Org of the Week raises awareness of human trafficking

Co-founders of The Underground Jamelia Watson ’20 and Grace Roebuck ’20 pose for a picture during the Red Sand project that took place in April 2017. / Courtesy of Grace Roebuck

As defined by the United Nations, “[Human trafficking is the] recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

The Underground at Vassar College is a student organization dedicated to spreading awareness of the 30 million victims who are subjected to human trafficking across the country and globe. The group, like many Vassar student organizations with a passion for activism, inspires students through initiatives to help eradicate and raise awareness for human trafficking. All interested students are welcome to join The Underground.

Grace Roebuck ’20 and Jamelia Watson ’20 co-founded The Underground when the two sent in the same application and proposal to the Vassar Student Association (VSA).

According to Roebuck, both of them wanted to use art as a means of effecting social change, specifically on the issue of human trafficking. The duo, along with their executive board, composed of Josh Carreras ’20, Jaewon Kang ’20, Jillian Hornbeck ’20, Victoria Wilk ’20 and Sonali Shah ’20, all came together to execute the Red Sand Project last April. Students may remember the striking veins of red sand filling cracks in the sidewalks around campus, which served as a means to recognize human trafficking as one of the most overlooked issues across the world.

Later this year, The Underground will be planning another Red Sand Project at Vassar. In the upcoming months, The Underground will be hosting the Red Sand Gala in the Villard Room. As Roebuck described it, “People can have intellectual dialogue on the issue [human trafficking] and talk about all of its facets.”

Roebuck continued, “We [will] collaborate with different orgs around campus and decorate Vassar with red sand on the sidewalks.” The gala will feature an interactive presentation on human trafficking, and each guest will receive a bag of red sand to take home after enjoying a fair-trade dinner and dessert.

This semester, The Underground hopes to meet monthly, focusing on the six initiatives that Watson and Roebuck have planned for the upcoming year. The first initiative that The Underground has planned is coming this fall, titled Art for Abolitionist.

Watson elaborated: “Artists from the Vassar and surrounding communities will be able to submit work that is centered around human trafficking, which will then be displayed for a silent auction, signifying the importance of consumer and producer, victim and oppressor and the historic symbolism of the American slave trade.” All proceeds will go towards nonprofit organizations that focus their attention on human trafficking.

In addition to the Art for Abolitionist auction, The Underground hopes to collaborate with the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative (FDFI) book drive; Watson described its mission, stating, “[Their goal is to] advance freedom through knowledge and strategic action.” With this collaboration in mind, The Underground will play an important part with the organization.

As Watson commented, “[The Underground will] distribute 1000 books written and bought at cost from the Frederick Douglas Foundation to people at high risk for trafficking—particularly those coming out of the prisons, youths and females.” These books will be distributed across secondary schools in Arlington, Poughkeepsie and other Dutchess County communities.

While taking advantage of Vassar’s theatre program, The Underground will also be taking part in a play with the Mirage Theatre Company from beyond the Vassar community. Roebuck commented, “[The Underground will] work mainly to facilitate the connection between Vassar and the play, ‘Broken Dolls.’”

Roebuck added, “We will be doing workshops with drama students on social justice and how to create a play that is oriented towards social justice.” The Underground will also create posters and pamphlets to use for the play and use these tools as an educational resource for students.

Through organizing events such as these, The Underground hopes to interest the Vassar student body in spreading the importance of bringing up human trafficking in everyday conversation. In addition to raising awareness, The Underground is partnering with The Vassar Haiti Project to develop a curriculum for a local secondary school in Chermaitre, Haiti, combatting trafficking and teaching children about it.

Roebuck, who will be directing the Anti-Restavek Haitian Curriculum, noted, “Haiti is the seventh most trafficked country in the world in that so many children are falling into trafficking, especially into a form called restavek, in which parents think they are sending their child to a better home, but children are ultimately a domestic slave, receiving no form of education.”

The project has already been approved by partners in Haiti, and The Underground hopes that it can expand this curriculum outwards so that other countries can utilize this resource to the best of their abilities to inform their own young people about this issue.

In keeping up with their commitment to teaching students about the dangers and realities of human trafficking, Watson and Roebuck are both in the process of proposing a Vassar course on human trafficking. Watson commented on the idea, stating, “Vassar is one of the best places to implement this course because we offer a liberal arts education and people can get multi-disciplines in a variety of subjects.”

So far, Watson and Roebuck have a dean and professor on board and are hoping to find more professors and advisors to get on board with the proposal, as well as compiling relevant texts for the course.

As the semester gets off to a start, The Underground is excited and prepared for the initiatives that they will be taking on in the upcoming months. Watson noted, “We are really excited to get started and see how far we can go to keep going until there is no ceiling to stop our potential.”

As Roebuck stated, “[The Underground gives students the chance to] put their imprint on the campus and a chance to educate themselves on human trafficking so that they can educate other people.” She continued, “The people are my favorite part, and the shared passions.”

Over the past semester, The Underground has made a tremendous impact on Vassar to create dialogue on issues such as human trafficking. Speaking about what she loves about The Underground, Watson concluded, “The best thing about this organization is that other people have the same interests, ideals and values about what is wrong in the world and how we can fix it.”

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