Saturday, January 19, 2013

Notes From The Classroom, Pt. I-Slavery Footprint

So in my day job I teach American history (and since I work at a boarding school, it is often my night job as well). One of my classes is a survey course on U.S. history.  I believe that it is impossible to understand America without understanding the Civil War, so every year in the winter I spend about seven weeks covering the Civil War (about four weeks on the lead-up to the war, and the rest on the conflict itself) followed by another two weeks on Reconstruction (you can see my full syllabus for details).  Most of my students are 10th and 11th graders and I strive to try to make the material that we cover relevant to their daily lives.  As the slogan on my history webpage says, we study history to make sense of our world today. 

This week we covered the midpoint of the war.  The students wrote an essay evaluating whether Lincoln or the slaves themselves deserve the most credit for emancipation, and we also discussed the Gettysburg Address.  It also helps that the movie Lincoln has been so well-received this winter; my school took all of our students to see the film, which led me to write a "who's who" of the characters.  Because this month is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, numerous articles have been published discussing the significance of that landmark declaration.   One article that I found especially compelling, entitled "How Many Slaves Work For You?"  was in the New York Times on Dec. 31, 2012.  In it, Louis Masur, a history professor at Rutgers proposed that it was time for a new Emancipation Proclamation one "written for our times".  

Masur draws our attention to the problem of human trafficking, which President Obama has correctly identified as modern slavery.  Estimates are that up to 27 million people worldwide are enslaved right now; these people are exploited for their labor and their bodies.  "Trafficking" can include forced labor, bonded labor, debt bondage among migrant workers, child labor, involuntary domestic servitude and sex trafficking.  I don't usually share my personal viewpoints with my students, but I have traditionally revealed that I consider the kidnapping and sale of 13.5 million Africans from roughly 1450-1850 the worst thing ever.  But twice that many people are enslaved right now!  

Masur linked to a very provocative website ,  The site uses clever animations and informative blurbs to educate visitors about the scope of human trafficking, and more importantly, to show how our modern Western lifestyles benefit from the labor of the victims of modern slavery.  When I took the test I was told: 

So this week I shared the site with my students, asking them to take the survey for homework, and to write a response.  I was very interested to see what they would say.  I teach at a private school, where many of the students come from relatively privileged backgrounds.  Further, I have students from 8 different countries in my classes (our school draws from over 20 nations).  The responses were quite gratifying:  the students took the project seriously, and several wrote deeply meaningful responses.

One American boy wrote: 

Upon completion of the slavery activity I found that I have 102 slaves working for me. The main contributers to this score included, in order, Lightbulbs, Ibuprophen, Cars, T-shirts, and Ballpoint pens. 
This number is very disappointing. The number of companies involved with slavery was quite extensive. This activity proved the reality of slavery. Slavery is still a major issue in not only foreign countries but also in our homeland. Human trafficking is a major issue in the US as well as around the world. This activity has shown me that people are still living under slave-like conditions and that there are options to end this maltreatment.... The US is a leading cause of the slavery in these areas because of our demand for their products. If the US and other countries refused to buy products manufactured by slaves the slaves would be freed form their bondage....I feel that the Slave Footprint activity was a great way to relate how slavery was back then and how it is now since these periods are very similar and require the same legislation and human effort to end slavery. 
An American girl wrote:

63 slaves work for me.  
This is a great program. It makes it visually appealing so anyone would be interested in taking the survey, and it's really eye-opening.  Even if it doesn't make people give away anything or stop buying anything, at least they can have a greater appreciation for what they have. 
A Chinese boy wrote:

The place I chose was not Shanghai, instead, I chose my hometown Zhengzhou. It is a city in northern China. It is no doubt that China is the “World Factory”. 60% of commodities we use have the label of “Made in China”. It is true that Chinese economy booms and people think that Chinese people are getting rich. It is true that the families which can send their kids to our school are already rich. Radically speaking, it is also true that those families are those 5% people who hold 90% of the wealth of China. 
I was born in a very little town in northern China and I knew what the circumstance it was ten years ago. My father only had two hundred dollars when he got out from college and those money were his entire family property. 10 years, things changed. From a little town without more than 20 apartments and fancy cars to crowded shiny business buildings and Mercedes and BMW cars. People do become rich; however, does everyone get rich? Absolutely not. There is a lot to say the negative impact of the increasing economy. So I decided to pick one example. I am an electronic geek. Computers, headphones, speakers, cameras and programing equipment are my favorite. Apparently 95% of them are made in China. Every Chinese knows a company knows a company called Foxconn. My home town Zhengzhou has the largest Foxconn factory in China. I believe every student at least owns one product from Foxconn. If you flip your iPhone or Macbook, you will read: “Designed by California. Assembled in China”. Foxconn, the largest electronics assembler on the earth. People believe their iPhones were made by machines and robots. True, but only 5% of the jobs are done by machines. The other 95% percent of the work are entirely done by hands. The workers in Foxconn only have the wages 1600 Chinese Yuan (240 USD) per month. 
Nowadays slavery is given  a new definition. Those “slaves” are free. They can talk they can do whatever they want. However, their wages do not equal to the amount of work. An American can make at least 7 dollars an hour but for those workers they can only make 7 dollars a day (12 hours working). I traveled from one of the poorest town on the earth to New York and this is what I do several times. It is very frustrating once you have this kind of experience. 
A Vietnamese girl wrote:

After I did the survey I got the result that approximately 42 slaves worked for me. Although the survey is not 100% correct, it does reflect the truth that slavery exists within modern society and in our daily life. By looking at the estimated number of “slaves” working for us from Slavery Footprint, it seems hard to believe that somewhere in the world people still have to suffer from social inequality. Last November, I had the chance to join the simulation of the UN Human Rights Council at Brown’s Model UN conference. One of the three topics I had to work on that time was the issue of unpaid bondage in Southeast Asia. In the process of preparing for the conference and writing up my position papers, I had the opportunity to read a lot of articles and useful information on unpaid bondage....According to the International Labor Organization, there are about 20.9 million victims at any time. I was totally shocked the first time I saw that number in ILO’s report. More surprisingly, 11.7 million of them, making up about 56% of the total, are from the Asia and Pacific region. These numbers should alert people about the seriousness of this issue. This is the consequence of social hierarchy and the lack of legal protections in this region....Anyway, I think that everyone should be aware of this issue and take it seriously. Moreover, we should all maybe avoid using products that are the results of forced labors. Although the issue of modern slavery requires long-term solutions, I believe that small changes can make a huge difference! 
An American daughter of Indian immigrants wrote:

My slavery footprint was 51 slaves.  This made me sad.  I know--or at least I have a general idea--of who they might be, where they might come from.  I've seen the kind of people that might be forced to work under slavish conditions, sat in taxis driving by them.  I've listened to them beg and been told not to get too close.  In India, giant megacities like Kolkata and Bombay they are everywhere.  Except for the malls--those are gleaming white things with security guards at the doors, meant strictly for the rising middle class.   
...I sit in some aunt's house  and I listen and I watch.  And there are people who aren't slaves, who technically are paid, but still... 
[My grandparent's house], it's normal by our standards but for them it's huge.  So there's a woman who comes and cleans the rooms and does other chores.  After a week of staying with them, we took a train back to Kolkata...The tickets might have cost a few hundred rupees (rupees are 40-50 to a dollar).  I was told that the train tickets were equivalent to one month's salary for the woman.  Not quite slavery, but not the ideal life either... 
And how to respond to this sort of thing?  It might be possible for people to cut back on some products associated with slaves, but not completely.  Inequality has been a part of the world since the beginning of time.  And we're all just teenagers.  What can we do?  So yes, it made me sad.  
 These responses are only a few examples.  I feel proud that I was able to make the students aware of a serious issue, and that I was able to do it in a "holistic" way that meshed with the syllabus and was a natural outgrowth of the historical material.  As a follow-up, I also shared the following links with the class:

Feel free to share this with your children, your worship communities and your friends.  Hopefully if more of us have our consciousness raised we will be able to make a contribution to curbing this scourge.  As Prof. Masur wrote at the conclusion of his article, "today we should celebrate the extraordinary moment in the nation’s history when slavery yielded to freedom. But the work must continue. For those who insist they would have been abolitionists during the Civil War, now is the chance to become one."

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