The wind didn’t do much to dampen the spirits of a group of Cresthill Middle School students huddled on the steps of the State Capitol Building in Denver on Feb. 20. Cold fingers and whipping coats aside, they were here for a purpose.
It was …
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It was Human Trafficking Awareness Advocacy Day at the capitol, and it marked a milestone for an endeavor Sonja Herring’s advanced history class has been working on since last semester.
After studying the Civil War, the topic of slavery has been a theme in the class since mid-October.
“Kids have this belief that slavery is over,” Herring said. “But, that’s far from the case.”
Herring said she had the students find their own articles on modern slavery for study, and they were shocked by what they found.
“They came in the next morning enraged,” the teacher said. “They were saying things like, `why are we not hearing about this?’ They were just appalled by the lack of coverage.”
This was the starting point for a year-long, comprehensive project. Herring broke her students into groups to tackle different parts of the enterprise, ranging from working on outreach to adults to social media campaigns and a petition drive.
At the Capitol
They came with rally signs, notebooks and a petition.
As part of the project, students Jack Connolly and Hunter Fleming started a petition drive, gathering about 700 signatures from students across Highlands Ranch.
“It took us awhile, maybe a month,” Connolly said.
The applause was loud when state Rep. Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) presented the petition in the House chamber at the State Capitol Building on Feb. 20, where the students sat while the legislative body unanimously adopted a resolution opposing human trafficking.
“This may seem like an unpleasant topic to bring up in front of all of these young people,” said Rep. Elizabeth McCann (D-Denver), who drafted the resolution. “But this is a real issue.”
Second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable illegal industry globally, human trafficking is identified as the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, according to the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado. Human trafficking grossed between $5 billion and $9 billion in 2004, according to estimates.
The illegal trade ranges from forcing teenagers into sex slavery to labor trafficking, such as the illegal activities of former Highlands Ranch businessman Kizzy Kalu, who was convicted this year of luring foreign nurses to Colorado and forcing them to give up portions of their wages.
“I think that’s been one of the most shocking things for them, that it can happen in their own community,” Herring said. “It absolutely can happen here.”
`Why can’t we?’
The project has largely been a work of ambition and a study in persistence.
Two girls from the class were even working on a suggested curriculum for a civic project class, working with principal Sid Rundle.
“We’re trying to convince the district to start a community service-oriented class, dealing with anything from slavery to the homeless,” student Reese Wilking said. “What we’re doing with this project, this class would be kids doing this all the time.”
The class, if adopted as the students envision it, would include community field trips, partnerships with topical organizations and comprehensive projects similar to their current undertaking. They plan to take the proposal to the school board.
Another group developed a school-wide campaign encouraging students to switch from brands that use child slavery in their manufacture, using lists from free2work.org.
“Teens, especially our age, express who we are through what we wear,” Veronica Wernsman said. “Some of our clothes are made by people who have had their rights taken away, and that’s something we want to end.”
Taking that idea a step further, another group within the class was working on a school-wide letter campaign, encouraging companies like Skechers and Forever 21, both of which scored low on Free2Work’s grading system. That group includes students Evan Nottingham, Jonathan Serrano, Justin McMahon, Sean Gilpatrick and Payton Case.
They developed a form letter and distributed it throughout the school.
“The point is to get as many letters as possible,” Gilpatrick said.
“We want to shake up the companies so that they see it’s not just adults that care,” Nottingham said.
Madison Burns and Megan Dietz, students who worked with a group that mounted a social media campaign, said the class has been Tweeting facts and figures on child slavery and editing videos the students home to show at an assembly. Their Twitter handle is @cmsfights.
“With the videos (at an assembly), we’re hoping students will go home and tell their parents, because parents are voters,” Burns said.
Ally Conors has been supplementing efforts by working with animation to generate informative videos. Students Jared Siegel, Devin Sharpe, Andrew Davis and Brian Stelner have been running an Istagram account with similar goals (@stopslavery4good).
Students Ashley Atencio, Annie Hoodecheck, Emma Agebran and Anna Lemon worked to sell red bracelets from the Red Thread Movement. The organization works with trafficking victims from Nepal and Indida.
“Some of the victims make these bracelets and half the proceeds directly benefit them,” Hoodecheck said. The group has also been using graphic design programs for t-shirts and posters.
Students Taylor Vogel and Brad Bedel worked on a video interviewing people about their favorite brands and filming their reactions once they found out the companies use slavery in production.
“Once we told them about the slavery, we asked them if they would still use that company,” Vogel said. “Most said `no.’”
In the end, the students end up helping as much as they are learning, Herring said.
“We’re trying to put the power into the kids’ hands,” student Abigail Smith said. “This project is giving us hope that maybe we can make a difference. I mean, why can’t we?”
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