Activists — including those from the Geneseo community — are using lessons from history to combat modern slavery and galvanize communities.

An estimated 40.3 million people are in some form of modern slavery in 167 countries worldwide, according to the 2017 Global Slavery Index, published by the Walk Free Foundation, which works towards ending modern slavery. Some 50 percent are in forced labor, and 25 percent of slaves are children under 18.

In addition to more recognized conditions, such as child laborers who are locked in factories to weave and knot carpets on giant looms in India and sex trafficked girls and women, slavery is also used to make other consumable products, provide services, and can occur throughout the supply chain of marketable goods and services. Slave-produced commodities include gold, cocoa, clothing, and shrimp that may be found in your local grocery store, says Robert Boneberg ’73, an attorney who has served as chairperson, senior advisor, and counsel to Free the Slaves, an international nonprofit organization that is dedicated to ending slavery and addressing factors that make people vulnerable to various forms of enslavement.

Slavery may look different now than it did in 1850, but there is a constant, says Boneberg: “Someone is benefitting from the exploitation of others.”

Slavery, he says, “is a power dynamic and an economic dynamic. People are coming to realize that some of the products we buy may be sourced from slavery.”

The exploitation of other people earns human traffickers and enslavers more than $150 billion each year.

Statistics of modern slavery often surprise people, but progress is being made by individuals like Boneberg and Geneseo Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Stacey Robertson, who are activists in the fight against modern-day slavery.

Through scholarship, work and volunteerism, Boneberg, Robertson and their organizations create awareness, provide aid and assistance to freed slaves, and address the conditions that lead to slavery by uniting communities to make a difference.


Seeking Change

Simply defined, says Robertson, “Enslaved people are forced to labor against their will for the profit of others.”

As a scholar of women’s studies and abolitionism and co-director of the international organization, Historians Against Slavery, Robertson has spent the majority of her career researching 19th-century anti-slavery efforts, and now helps inform modern activists on historically effective techniques.

In the 19th century, Robertson says, activists used a number of tactics to create change. No single strategy made slavery illegal in the United States. Over time, such actions led to more activism, says Robertson.

Legal slavery ended because there were hundreds of different anti-slavery organizations, dozens of anti-slavery novels written, and multiple anti-slavery political parties developed, all of which culminated in the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, which abolished legal slavery in 1865,” she says.

One example of an economic-based tactic is the free produce movement, initiated by Quakers, says Robertson.

It was very simple,” she says. “If you buy a dress that was made from slave cotton, you are supporting slavery. You are benefiting from the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved people.”

The free produce activists made consumers aware that by purchasing slave-grown or made goods, they were then morally responsible for supporting their exploitation. But the Quakers also gave consumers an alternative: They opened stores that sold cotton and other goods that were produced by free, wage-earning laborers.

An important part of that movement was to create opportunities for people to not support slavery,” she says. “By doing so, you impact the economy. The idea was that these same people would then organize around larger anti-slavery issues as well. Our morality permeates our consumption choices. It was conscientious consumption.”

These legacy tactics are being used today by Boneberg and individuals like Kevin Bales, cofounder of Free the Slaves, who is now a professor of contemporary slavery at the University of Nottingham. They draw on the same principles for slave-free community consumption that the Quakers used.

Bales and colleagues at the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham asked the community of Nottingham, in the United Kingdom, to take a slave-free commitment. In 2016, the local government, police chief, and even the sheriff of Nottingham pledged to make the city and county free of slave products. Businesses, charities and churches soon followed.

To create a slave-free Nottingham, the city is making sure every citizen knows how to identify slavery, understands the role it might play in our lives and purchases, and the steps we can take together, such as examining our supply chains, that can make our community slave-free,” says Bales. “The shock that came with the discovery of enslaved workers in a Nottingham carwash has helped to drive this movement, and help everyone see that slavery can happen anywhere.”

Bales and his colleagues lead slave-free movements in the United Kingdom and beyond, and collaborate with Robertson and the Historians Against Slavery organization. Boneberg is a leader for slave-free communities in the United States.

In New Jersey, Boneberg is the coordinator of the Slave-Free Community Project. The mission of the effort is to rally residents, business and government leaders in four New Jersey municipalities — South Orange, Maplewood, Millburn and Short Hills — to become the first communities in the United States that do not sell, buy or utilize products or services that have used slave-labor anywhere in their supply chain.

Like the free produce movement, this form of activism is not a boycott, explains Boneberg. Instead, consumers create change by asking store and business owners to ensure what the public is buying is slave-free.

It begins with an individual who says ‘I’m going to take a stand and do what I can to end slavery.’ It starts with one person, then goes to a group, and expands from there,” says Boneberg. “To achieve a slave-free community, all aspects of society must be intentionally working toward that goal. That is, government as law enforcement and in other governmental roles, government as a consumer of goods, schools, religious institutions, colleges, and most importantly, each individual. We will end slavery through consisted, coordinated and determined, collective efforts.”


The Power to Overcome

The efforts of abolitionists in the 1800s — of which free produce was just one — raised public consciousness, and greater desire to contest slavery.

People coming together around an issue to call for change is more impactful than a single person,” says Robertson. “Sheer numbers have more influence.”

In Nottingham, 320,000 residents are uniting to eliminate goods that support slavery in their community. In New Jersey, Boneberg is helping unite towns in that state to do the same.

In 2014-15 alone, Free the Slaves helped liberate 300 people from forced labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while educating more than 150 government officials on slavery law. It continues to work with local organizations to teach the survivors skills. The group helped establish seven savings and loans groups in the Congo that provide micro loans to recently freed men and women.

Such community efforts have, and will continue to be, the cornerstone of change, says Bales and Robertson.

Historically, evidence suggests even small actions can have enormous impact because it is like a ripple in the water,” says Robertson. “Legal slavery did not end in the United States because of one abolitionist group. It was a multi-pronged, complicated history that culminated because people made choices to do something.”


Additional Resources

Free the Slaves —

Global Slavery Index —

Historians Against Slavery —

Slavery Then and Now: A Reading List —

Geneseo Provost Stacey Robertson recommends selections from this collection for background.

The Slave-Free Community Project —

The University of Nottingham slave-free project —