Student examines modern slavery
Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 24, 2013 00:10
A UConn student is creating a documentary that exposes the root causes of modern day slavery.
RJ Anderson, a 5th-semester individualized double major in international development and human rights, has been researching, compiling information and filming for his documentary since freshman year. His partner, David Pereira, is a 5th-semester Communication Design major. The two met in their FYE Humanities Learning Community class, taught by Cathy Schlund-Vials, an Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies at UConn and the director of the Asian American Studies institute. Anderson credits Schlund-Vials as a guiding mentor throughout the entire process.
“When I was a freshman I was in the Humanities Learning Community. Our professor mentioned there’s money available for undergraduate research. My friend and I said to each other let’s travel cool places and do fun things together,” Anderson said.
At first it was not a serious endeavor for Anderson, who said he planned to go to the NEAG School of Education, become a high school history teacher and live a “simple life.” Yet, as he immersed himself in the study of slavery, Anderson found he was too close to the topic to not be fully invested at all times.
“My first year I didn’t get much done, but over the summer I read more scholarly work on modern day slavery,” said Anderson. “Once you know the problem with slavery and you’ve interviewed persons who were affected by it, you can’t back out. Those moments were impactful, there’s no point now where I can say I’m going to work on something else. I’m too aware of the inequalities that exist.”
Anderson’s perspective on slavery is unique. He asserts that diplomats and humanitarians alike are not necessarily focusing on the key aspects of the issue.
“The problem that occurs between political leaders and humanitarians is a divide that is prevalent: the focus is put on the trafficker,” Anderson said.
This, Anderson believes, is wrong. His documentary focuses on the larger structural forces at work that lead to horrifying phenomena, such as the trade of human beings. He includes income inequality and poverty as two of the largest proponents of slavery.
“Slavery begins with people who are at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic hierarchy,” Anderson said. “The trafficker forms this relationship with their target, and they take advantage of their poverty. There are no opportunities outside the sphere in which they live. What my research looks at is how you take that example of vulnerability and end it, and how nations can move towards this goal.”
Anderson and Pereira have been able to touch upon their original goal of “going places and having fun.” Sophomore year, the two researchers were invited to a conference at Yale. They went, and managed to network with several scholars in and out of the area. The second semester of their sophomore year they saw Harvard professor Siddharth Kara give a presentation on slavery. They were able to make his acquaintance, and will interview him soon.
At this point, the two friends decided to look more into making the documentary a reality. Pereira applied for the Idea Grant and Anderson applied for the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fund) Award. They received both, allowing them 7,500 dollars to work with.
Anderson and Pereira went to Switzerland for a week at end of June, where they took advantage of access to the United Nations archives. Next, the jet setting researchers decided to go to California, where they had sent emails to non governmental organizations and garnered many responses. In California, the two went to a shelter for youths and for women under 18. Both dealt with human trafficking victims and other people who shared similar experiences, whether they were homeless, possessed no way out of poverty, were ill, did not have healthcare, were abused by their spouses or were abused by their parents. This experience opened the minds of the two students to the reality of slavery.
“Slavery is connected with other larger problems of poverty, vulnerability and disenfranchisement. That changed our thinking. The practical application of getting rid of slavery has not been successful. 30 million people are still held in slavery, depending upon your definition of slavery,” Anderson said.
For Anderson, the experience with the documentary has “revolutionized” his college experience. He has shifted his focus from becoming a high school history teacher to a sort of professorial radicalism.
“I had the realization that the world is much bigger than this little bubble we call the University of Connecticut. I no longer want to be a history teacher, I want to be a history professor. I want to work in a role where I don’t just critique the world from an ivory tower, I want to critically examine socioeconomic injustice and how these forces shape our privilege,” Anderson said.
Anderson has two goals in mind with his research. First, he wants to inform people about the issue. He is of the opinion that the American media sensationalizes human trafficking to the point that it is unrealistic, using women and children as props. As a result, the American public thinks of the Antebellum South as the harbinger of slavery, when that is not the case. As with culture, politics, and any other aspect of society, slavery has evolved. In addition, Anderson wanted to record his personal journey in making the documentary in order to motivate other students.