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Social Justice and Starfish

A little boy and his grandfather walk along the beach one morning during low tide. The ocean had washed up hundreds of starfish overnight and they were now drying out on the shore, unable to get back to the water.

The little boy was upset by the sight of all the dying sea life and immediately started throwing as many starfish as possible back into the water. The grandfather watched him with his arms crossed.

“You know,” he said, watching his grandson, “you’re never gonna be able to save them all. What does it matter?”

The little boy looked down at the starfish in his hand.

“It matters to this one” he said, before throwing it back into the sea.


It’s a common story of the importance of compassion that’s been told several times in several ways. My parents often have used it to explain why they were moved to actually adopt and foster instead of just supporting the idea of adoption and fostering. Sure, they’d never be able to prevent all the vulnerable children of having to go in and out of a broken system, but they would be able to give a loving, safe home to those God brought to their care. They felt for this injustice and acted.

It’s a lovely story but I used to really, really hate it. Like, irrationally so. I remember hearing it when I was a kid and getting so frustrated why they weren’t asking the right questions in the story. Why are all the starfish being washed up in the first place? Is it the tides, or is it pollution or reef bleaching? Aren’t the starfish just going to wash back up in a few hours? How long of a throw does that kid even have? Is there a number for a maritime rescue unit?

My little anxious mind would get so angry about this fictional systemic injustice of the starfish, I’d start to connect it to real-life issues where big questions needed to be asked. Starfish poverty, starfish incarceration, starfish HIV/AIDS, starfish genocide, starfish child soldiers! WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT ALL THE STARFISH???


I wish I could’ve told that high maintenance little ball of anxiety with the world’s starfish problems on her shoulders that she would one day start finding answers to her big questions. I’m so blessed to work at an organization that thinks in the same way. Are we asking the right questions? Do we have all relevant perspectives? Is this complex issue being addressed on all sides?

Human and sex trafficking have been one of those issues so huge, so interconnected, and so rampant that people have stopped assuming it can even be regulated, much less eradicated. But at International Justice Mission, we’re all just that little boy doing a plethora of action to save the starfish. From lawyers, aftercare, investigations, advocacy, security, finance, church mobilization, communications, law enforcement partners, community actors, politicians, even celebrities- we’re all united in the belief that thoughtful action can make a difference.

What I love about IJM is that we’re not doing the same thing but we’re doing it all together for the same impact. The social workers restore the starfish, making sure they don’t end up on the shore again; the lawyers prosecute the tides, giving life sentences so no other starfish are hurt; advocacy empowers more and more people on the shore to start throwing them back in; we all then give the spotlight to the starfish to hear their voice.


Fine, fine. I know I’ve just about beaten the starfish metaphor to death.

I guess I’m just saying that it doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you do something, anything, to the fullest of your ability*. Go find your own starfish you care about.

Just don’t be that asshole grandpa.

*unless that thing is Neo-Nazism because no, just no

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