Students Opposing Slavery: Continuing Lincoln’s Fight for Freedom

By Special Contributor posted 09-11-2014 17:22

By Callie Hawkins

 | Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
 Students Opposing Slavery gathered at Lincoln Cottage this summer for a week-long summit on human trafficking and modern slavery. | Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
In February 2012, President Lincoln’s Cottage, located in Washington, D.C.,  launched an exhibit on modern slavery called Can You Walk Away? Human Trafficking: Modern Slavery in the United States. Given our history and the work President Lincoln did here developing his ideas around the Emancipation Proclamation, we realized that we have a responsibility to see how far our country has come in the fight for freedom. As a result of this exhibit, PLC began working with a group of four high school juniors who started Students Opposing Slavery (SOS), a grassroots, student-led organization to raise awareness against human trafficking and modern slavery. President Lincoln’s Cottage (PLC) worked with these students in several different capacities and when the founders looked ahead to what would become of SOS when they graduated, they approached PLC about becoming the home base for SOS activity. With them, PLC came up with a plan to host an annual week-long international summit for high school students and developed a strategy for continued engagement with participants throughout the school year. Now two years later, PLC has held two successful SOS International Summits, which engage students from around the globe in the modern fight to end slavery at a place central to our nation’s historical fight against it.

The SOS Summit was developed with three major goals in mind. PLC wanted to: 1) convene a group of high school students from around the world to raise awareness of human trafficking and modern slavery; 2) develop big ideas around ending modern slavery and provide participants the tools they need to continue Lincoln’s fight for freedom in their own communities; and 3) create a global network of young abolitionists. Each Summit has brought its own set of challenges and “a-ha” moments, some of which are shared below.

A Safe Place for Unsafe Ideas

 | Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
Workshops, brainstorming, and reflection exercises help students understand issues surrounding modern slavery.| Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
PLC has a history of pushing the boundaries of traditional historic house museums and interpretation. Six years ago, we opened to the public for the first time as a historic house museum furnished with Abraham Lincoln’s ideas rather than his objects. By harnessing the power of this authentic place, PLC immerses the public in the stories of what happened at the Cottage as a way to inspire visitors to take action today. Through this approach, PLC is highly regarded among colleagues and visitors as a safe place for unsafe ideas. Since opening to the public, a youth engagement initiative that goes beyond the more traditional on-site education program has long been on our programmatic wish list. Because we are a relatively new site, public tours and on-site K-12 education programs took priority. While some of our early ideas for youth engagement were good, none quite captured this idea of the Cottage as a “safe place” where young people could use the history of what happened at PLC as a lens through which to explore a relevant global issue until SOS.

Using this as a guiding principle, the Students Opposing Slavery International Summit was developed in a way that engages students from diverse backgrounds and from a mix of public, private, and international schools around a human rights issue uniting them all. The work Lincoln did here during his three seasons in residence provides context for the modern fight and inspiration for young minds eager to take this message back to their own communities. As a way to ground each day, presenters and program facilitators focus content toward collectively answering questions including: What is modern slavery?; Who is vulnerable?; Where is modern slavery?; and How do we end it? Workshops, brainstorming, and reflection exercises provide opportunities for small groups to break down these difficult concepts in a non-threatening, peer-to-peer environment. The Summit concludes at a ropes course where students solidify their bonds and prepare for the challenges associated with launching SOS chapters in their own communities.

Filling a Void

 | Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
 Students gather on the porch of President Lincoln's Cottage during the summit. | Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
One of the major strengths of this program was that PLC drew on existing partnerships to put together a phenomenal lineup of content experts in the anti-human trafficking field. While staff members at PLC have learned a tremendous amount about the modern fight to end slavery, this is not our area of expertise. Luckily, there are myriad NGOs and government agencies working to provide services for survivors of modern slavery and establish creative solutions to ending slavery worldwide. Few of these, however, have the capacity or expertise to provide services or preventive education programs to youth communities. Many of these organizations do not have the physical space, national school contacts, trained education staff, or proven record of providing quality education programs to take on this type of youth engagement. PLC recognized that we could help fill this void by using our strengths as an educational institution with a powerful history. And, by drawing on our relationship with Polaris Project, a leading NGO fighting modern slavery, we made connections with government agencies such as the U.S. Departments of State, and Health and Human Services and NGOs like Fair Girls, International Justice Mission, and GoodWeave to provide excellent presentations and workshops in this content area.

Further, the emotional health of student participants was of the utmost importance to PLC. Having a diverse group of students also meant having a group of students with many different life experiences. Given the sensitive nature of the topic and survivor narratives shared during the Summit, PLC devoted a session that discussed the lasting psychological impact trafficking has on victims and introduced the concept of secondary trauma for those learning about the issue. Participants strategized ways to cope with emotional triggers throughout the week, and PLC provided counselors on site for anyone who needed to talk away from the larger group. This mix of experienced educators, working in consort with partner organizations who are content specialists, created a dynamic week of exercises, brainstorm sessions, content-driven workshops, rich content and context, and achievable action items.

The Generation that Says “Enough.”

 | Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
Experienced educators created a dynamic week of exercises and workshops for SOS participants.| Credit: President Lincoln's Cottage
Of the many challenges associated with this type of youth engagement program, PLC recognized that the recruitment of a diverse group of international students dedicated to this issue and willing to commit to both a week-long summit and continued engagement throughout the school year would be challenging. PLC drew on existing school administration and teacher contacts for recommendations of students who exhibit a desire to develop their leadership skills, are dedicated to their communities, and have expressed interest in connecting the past with the present to effect positive change in society. PLC also drew on international organizations and agencies with whom we have worked on this issue to recommend participants. Additionally, PLC reached out to individual students who participated in other Students Opposing Slavery activities to recommend their classmates. Once accepted into the program, PLC asked each youth participant to sign a Statement of Commitment obligating their time and attention to the requirements of the Summit and continued engagement. What PLC could not have anticipated is the eagerness with which youth participants lent their voice to the cause, and the extent to which they felt like Lincoln had passed the torch on to their generation—to be, as participants described it, the generation that says “enough” to modern slavery.

Of all the lessons learned and expectations exceeded of our annual SOS International Summit, the most significant has been the emergence of an inspiring, new generation of abolitionists which gives hope to the anti-trafficking cause and strengthens PLC’s dedication to continue Lincoln’s fight for freedom.

Read more about the summit in the participants own words on the SOS blog.

Callie Hawkins is the associate director for programs at President Lincoln's Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site.

#Diversity #Education #LincolnsCottage #HistoricSites

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