"Free the Slaves" officers Nikki Thompson (International Studies and Asian Languages & Literature) , Esther Lee (Sociology) and Brittany Waldean (Sociology
w/minors in Law, Societies & Justice and Human Rights)
“Journey from exposure to inspiration”: students charter Free the Slaves chapter
Student Esther Lee took her first Sociology class freshman year and was hooked. “I remember thinking, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to study this.” Now graduating this spring, Lee has channeled her passions in new directions by organizing with fellow students to charter a “Free the Slaves” organization on campus, an organization to educate other students about modern slavery and inspire them to take action.
The inspiration to start “Free the Slaves” chapter got its start in Sociology Professor Susan Pitchford’s “Social Problems/Atrocities” special topics class. “The journey was from exposure to inspiration,” says Lee. During the course of the quarter, Pitchford moved chronologically from past to current incidences of atrocities, ending on a segment on slavery. “I thought wait, didn’t we already go over that? Didn’t that end a long time ago?” recalls Lee. Pitchford introduced the class to Bales book The Slave Next Door and showed them a couple of documentaries about the topic of current slavery around the world. “I was completely floored” says Lee. “I didn’t know about any of this before this class. If we didn’t know about it, how many other people don’t know? We had to do something.”
Pitchford’s final paper assignment to the class was to do research on a current social problem, provide an analysis of why this problem still exists and then figure out realistic solutions on how to attack this problem. As part of this challenge, students were asked to research other organizations that are trying to address these issues.
This is where Lee learned about "Free the Slaves", a national organization whose mission is to end slavery worldwide. Responding to her students’ newfound interest around this topic, Pitchford sponsored an independent study in the subsequent quarter for students to continue their research on modern slavery. “After our final project, I knew I wanted to learn more about bringing awareness to this issue, so I also enrolled in [Pitchford’s] independent study course,” says Brittany Waldean, a Sociology major who had also first learned about human trafficking from Pitchford. As part of the independent study, students were tasked to create informational packets to educate each other about specific aspects and practices of the slave trade. Recalls Lee, “we were becoming more mindful of our everyday actions and interactions, like the products we buy, that might impact the slave trade.”
Student Nandie Oosthuizen (profiled in the last Department of Sociology News) was brought in by Pitchford to talk to the class and serve as a mentor. Her story of starting her own organization gave Lee encouragement. “Sometimes we feel like we are only students [and we think,] what can we do?” says Lee. “People are scared to step out of the box.”
Students decided they wanted to take action. Waldean joined Lee and others in an effort to educate the UW community, to build awareness of modern slavery as it is occurring on a global scale and also here in Seattle, whose port is a prime “hot spot” for human trafficking in the domestic, agricultural, and sex trade. The group started small on Facebook, posting news articles and images. Then they organized a booth in red square at Oodegard library, distributing homemade flyers, info sheets, and selling homemade cookies.
Nikki Thompson joined the organization at the organizations first event, a screening for a film called “Trade.” She was happy to have finally found a venue for her interest around human trafficking, which she had learned about before coming to UW, but for which she had previously found no support. She recalls that in high school, during debate team practice, she once argued for harsher penalties for human trafficking; afterwards, other students on the team accused her of fabricating the issue. “They were like, ‘you must be exaggerating. Otherwise, wouldn’t we have known about this? Wouldn’t it have been on the news?’”
After the film night, Lee, Thompson and Waldean reached out to the local police department as an effort to learn more about trafficking in Seattle and the local police response. They went to a conference about the Port of Seattle’s response to the slave trade, and learned that long-term aftercare of victims is most needed. This inspired the group to try and raise money for local victims.
In May, Free the Slaves held “Free to Dream Café Night.” This ticketed event featured UW performers and others who performed dedicated to victims of human trafficking. With video skills Lee learned in her Visual Sociology class, she created a video with fellow student James Gannon, which you can see here. The event was “a great success” says Lee, with 85 people attending and $389
raised for Free the Slaves and local victims-support service organizations.
"I'm so proud of these students." says Professor Pitchford. "Most of us want to look away when confronted with suffering. They have not only looked suffering in the face, but gathered the intelligence, compassion and commitment to work toward real change. These are the students you hope to see once in a career."
All three students are graduating this year, but they hope to keep the organization going by inspiring younger members to take the reins. Thompson recently learned that she won the prestigious Bonderman award that will allow her to travel for a year. Lee doesn’t yet know where her path may take her, but is inspired towards non-profit advocacy work. Waldean plans to work in the non-profit field and start a Human Trafficking Abolition Center through her church’s outreach program, with an “ultimate long term goal” to establish a rehabilitation center and transitional housing for people who have been victims of human trafficking. “I am confident that the research I have done on this topic and my future hands-on experience will make a difference.”