Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Can you walk away?

Can you walk away?:
“Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature – opposition to it, in his love of justice,” President Lincoln said in an 1854 speech. This weekend, President Lincoln’s Cottage has partnered with Polaris Project to launch an exhibit that will open people’s eyes to the realities of modern slavery and human trafficking.
Can You Walk Away? Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking in the United States is part of a year-long commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was developed at Lincoln’s Cottage.
I was able to attend a preview event of the exhibit, where Erin Carlson Mast, the Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage explained that the Cottage has an obligation to explore the modern impact of Lincoln’s presidency and his ideas. Looking at how slavery manifests today is a key element of that.  “Plenty of Americans see slavery as an issue that was resolved during the Civil War or by the 13th Amendment in the war’s aftermath, not as a growing humanitarian crisis,” said Mast.
I was involved in some of the exhibit planning, but I still found myself moved by the exhibit. I walked into a dark room, and was immediately introduced to the issue with video footage of interviews with survivors. After watching a woman explain how she was forced into domestic servitude in Falls Church, VA,  or a girl describe how she was forced into the commercial sex trade, I then saw three books along the wall, each illuminated by a single spotlight. These books explain: What is modern slavery?  Who is vulnerable? How do we end human trafficking?
After reading this information, I could then tear off a card attached to the wall to learn how I can personally help combat trafficking. Some of these actions include reporting a tip to the national human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888, sending a postcard to President Obama or signing up for the email lists of Polaris Project and President Lincoln’s Cottage. It’s rare for a museum to have such an interactive piece – visitors can actually remove something from the display itself! And it’s definitely my favorite aspect of the exhibit.
At the preview, Polaris Project Executive Director Bradley Myles expressed his appreciation for being invited by Lincoln’s Cottage to partner on this exhibit. He then described why so many people consider human trafficking a modern form of slavery.  “Those who traffic vulnerable people for profit are actively looking to take away that person’s freedom. They use force, fraud and coercion to manipulate people into the sex trade, to work in factories and fields, to become domestic servants.”
According to the UN, at least 12 million people are held against their will in compelled service across the globe. While Mast acknowledged that there are clear differences in slavery past and present, she also emphasized that, “Fundamentally, the same issue is at stake: People’s right to freedom.”
Bradley Myles said he hoped visitors will understand that they are an important part of the solution. He outlined some of the progress that has already been made in recent years. President Obama named January Human Trafficking Awareness Month. In 2000, Congress passed the first federal law against human trafficking. Forty-eight states now have criminal laws against trafficking. And of course, our own hotline has helped some 5,500 trafficking survivors connect to services all over the country.
“Doing this work for the past ten years, we have learned that when we show people the realities of what victims of human trafficking face every day, it is nearly impossible to walk away without wanting to join the growing movement to fight these human rights abuses,” said Myles.
You can visit the exhibit at the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center at President Lincoln’s Cottage during their hours of operation: 9:30am-4:30pm Mon-Sat, 10:30am-4:30pm Sunday. Tours of the Lincolns Cottage itself are available on the hour.
For more information on President Lincoln’s Cottage, visit:
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