A version of this appeared as the cover story in the 2011 Winter-Spring issue of Insights magazine, the alumni publication of Georgetown College.
By Elizabeth D. Sands Wise
It’s not every day that a visitor to the Georgetown College campus finds students chained together outside the cafeteria, standing in solidarity with the estimated 30 million enslaved people worldwide. But that’s exactly where sophomore Katie Sanders of Lexington found herself recently. Sanders serves as co-president of the newly formed Student Abolitionist Movement with junior Devin Harris, of Butler, KY. “We got some very weird looks,” Sanders said. “People were curious.”
And making people curious might be the first step of a growing world-wide movement to end the modern-day slave industry, an industry that reportedly rakes in over $32 billion dollars each year, according to David Batstone’s Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It. Batstone, a professor at the University of San Francisco, co-founded the international Not for Sale campaign after discovering slavery in his own neighborhood. A “tragic accident” resulted in a raid of his favorite local Indian restaurant, whose owner, it was later found, had trafficked hundreds of adults and children from India into the United States.
According to Batstone, “well over one hundred thousand people live enslaved at this moment in the United States, and as many as seventeen thousand new victims are trafficked across our borders each year” (p. 3). Human trafficking, both of adults and children, is a global problem, tainting the cocoa, coffee, technology, and sex industries among others, but it has also become a local problem all over America.
Here in the Bluegrass region, a handful of dedicated and inspiring Georgetown College faculty and students are taking Batstone’s lead, working together to draw attention to the global industry of human trafficking.
Raising awareness about a wide array of social justice issues, including human trafficking, is not new to Georgetown’s campus. Campus Minister Bryan Langlands, for example, first learned about human trafficking five years ago from students involved with the International Justice Mission. That group no longer exists, but the work continues. Some current students, like Sanders, arrive on campus as freshmen with knowledge about human trafficking and the passion to combat it, working on their own to organize events and raise awareness.
Last spring, according to Langlands, it was alumnus Brittney Thomas who challenged the campus to consider taking on the issue of human trafficking as a campus-wide initiative. Thomas first learned about human trafficking during her time as a Georgetown student, while studying abroad in Cambodia, and she now serves as the Kentucky State Director of the Not for Sale campaign. Thomas has spoken occasionally at a weekly campus worship service, Common Ground, as well as lectured in Associate Professor Regan Lookadoo’s Psychology of Slavery course.
Lookadoo and Langlands, in addition to Assistant Professor of Education Alison Jackson Tabor and others, responded by organizing the year-long Georgetown College Modern Day Slavery Project, a series of events to educate and mobilize the Georgetown community. These events included offering monthly screenings of documentaries about human trafficking, bringing gifted speakers to campus who are directly involved in combating trafficking on both domestic and international levels, providing opportunities for both campus and community members to examine their consumption patterns more critically and working towards taking tangible steps to end human trafficking. Look at the research. Buy certified Fair Trade goods. Find out where your clothes, shoes, cell phone, and food came from by checking out websites like Better World Shopper (www.betterworldshopper.org). This is how you make a difference.
Motivating the Modern Day Slavery Project at Georgetown is the belief that ending the global slave trade can only begin with education. As Jackson Tabor says, “People have to become aware of the issues before determining to take action.”
We sat down with Regan Lookadoo and Alison Jackson Tabor to talk about human trafficking, the goals of the Modern Day Slavery Project, and why this cause is important to the mission of Georgetown College.
Why has the issue of human trafficking become so important to you? How did you get involved? Tell us your stories.
Alison: When I lived in Africa in 2000 and 2001, I was working with schools there, but I kept seeing children who weren’t in school… I became concerned when I saw children who just didn’t seem attached. I began to ask questions. I saw a number of things that were disturbing to me, and I began to hear a lot of different kinds of stories. There was an older woman who always had very young children with her, and she used them to beg. She came to my door every day. I started researching it, and I found out that no one knew where she was getting these children. She’d get them, and then the children would be removed from her by the equivalent of family and children’s services, and then she’d come up with more children. No one ever knew where she was getting these children.
That just started to haunt me. And then I had opportunities to visit cocoa farms and banana plantations and frequently saw children in those contexts that were not in school, and I would ask questions and be told, “Oh, well, they go at other times,” or “They’re helping their family.” I was never able to really have any of my questions answered in a satisfactory way.
I ended up leaving Ghana in 2001 with all these questions and not really having any answers. And it wasn’t until I was back in the States for some time that I began to learn about Fair Trade items, that I started to connect all the dots. It really just continued to be a personal interest that I didn’t really do anything with professionally until Regan and I started talking about this project.
So I had this big window of time where it was just a burden and not really having anything constructive to do about it other than to read on my own and explore and ask questions.
So this project and all that we’ve begun to learn—I don’t want to indicate in any way that I am a wealth of knowledge at this point because I’m not—what I’ve begun to learn has really given me a framework from which to explore more and work more.
I’m almost ashamed to say I didn’t really understand what it was to be enslaved in a modern-day context in terms of slavery. As I look back on it, I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask more, to say more, to look more than I did. There’s one child in particular that I won’t ever forget. She came to my house every day. She was about two years old. She would be brought to my house every day to beg. And every day she was so dirty. And I would go in and get a washcloth, and dampen it, and she would just lean in to me. I would wash her face and give her something to eat. Those little images just haunt me, you know? It’s been ten years, and I don’t know where she is.
Regan: My story is much more one of prepping for classes and trying to come up with topics to cover in two courses, Psychology of Women and Psychology of Slavery. With Psychology of Women, we addressed violence but not trafficking. And then I was connected to Brittney Thomas, whom I had as a student when she was here. I invited her to speak in my class, and I completely, jaw-hits-the-floor, could not believe this was happening. I was astonished, shocked, and felt so incredibly ignorant of a problem that is so prevalent.
I think I had always thought of it as a problem that is in remote areas, very, very far away, an issue abroad. It certainly wasn’t 27 million, that type of number. In my mind it was just a very small problem. So I started reading more, and at the same time I was developing a Psychology of Slavery class, and I did not feel as though I was prepared to cover that topic. So that course became mostly psychology of slavery in our past history. But I always felt like I needed to bring in, at least half the course be, modern-day slavery. So I started learning more, asking Brittney what I could do to learn more. She told me about this tour, the Stop Paying for Slavery Tour, and connected me to the Global Forum on Human Trafficking, and it all came from there. By going to that forum [last fall], I think there more than anything, it just showed me how many people are involved in this issue, that are devoting their whole lives to this issue, and how real the issue really is, and how domestic it is.
Considering how widespread human trafficking is around the globe, why do you think it is that here in America we don’t tend to know about it?
Regan: I think it’s very intentional. I think it’s intentional on the company’s end, and I think it’s intentional in our own minds every day. We make choices as to what we allow ourselves to think about and consider and reflect on enough to take action or change our behavior. And we choose what to allow to slide by us. So I think that we have to look at ourselves to say that we are intentionally not aware. That is not to say that we can’t become aware, that we can’t open our minds to it.
In my mind, it’s really about connecting. It’s once you can see yourself in that place. Once I can make the connection, when that person is me. That person could be my child. And even if it is far-fetched that it could even happen, it’s about connecting that that is another human, like you, another living person that should have rights afforded to them, that were given to you, if you’re from a privileged group. So I think it’s connecting, for me, to that reality, that that is a person, not a number. That is a person daily engaged in this activity—it makes it to where you can’t forget it.
Alison: I have two thoughts about why we don’t seem to be aware. One thing is that as Americans we tend to have a very high level of trust and we have not cultivated a discerning perspective regarding asking where things originate. We don’t ask where our food comes from, we don’t ask where our clothing comes from, we don’t really ask where anything comes from. I think that’s part of why fast food does so well here. No one seems to want to know where that food begins. I think that is kind of crucial. Maybe it’s just because we trust too much, that our government, the FDA, won’t let it be anything harmful, so it must be okay.
I was a single mom for most of my daughter’s life–she’s 24 now and we’ve been on our own since she was 4. There were some pretty lean years for us, so we cultivated the motto in our family that “Those who have the least see the world as it really is.” And I do believe that as a privileged, affluent society, we don’t have to ask those questions. And so a lot of what we do as consumers, what we consume as Americans, has a side that is of very little concern to us.
I guess the final piece to that is that increasingly we have demanded low prices. And that has become a marketing tool for a great many companies. That as long as you can buy it at the lowest possible price, then that is the goal. But we’ve failed to ask, what is the supply chain for an item that is bargain-basement price? And we’ve set ourselves up historically with some very poor choices politically in terms of global markets that have created a scenario that’s untenable and not sustainable, largely because we didn’t ask.
Regan: And we’re also consume, consume, consume.
Alison: Yes, we want to consume a lot, and we want to consume it as inexpensively as possible. That’s a really problematic combination. So I think there’s some cultural dynamics, some political dynamics in place there, and some historical things that bring it all together. And we just don’t know. I probably am more critical of my own culture than most people, but I tend to think that by and large we don’t want to know. Because if we know, then we have to change something in the way we do it. So ignorance is bliss, that kind of an attitude. I have actually had friends in the last year who have said, “Oh, gosh, just don’t tell me.”
Regan: I’ve had friends, too, that have said, “We can’t do anything about it. I just don’t want to know. It’s better for me not to know.” I think that’s a big part of it. You feel immobilized.
There’s truth in the fact that to really open up to this issue you have to be able to admit that you’re a part of it. And that’s another whole issue, because you’re admitting that you’re engaging in behavior that is not ethical, and that’s questioning who you are. People don’t want to do that, myself included! No one wants to look in the mirror and think that I’m contributing to something that is so horrific just because I want cheap clothes or I want to be able to have cheap food. So it puts you in this moral challenge with behavior you used to do so carelessly, such as shopping, shopping for your food. That used to be fun. You didn’t have to research it before you would go.
So how do you walk the line between educating people and being considered a crazy activist?
Regan: We’ve been saying that we are not experts here, that we are changing with them, so whatever we are asking of them, we’re doing it right along. And it’s a new behavior for us. So we’ve tried to have open discussions about that and how challenging it is, that it does cause this tension.
But we’ve also been strategic in what we’ve made available to students. There are more radical films we could have chosen, and there are more radical speakers we could bring in, but we’ve tried to pick videos and speakers that are showing what this issue is but showing it in a way that you’d be least likely to get feeling overwhelmed.
Alison: I think it is a fine line. I think there are days when I fall on the side of making personal choices and managing to not pressure others to come alongside me, but try to come alongside them. But I do struggle because there are definitely days when I know that a line I’ve drawn becomes a burden to someone else. And it is difficult to know when to push that envelope a little bit and when to just hold my tongue, let it go, and know there will be another day.
I want them to have a chance to walk their own journey in the process and be able to identify their own touchpoints. This is a huge issue, and in fact, it isn’t just one issue. It’s so many issues. But I see that as a blessing and a curse. It could immobilize people because it can become overwhelming. But at the same time there are so many different entrance points for people to engage, so if sex trafficking is way too enormous and too removed, fine, just be aware. But if it’s easier to work from the perspective of child labor, whether it be chocolate or coffee or something else, then fine, engage there.
What we’ve tried to do is help people see that this is one of things that anyone can make a contribution. Use what you have, who you are. Use who you are becoming, and whatever gifts or talents, and focus on that. And when people have a way to make a difference, they are much more inclined to hear this story. At least I’m hopeful that it’s true. Because if I don’t feel like I can do anything, I’m likely to shut down. But if I can see even one way to be involved or to be aware or to make a personal lifestyle change that would matter, then I have a jumping off place. And at some point down the road those folks may actually take a bigger bite.
I try to keep all these things in tension with each other to stay on the line of not pushing too hard, not being that radical. But in my own life, I think I have to be willing to model something that is radical. I may not require or demand anything of anyone else, but if someone asks me, “Dr. Tabor, what are you doing?” then I’m ready to take the next step. I want to be able to say, “Well, this is what I’m trying to do this year. This is my goal.” If I’m not expecting a lot of myself, than it’s unlikely that anyone else is going to try to do very much either.
Regan: We’ve also encouraged them to take small steps. Even with our petition to Hershey, it was still so mild. It wasn’t “Boycott Hershey.” It was, “Let’s tell Hershey that we’ve now progressed to where we want Fair Trade chocolate, and they’ll make it for us.” So I hope that the students are taking that away.
We’re just not radical people, too. I think it comes down to personality as well. Students know what we’re like in classes, they know how we tackle difficult issues there. Hopefully they feel like it’s not ever presented radically.
Alison: Regan and I are not opposites. We’re very much alike. We’re gentle spirits.
Regan: Through every event, we’ve tried to foster a sense of community, that we’re all in this together. I hope that that’s coming out. And any time you’re building community, it’s not going to be radical. Because if it’s radical, it just doesn’t stay.
Why is the Modern Day Slavery Project important to the community of Georgetown College in particular? How does it fit in with the mission of the college?
Regan: Our mission to provide life-long learners fits right in with that, because human trafficking going to be an issue that is going to be changing, and it is something to continue educating yourself about, as you spend time outside of the college.
But also I think the fact that we’re faith-based is important. Abolitionist movements of the past have been rooted in faith communities. I think that goes right along with our mission. It shows students how you integrate a call with a career path with perhaps a greater mission.
And being authentic to really who you are, to be an authentic learner, you have to be open to things that make you uncomfortable. You have to be open to being able to learn about things they’ve never thought of before, things that make you nervous.
And in our mission we stress building community and connecting to community.
Alison: And being globally aware, as well as domestically aware. In education, we talk a lot about a call, the call to teach—what does that mean? What does that look like? And students, in my mind, often misinterpret that. So sometimes I tell them, rather than focusing on a call, ask for a burden. Focus on a burden instead. And that’s really what this has become for me. It’s a burden in the best possible way. Because it’s the thing that makes me wake up in the middle of the night, and sometimes I wake up with an idea. Sometimes I wake up and I am just so sad. When people have a burden people are more likely to respond.
The mission of the college definitely gives us a way to push students in that direction. Otherwise they’re just words.
How do you respond to people who don’t think their actions will make a difference? What are the practical things you tell them?
Regan: I say, “I understand.” Because I’ve been there, too. There are points where, on this journey, I have felt like throwing my arms up. There’s nothing I can do. Well, before this year. But I usually say, “Pick one thing. Just one single thing you think you can change on. Is it chocolate? Is it coffee? Is it some other product that you know that you purchase a lot of, and go find how it is rated, and if it isn’t rated well, then make a switch to not purchase that particular brand of clothing. Is there just one thing that you would be willing to pursue?” And that has helped, because then people don’t feel quite as threatened, that they don’t have to make this huge life change. Now what you’re hoping happens is that once they do it for chocolate, or once they do it for coffee—and I think coffee is the easiest to do because there’s more available—then they’ll say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad! And look at me, I’m supporting…” And you kind of get that sense that hopefully they start connecting to things. You know, that wasn’t so hard, so now I’ll move to the next one and the next one.
But I also, if it’s a person I feel real comfortable with, I’ll say, “You know, hundreds of years ago, people were saying that about slavery. And they were using that same rational: ‘There’s no way the American economy can survive if we don’t have slave labor. How could we produce cotton if we didn’t have slaves?’ They had no conception of how the community or how even the structure of our government, our country, could survive without slave labor. And you can see that in Thomas Jefferson’s writings, saying ‘If there’s a just God, we are going to pay for this,’ for these slaves.” I think it was Thomas Jefferson. So if it’s someone I’m real comfortable with, that’s what I do.
Then I think you meet some people that you know aren’t ready yet. It’s not going to matter what you say. Then I just say, “I respect your opinion on that.”
Alison: The only thing I would add to that is that there are times when there’s a lot of intimidation in silence. I don’t really give people permission to stay in their ignorance, but I often will just say nothing. And I don’t mind if they go away feeling a little uncomfortable. I don’t say anything else. I don’t target them. I’m not going to beat a dead horse, but I just don’t say anything at all. If the conversation has to have closure, I might say, like Regan, “I hear you” and “I’m learning a lot, so if you have questions or you’d like more resources, just let me know.” And that’s it. I don’t say anything to let them off the hook.
It took God ten years for me to really connect the dots, so I certainly can’t stand in judgment of someone else, but I’m not going to give that person permission to be comfortable in their ignorance.
Regan: I think there is a legitimate argument that there are people that can’t afford to make these life changes right now, and I think the burden lies on those of us who can to be the voice for them. It is difficult when you are just trying to make ends meet for you to spend five more dollars on coffee, so I think there is a point where the message does rest on those of us who do have opportunities to choose others and make our voice known, and not push blame on those who can’t. I think there are legitimate cases who can’t, but they can still open their mind. I think for our state, because of the poverty rate here, it’s a hard issue for me to go into the community and say certain things. They don’t have as many options, especially with food…
Raising awareness in those poverty-stricken areas that their children are vulnerable [to human trafficking], that is the message I can say. Making yourself more aware of this issue, make sure that someone is watching them if you’re working two jobs, when they get off the bus and they have a long trek up to your house. It’s little things like that that can be used for populations in the state that maybe aren’t in a place where they can make these other consumer changes.
But I think we carry a burden to try to make these products more available so that everyone can have them.
Alison: What is addressed with different populations matters: addressing safety and precautions for children in one population, addressing consumer choices in another population, addressing something else in yet another. And it isn’t that we get to decide what that is, it’s just that different populations are going to connect with this differently. Being sensitive to that, that’s the other thing. People connect with things when we touch them, their need. I want to try to understand what is their burden, what is their worry, what do they worry about when they wake up in the middle of the night. How does that connect with this?
In addition to making thoughtful lifestyle decisions, how can alumni join in this cause?
Regan: I think by connecting to current students. If you are an alum, and you know of a current student in your community, try to connect with them and see how you can bring this message to your community, to your schools, to your churches. Do some kind of even in your community, but linking up to a current student, let our students connect to alums, so everyone can get involved.… Alums are the ones with resources. They’re the ones in the workplace, they’re the ones working as physicians, nurses.