Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It’s shocking, but the slave trade is flourishing in many parts of the world. In fact, nearly 150 years after the American Civil War, there are purportedly enslaved workers in Philadelphia.
A new club, Free the Slaves, seeks to combat modern-day slavery. According to club leaders Natalia Choi ‘15 and Aileen Eisenberg ‘15, the mission of Free the Slaves–a national organization–is to help end slavery and raise awareness in the Swarthmore community. Quoting anti-trafficking activist Ben Skinner, Choi said, the club aims “to awaken the potential that everyone has to contribute to the cause, and empower people to feel they have a role to play in this cause.”
Choi and Eisenberg chose to establish the club as a chapter of Free the Slaves because, unlike other nonprofits, Free the Slaves is not linked to a religion and it targets all forms of human trafficking. Choi said, “They were so accessible and friendly to me and other college chapters, providing ready-made flyers and outreach materials. Plus, having that network is really helpful.” She emphasized opportunities for publicity on the national organization’s blog.
Choi and Eisenberg said the group defines modern-day slavery as any situation where people are held against their will and work without pay. The group estimates there are 27 million slaves worldwide, the most in history, including at least 10,000 in the US. Choi noted that “Philadelphia is actually a major thoroughway for human trafficking in the US. This club is very necessary because even though it’s in our own backyard, most people at Swarthmore, even such an intellectual, socially aware community, don’t know about its existence.”
Slavery encompasses a range of situations. Choi said, “Kids are often sold into slavery because their parents were desperate to pay off their debts, had too many mouths to feed, and unknowingly handed their child off to someone who promises they can help the child get a job in the city,” Choi said. In multiple cases international students attending college in the US have been abducted and forced into sex trafficking.
Slavery is the second most lucrative illegal business in the world. Eisenberg said that slavery persists to this day because of the lack of public awareness and the lucrative profits gained by traffickers.
There are many actions that can be taken to end slavery, according to the club’s leaders. Lack of awareness by the public, especially possible victims, is the major obstacle. Also, more severe prosecution for traffickers is needed, Choi said, “to make it clear human trafficking is a serious, intolerable crime.” Policy-makers need to pass legislation to make sure profits don’t outweigh the consequences and must train authorities to recognize signs of trafficking.
Labor exploitation counts as slavery too. Although it may not be obvious, Choi said, “Fair trade helps end slavery.” Currently, many small farmers don’t have access to markets and are therefore exploited by middlemen. Fair trade “allows transparent, equitable transactions by eliminating the middleman and giving them control of the revenue.”
Choi and Eisenberg have had a long history of activism against slavery. Choi was inspired in her sophomore year of high school when anti-slavery activist Benjamin Skinner gave a speech at her school about modern slavery. “Everyone interested in the issue should read his book, Crime So Monstrous. He recounted how he was offered a 9-year old girl from Haiti for $50. It really shocked me how prevalent, cheap, and easy slave trafficking was, and I felt compelled to do something.”
In high school, Choi established a club called Slavery No More, which raised awareness campaigns about slavery, and convinced the board of trustees to commit to supporting fair trade. As a result of the club’s efforts, her school became the first fair trade certified high school in the country.
Eisenberg, who attended the same high school as Choi, is just as passionate, but she said the gravity didn’t “immediately register; it was a gradual process.” A documentary, Human Trafficking, “made it so much more real for me, and I realized students have power to make communities around us care.”
Both have attended and spoke at conferences around the country, including Project Pericles Debating for Democracy last year. There, they wrote a proposal for legislation reforming transportation security in order prevent trafficking. Eisenberg said, “It was a great experience to consider the policy side of this issue.”
Regarding slavery’s relevance in today’s world, Eisenberg said, “Slavery is such a vast problem, interconnected with so many other factors such as poverty and education.” Choi said, “It’s such a fundamental violation of the basic definition of what it means to be a human. It’s unacceptable to turn a blind eye to this problem.”
”Member Gill Geffen ’16 said, “I joined Free the Slaves because slavery seems like such an important, fundamentally wrong condition to still exist today. Who wouldn’t want to be an abolitionist?” Eisenberg said, “President Obama just made a speech last week about his new executive order against human trafficking. If president is talking about it, it’s a sign that we should be talking about it too.
The club’s main priority this year is raising awareness on campus. Planned events include movie nights, inviting speakers, and open mics. A big goal for this year, Eisenberg said, is having “a panel of experts on slavery to highlight multidisciplinary perspectives,” such as economics, sociology, and psychology.
Beside raising awareness, Free the Slaves plans to write to legislators and petition against companies that use slave labor. In addition, Choi said, “We want to work with Swarthmore’s administration to increase fair trade products available at Swarthmore, and hopefully the college can eventually become fair-trade certified.” Ultimately, both Choi and Eisenberg emphasized that “because slavery is such a broad issue, it therefore provides many avenues for members to focus on aspects they care about and each contribute in their own unique way.”
Photo courtesy of Free the Slaves.