Student group fights modern slavery

The American Anti-Slavery Group was granted a new lease on its existence a month ago when its president, Charles Jacobs, decided to reorganize the organization after two of its former directors quit. The group was all but shut down before he changed his mind and hired an interim staff to continue temporarily scaled-back operations.

That decision sent the organization’s Emerson chapter, the group’s only college branch in the country, scrambling to remain solvent, reorganize a planned symposium and prepare to replace its own leadership, founder and president Kate Donnelly said.

“We’re trying to pull everything together last minute now,” said the senior film major, who discovered AASG when she opted out of a final project in her Women and Global Medial course to perform community service with the group.

The nonprofit group is dedicated to working with former slaves to abolish modern slavery, including child labor, according to its Web site. Donnelly said the national group, founded in 1994, focuses its advocacy on countries like Sudan, Sri Lanka, Mauritania and several Asian countries where sex slavery is prevalent.

After the departure of the organization’s former program director and communications director, AASG is still gearing up to tackle the major fundraising and demonstrations it had coordinated in the past, current communications director Krista Basis said. They will continue to cooperate with Christian Solidarity International, which provides aid and supplies to former slaves in Sudan and advocates for antislavery reform there.

“We’re basically doing the awareness component with our speakers,” Basis said. “We’ve toned down our public presence, doing big fund-raising at this time.”

The Emerson chapter’s group has 34 members, of which Donnelly said about 12 have participated consistently since she created the group last semester. AASG was initially supported by Imagine Students Reaching Out, an Emerson group that helps fund student activist groups. Donnelly said she has not tried to reunite with Imagine after deciding to renew AASG.

Emerson AASG is currently coordinating an appearance by two of the national organization’s speakers: Beatrice Fernando, a Sri Lankan who escaped slavery in Lebanon, and Abdarahmane Wone, a Mauritanian scholar, Donnelly said. The event is tentatively scheduled for sometime in the next two weeks; a date and location will soon be decided.

“It’s really powerful to meet these people, not only to hear their stories, but because they’re sharing them with so many people,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”

This is Donnelly’s last semester as Emerson AASG’s president, as she will be participating in the Los Angeles program in January. Seniors Christina Skevington and Melanie Yarbrough, who helped Donnelly launch the Emerson organization, plan to take the reins next semester.

Yarbrough said they are planning a clothing drive to raise money for antislavery organizations in Sri Lanka.

“It’s Kate’s baby,” the writing, literature and publishing major wrote via e-mail. “We’re hopeful for the future of AASG at Emerson after Kate leaves us in the spring…In order to ensure growth and a presence at Emerson we need to raise awareness of its existence and purpose. Hopefully the speakers will ignite that curiosity and passion.”

Donnelly said she decided to create a campus chapter of AASG last semester, after her internship at the organization ended. She said Emerson seemed like the place to launch such a group because students here seemed interested in politics and advocacy.

“I became so involved with the nonprofit and I thought there was still a lot we could do with college students,” she said.

Her dedication was reinforced during the buildup to the group’s first major event, a festival called the “Freedom Forum,” on the Boston Common last April. Antislavery advocates from AASG and Boston bands gathered at the Parkman Bandstand, or gazebo, to raise awareness of modern slavery, which now affects at least 12 million people around the world, according to Anti-Slavery International, another slavery awareness group.

While she interned at AASG, Donnelly worked on the release of Enslaved, an anthology of first-hand accounts by former slaves from around the world, including three members of AASG’s “speaker bureau”: Fernando, Abuk Bak, who was enslaved in the Sudan for a decade, and Micheline Slattery, who endured forced labor in Haiti from when she was five.

At Emerson, she said, stories like theirs have often been enough to convince students to help or join the group.

She said, “When I tell people about [AASG] usually they’re shocked and think, ‘How is this going on and we don’t even know about it?'”