this framework on our website at https://engagetogether.com/endit/.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is stewardship. Stewardship of your purpose and especially your people. It means making sure everyone and everything is reaching its maximum potential, while modeling what is required to reach that goal: self-sacrifice, humility, leading with listening, valuing everyone’s input and honoring what everyone can bring to the table, driving towards excellence (versus perfection), and being willing to do whatever it takes to help build and support each other and your organizational goals all along the way.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • You’re going to lose people along the way, and that’s ok. I hate losing people. Even in the best of circumstances. It’s likely the oldest sibling in me, but I feel a strong sense of responsibility to take care of and keep close by all those on our teams and in our networks. When people walk away, and they can do that for any number of reasons, I feel a sense of loss akin to losing a limb. But over the years, I’ve come to realize, some people you’ll have the privilege of working alongside all your days, but many are there for a moment in time. And that’s ok. Even healthy.
  • When someone accuses you of something, self-reflect. But if you are not guilty of that thing, then they are likely talking about themselves. When we get accused of things — attitudes, motives, actions — that strike us as positively preposterous, I think the natural impulse is to think “How could they think such a thing about me?” “What did I do wrong?” “How could I have possibly given that impression?” etc. All of which are forms of taking the blame for something we may not have done at all. Always take a minute to reflect soberly on whether you are indeed at fault, but if not, don’t wallow in consternation. Realize you’ve just been given insight into something going on in the life of your accuser, and endeavor to respond appropriately, and with grace.
  • Take time to look at or do something beautiful every day. In our line of work, where every day you are focused on the darkest of issues and the worst of crimes, you can sometimes forget what beauty even is or looks like. So you have to make it a priority to lift your head out of the darkness, even for a moment, and do something that brings beauty and light back onto the scene every day so that you can be refreshed and re-energized to get back to the fight.
  • Do all that you can with what you have…then just keep making it better. When you are building solutions from the ground up, what you are able to birth at the outset is nearly always less than what you envision for its future potential and impact. But don’t let that reality discourage you along the way. Just take it as part of the journey. Use what you have to make the impact you can at that moment, and then just keep making it better and better and better. Building an organization, a solution, a team, or anything else is an iterative process. So is life. Enjoy the journey! Celebrate the small moments. Work through the problems. And keep pressing toward the future.
  • Breathe, eat, exercise, and sleep. Unless you prioritize these things, you will not do them. And the impact of that decision on your personal and professional livelihood is significant.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We are a world of people scrambling to understand how each of us is unique. Evidenced perhaps best by how many personality and aptitude tests there are on the market! But I believe what makes us unique is what makes us uniquely positioned to help others. Which shifts our focus from ourselves to others. If we think about our unique talents, skills, and interests in the context of how that keenly positions us to help our fellow man, then I think we would see innumerable miracles happen on behalf of all those in need. And our communities, our world, and ourselves, would be the better for it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

For 2020, my favorite “Life Lesson Quote” would be from Capt. Jean Luc Picard. (Yep, I’m a total trekkie.) In the last episode of his new series, Picard says something that has become my motto for 2020. “To say you have no choice is a failure of imagination.”

This year, for me and for everyone else, has been a year of the daily problem-solving battle. It’s tempting to throw one’s hands up at times and say “I have no choice!” But it’s the year of the pivot. Imagination is key. And I absolutely love the truth embodied in this quote.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Captain Jean Luc Picard (I mean, Patrick Stewart), of course! 😊 Star Trek has always been an inspiration to me, and Stewart’s portrayal especially of a leader dedicated to diplomacy, seeking and fighting for the rights of all, and stewarding with excellence his people and his mission has been a constant source of joy and encouragement to me since I first encountered the show as a kid.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow our JusticeU and Engage Together teams on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn @learnwithjusticeu and @engagetogether. After being on a social media hiatus for the past decade, I finally rejoined the world a few months ago. I’m personally only on LinkedIn, but would love to connect from there.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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