William Byrd High School students seek to end modern slavery

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VINTON, Virginia — True or false? Slavery ended more than 100 years ago with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

False, according to William Byrd High School students who proclaimed themselves modern-day abolitionists Tuesday as part of a nationwide campaign aimed at calling attention to and ending human trafficking.

Called Globalize 13, the curriculum from the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives commemorates the upcoming 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment while also raising awareness about modern-day slavery in the form of human trafficking.

Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives chose three sites across the country to launch the program — William Byrd was one.

"We can rise up and effect change," Ken Morris, founder and president of the initiatives, told students during an assembly Tuesday. "This is something that's going to reverberate outside your community."

Morris, a direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, said history lives in everyone, and he explained how it's shaped his own life. He helped to found the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, a nonprofit honoring the legacy of Douglass and combating modern-day slavery, in 2007 after being moved by a piece in National Geographic about human trafficking.

"Everything we do is built on a foundation of history," he said.

He told students that education about this issue should start with them.

"You all are the next generation of leaders," Morris said.

William Byrd students took that call to service seriously. They promoted Globalize 13 on social media (#Globalize13WBHS) and throughout the school's halls. An art display about human trafficking and resource tables about what students can do were set up in the gym.

"These kids are awesome and they are passionate and they want to make a difference," said William Byrd teacher Cristy Spencer, who spearheaded Tuesday's event and was responsible for bringing Globalize 13 to the school.

Spencer, who has taught for 18 years, applied last school year for William Byrd to be a launch site and was later chosen after her passionate plea resonated with Morris and the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives board.

She cried when she learned the news.

And now she said her students have taken ownership of the project, spending long hours researching companies who use slave labor and deciding to boycott brands and write letters to corporations.

"These kids want this," she said.

As a history teacher, Spencer said she talks with students about different social movements. Now they're part of one.

A new report published by the Walk Free Foundation, a human rights group trying to end modern slavery, states 35.8 million people are enslaved. The foundation's 2014 Global Slavery Index was published earlier this month and found modern slavery in all 167 countries covered by the index.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, because human trafficking happens underground it can be hard to identify and get an accurate picture of just how widespread it is.

"I wasn't really aware," William Byrd junior Taylor Russell said. "I knew it was in other countries. I didn't know it was here. I was shocked."

Russell said the idea of people being in forced labor is repulsive and consumers have to be aware of what companies are doing to make their products.

"It's just something no one wants to talk about," she said.

Russell said hopefully Tuesday's event will begin a conversation.

Seniors William Spotswood and Hannah Neidigh, who emceed Tuesday's assembly, were also optimistic about their potential to inform others and create change.

"It's not going to change unless we make change in our lives," Neidigh said.

She said human trafficking is kept a secret so people aren't always aware its happening.

Spotswood said he didn't realize it was so widespread.

"I've definitely discovered a lot," he said.

For him, Tuesday was inspiring.

"We are young," Spotswood said. "We can make a difference."


Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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