By Callie Hawkins
Associate Director for Programs
President Lincoln’s Cottage
Students Opposing Slavery (SOS) is an award-winning youth education and modern abolitionist program at President Lincoln’s Cottage, a nonprofit historic site and National Monument in Washington, DC.
The signature SOS program is its annual, week-long International Summit. Launched in 2013 as a way for young abolitionists to network with their peers, the Summit takes place in late June. During the Summit, participants engage with survivors of modern slavery, modern abolitionists working in the anti-slavery field, and each other, to create campaigns that they will launch in their own schools to raise awareness and get others involved in the contemporary fight against slavery.
Following the Summit, students remain engaged with President Lincoln’s Cottage and their network of peers as they take the modern abolition movement back to their schools and communities. To date, 136 students from 23 countries have attended the Summit.
During the 2017 Summit, which was held in late June, President Lincoln’s Cottage hosted 26 students from eight states and five countries — the United States, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
The Summit is a formative and inspiring time for these students. Here are a few reflections from past participants on what they learned, and how they will continue to be the generation that says “enough” to modern slavery.
Abhishek Basu: “My journey has just begun.”
There exists two worlds: a sheltered one filled with an abundance of opportunities, and another one characterized by harshness and brutality. At 16 years, I had the chance to experience the stark realities of the latter. It was life-changing for me to visit Sonagachi along with team members of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an Indian organization that empowers girls and women to resist and end sex-trafficking. Sonagachi has several hundred brothels, and thousands of workers in the sex industry.
My initial feeling was one of apprehension as we entered the area. Multiple emotions coursed through me as I was exposed to the atmosphere of the place. It’s as if the very earth was trying to protest the innocence that is disfigured there. Congested lanes were filled with more people than you can imagine. Children ran about, their eyes reflecting poverty and sadness. And, of course, the women. They were there in throngs.
Young women of different ethnicities, all in heavy make-up and flashy clothing. They stood provocatively at the edge of the streets, hoping to attract customers. Men all around kept a watchful eye on them. I left knowing that my perspective towards life would never again be the same.
A week later, I landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, one of two fortunate people from India chosen to attend the Students Opposing Slavery (SOS) International Summit.
My heart skipped a beat when we arrived at President Lincoln’s Cottage, the conference site. The place was surrounded by a burial ground for the thousands of soldiers killed in and after the Civil War. The atmosphere was electric. It was as if the ghosts of those valiant soldiers were chanting in unison and supporting our cause.
When we toured the cottage, we could almost sense the presence of the Great Man himself. We were struck by his humility, his kindness, his dedication to his country and fellow man — and how good he was at checkers!
This was where the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and where Lincoln had once talked about his unfinished work. He had understood that slavery hadn’t completely ended. Something within me felt that he was passing the torch to all of us. For a moment, I truly believed I had the power to impact millions of lives. A power that each and every one of us possesses.
That first day made me realize the magnitude of the problem that we are facing. Human trafficking is far more than just a simple crime. It’s a thriving $200 billion industry that reaches into every nation across the globe.
The in-depth discussion got going on the second day when we students presented the problem from the perspective of each of our countries. Next we had a presentation by the youth leaders from MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking), which spreads awareness about human trafficking through music. Since music is universally loved, it’s a great medium to use to foster awareness among people. This idea really excited me.
The next few days flew by as we listed to speakers from various organizations. I was very affected by the account of a survivor named Poonam, who was 12 when she was trafficked from Nepal into India. Condemned to work in servitude in a brothel in Mumbai, Poonam managed to escape during a police raid. She is now 18, back in school, and dreams of becoming a social worker. She is a living testament that survival is possible, and that we don’t have to cling to the trauma of our past.
If there’s one thing I learned from this trip, it is inspiration — the thought that I can make a difference. I left knowing that my journey had just begun.
Lydia Miller: “I now understand how possible it is to change the world.”
During the last week of June, I assisted with the fifth annual Students Opposing Slavery (SOS) International Summit here at President Lincoln’s Cottage. We hosted 26 students from across the world to raise awareness of human trafficking — better known as modern slavery.
We heard from some of the country’s leading anti-slavery advocates, law enforcement, businesses that actively remove slavery from their supply chain, and a survivor of human trafficking. I learned a lot from these leaders in the field, and I learned even more from the summit participants. These students were some of the most intelligent teenagers and young adults I have ever met. They all shared a desire to be a part of something larger than themselves and were genuinely passionate about contributing to changing our shared world.
Among the tidal wave of information we learned that week, what astounded me most were the basic facts about modern slavery. Human trafficking is truly a hidden crime — to the point where it is nearly impossible to get an accurate count of slaves in the world today; statistics range between 21 million and 40 million enslaved people across the globe. There are several types of human trafficking — labor and sex being the most common — and human traffickers, on average, receive a lesser sentence than drug traffickers, assuming they are convicted at all. Risk factors make some people more vulnerable than others. Every day, human beings are bought and sold for an average of $90. I found myself as shell-shocked by this information as the students were, if not more so.
What I learned during SOS could fill pages and pages. The educational aspect was so significant that I noticed I was still scribbling down what speakers said even after they finished their presentations so that I could reflect on it later in the day. The students, on the other hand, were raising their hands, asking questions, making notes on how to incorporate the latest information they had just learned into their projects. They were ready to apply the facts to raise awareness, while I was still trying to comprehend them. It was evident that they were ready to dive in headfirst, each new bit of information further fueling their excitement to get involved.
The best part of the summit to me was that the students were so passionate about ending slavery, each in his or her own unique way. They were all incredibly different, but came together at SOS to learn the tools they will need to change the world. Everything they learned from the speakers, as well as the international ties of friendship they have created, are going to build on their newfound enthusiasm to end modern slavery.
Students presented (solo or in groups) their ideas on how to take what they learned during SOS back home to their communities. I was awed at the excitement in the eyes of each of the students when they held up their notes and rough sketches of their ideas. You could tell by the energy in the room that they had the support of their peers surrounding them, 100 percent. The change in attitude from the beginning of the week to the end was palpable.
After being immersed in the possibility that we can end slavery, I am confident that we are going to succeed.
Lydia Miller, the President Lincoln’s Cottage 2017 summer programs intern, is a history and humanities major at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.