Noah Smith knew there was trafficking of humans and a modern-day slave trade in the 21st century, but the 17-year-old Westwood High School teenager had no idea it extended to the chocolate industry.
Two of his fellow students, Brianna Boles, 16, and Tasia Murray, 17, both juniors, also understood that slavery didn’t end in the 19th century. But they are still stunned by accounts in Africa and Asia of young girls and boys being stolen from their parents, forced into back-breaking work or brutalized in the sex trades.
“I have a little sister, and you can’t imagine that,” Boles said.
These Westwood students are now proud to call themselves “modern-day abolitionists” for drawing attention to the horrific living conditions of those ensnared in modern slavery.
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Westwood, a Richland 2 school, was chosen as one of three schools nationwide to launch a campaign known as Globalize 13, a service-learning project of the non-profit Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. The organization is providing a curriculum to schools across the country that reflects on the meaning of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in America, and informs about the modern-day quest for human rights.
To begin the project formally, Kenneth B. Morris Jr., the great-great-great grandson of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington, came to the school Nov. 17 to make sure students understood the gravity of their undertaking.
Urging the students to become a voice for the voiceless, Morris, the initiatives’ president, said he realized he had to join the fight when he found out this: “Half of the slaves around the world are children.”
He quoted his famous ancestor Douglass who said, “It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”
Westwood students, who had begun immersing themselves in the issue last spring, will continue their efforts to draw community attention to human trafficking as they work with the Initiative, the lead teacher on the project, English teacher Stacey Plotner, and other faculty.
At the assembly, seniors Lauren Drescher, 17, and Tyler Dale, 18 reminded students they have tremendous resources at hand to effect change. “You can use your consumer power,” Dale said, to determine whether to purchase products that may have been harvested or manufactured under suspicious circumstances.
Dale founded a club called Westwood Helps With International Problems, or WHIP, that has worked to raise money for organizations that support victims of human trafficking.
Smith, a junior, and his fellow English student Calvin Bright tried to capture the anguish of young children working the cacao fields with a painting that showed hands in chains, dripping blood, chocolate kisses and chocolate bars.
“This illustrates the pain and suffering,” Smith said. “I had a little bit of a sense (of the issue), but I didn’t know the degree.”
More than 70 percent of the world’s cocoa, harvested from the cacao bean, is grown in West Africa, mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast. But many of the workers are children, forced into servitude and without benefit of schools. They use machetes to cut down and open the cacao bean pods and hoist heavy bags of the harvested beans.
The world’s chocolate companies have stated their opposition to the practice of child labor and signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001 to end slavery. But the human trafficking persists.
And it can cut close to home. In South Carolina, victims are commonly immigrants and illegal immigrants.
Jayla Cunningham, a 16-year-old junior, is already working through her emergency medical training class to develop protocols for South Carolina first responders to recognize victims of human trafficking.
“We are trying to get as much awareness as we can,” Cunningham said, adding that she and her fellow classmates are willing to make presentations to local fire and EMS departments on warning signs that indicate a possible victim of human trafficking.
Plotner, the English teacher who serves as faculty catalyst for the service-learning effort, said the project has been illuminating for her students, who began with the reading of “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.”
“I had been teaching the narrative of Frederick Douglass for 18 years,” said Plotner, at Illinois native who has taught in Richland 2 for the past five years. “I had done social action theory where we had looked at different international issues.”
When she came across the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives online, she contacted Morris, the organization’s president, and Robert Benz, its vice president.
That led to a session last March on Skype with her English class, listening to Morris and Benz talk about the work of the Family Initiatives. The session animated her students.
“Afterward, the students were really inspired and they didn’t want to stop with their paper and presentation; they wanted to start a campaign,” she said. “We started an anti-human trafficking campaign at school.” Some students made public service announcements, others made documentaries and still others did interviews.
Students Skyped again in October and also had a video conference with former child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, she said. They heard a presentation from Lighthouse for Life, a South Carolina organization aiding victims of sex trafficking, and attended a conference for teachers and psychologists in Richland 1 and Richland 2 in which S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson spoke about the human trafficking task force in S.C.
The year-long service-learning project that launched Nov. 17 at Westwood includes study of the Globalize 13 curriculum developed by the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative. It will culminate in 2015 with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States.
“We try to do all things like this to make history relevant to keep us from repeating the mistakes of the past,” Plotner said. “I’m exhausted but really happy it all turned out and excited by the kids’ responses. It’s a teacher’s dream.”