Red Sand Project raises awareness of human trafficking

Vassar’s Red Sand Project, which will be installed on April 14 and 15, will serve to raise awareness of human trafficking and educate the Vassar community on what they can do to help. / Courtesy of Vassar Red Sand Project

In this coming month, as students walk to class, the dining hall or back to your dormitory, they may find themselves perplexed by the appearance of red sand on sidewalks. If so, then the Red Sand Project has achieved its purpose. This art installation serves to bring awareness to one of the most overlooked issues across the world—human trafficking.

Communities in all fifty states and in more than seventy countries around the world have participated in the Red Sand Project  (Red Sand Project, “Tracing Their Presence,” 2017). Taking to social media, they post pictures of their installations as a way to prove how far-reaching the movement is, as well as to establish unity with the victims.

Grace Roebuck ’20, one of the pioneers of the project at Vassar, emphasized, “It’s through educating the students, faculty and members of Poughkeepsie that we hope to inspire a dialogue about human trafficking. Often the most powerful and easy way to prevent human trafficking is to know about it–what it is, how it happens and who’s at risk. When educated, people are significantly less likely to be trafficked, and it’s only through knowing and acknowledging the issue that we can begin the dialogue for change.”

The founder of this project is Molly Gochman, an activist and artist with a long established history of works dating back to 2001. Gochman’s immense portfolio includes audio tapes capturing her most intimate thoughts, live performances with trapeze artists and even an unusual exhibit in which she encourages visitors to take an object of personal significance. All of her works are in some way related to time and change: all of them strive to encourage people to stop and look around at their surroundings, at the objects and communities filled with meaning.

In her words, “We also have the opportunity to look ahead to what isn’t, but what can be with time—to create cultural change through global empathy. Never before has there been such an opportunity to rally a global collective and bring together the unprecedented level of commitment, activism and disparate voice calling for a more just, caring world” (Molly Gochman, “Introduction,” 2017).

It is not a surprise that she soon directed her art towards one of the most pervasive issues in society. After her last exhibit in 2010, Gochman spent some time researching human trafficking. She found herself shocked and disturbed by the number of people kidnapped and trafficked across international borders—approximately 600,000 to 800,000 each year (Red Sand Project, “Stats,” 2017).

In response, Gochman started the Red Sand Project at Art Basel, Miami in December 2014. Her installation involved filling cracks in sidewalks with red sand, a symbol of all the trafficking victims who fell through the cracks of society. The bright red color makes the project impossible to ignore and encourages curious people to take time to learn about human trafficking. As the Red Sand Project puts it, “These interventions remind us that we can’t merely walk over the most marginalized people in our communities—those who fall through the metaphoric cracks” (Red Sand Project, “Sidewalk Interventions,” 2017).

Roebuck added, “The sand stands for the fragility of the victims’ situations, and how easily they can be ‘washed away.’ Just as a single grain of sand is meaningless on its own, a victim isn’t isolated: they’re part of a vast network of co-dependence that sustains the human trafficking industry and prevents their escape.”

Numerous clubs and preliminary organizations support the project: Vassar Greens; Abolitionists Unchained, a pre-org focused on human trafficking; unFramed, which pushes political activism and social justice through art; the Sculpture Department; and the Vassar chapters of UNICEF and Amnesty International.

Priya Misra ’17, a co-president of Amnesty International, thought this project was a creative and effective way to bring attention to an issue so commonly overlooked. She said, “Surprisingly, not many people know that human trafficking occurs close to home—the United States has had massive difficulty curtailing both domestic and international traffickers. Criminals seek out teenage runaways or go as far as finding some way to blackmail young women into doing their bidding. Abroad, traffickers take advantage of global events like migrant crises, seeing them as an opportunity to prey on the precarious, those who are scared, alone and lost.”

Amnesty International has done work with this issue in the past, inviting a United Nations speaker to talk about human trafficking within the U.S. They have also focused on international human trafficking, specifically its rise during the European Union migrant crisis.

An installation of the Red Sand Project will occur at Vassar on April 14 and 15, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The exhibit is open to students, faculty and the Poughkeepsie community; all are welcome to participate and strongly encouraged to visit the Collaboratory from April 9 through 26. That is where the organizers behind the installation will exhibit information about human trafficking, including the types of trafficking, how to recognize it and what to do to address the issue.

In addition to this two-and-a-half-week project, there will be a fundraiser where donations will go towards a nonprofit that aids human trafficking victims and to bringing a speaker to Vassar.

Roebuck affirmed, “We will be concluding Red Sands by bringing an incredible speaker from Free the Slaves to campus; similar lectures have been given at Stanford, Oberlin and Harvard and many more. They will be speaking on their innovative model of change and on human trafficking itself, to further empower students in their fight.”

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