Intercollegiate coalition holds first annual convention.
By CAROLINE CRONIN
“I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being exploited as a child and day in and day out knowing that no one is going to come get you.”
Such was Diana Sheedy’s first reaction to learning about human trafficking. Sheedy, a senior studying Economics here at Harvard, is driven by this realization and it has prompted her to found and co-chair the Intercollegiate Coalition Against Modern Slavery. This Saturday at the Kennedy School, the Coalition is hosting its first ever leadership convention, the Intercollegiate Convention Against Modern Slavery. Sheedy was so kind as to speak with the Indy about human trafficking today, the coalition, and the aims of the convention.
The life changing realization of how ubiquitous modern slavery is Sheedy had while attending a church event a few years ago has drastically shaped her college experience. The people she has met who have suffered from different forms of exploitation and “realizing how deep those wounds are” convinced her that “this is the most worthy thing I could ever work on.”
After her initial inspiration, Sheedy reached out to a small group on campus that was just beginning to do research on Harvard’s procurement in regards to labor exploitation. The plan was to help shape Harvard’s “procurement policies so they have better human rights standards for their vendors.” As Sheedy became involved, the group transitioned into a partnership with the University that plans to put out a first draft of a procurement policy at the end of April.
Sheedy expressed that the policy research done in tandem with the University has been a positive collaboration. But she notes that academia and other formal ways of discussing human trafficking “tends to be such a narrow focus and you don’t get to see how it influences different sectors and especially how the issue is evolving with technology.” Sheedy states, “It is an issue in itself but it connects to so many things like discrimination, or poverty, or child sexual abuse, or immigration. There are a lot of complicated pieces. It is still viewed as more of a static issue – what it is instead of how it is evolving.”
This past summer Sheedy and the like-minded individuals involved with the research initiative got together to discuss their goals and how they wanted to work on this cause. “Where we saw the biggest gap,” was within the “roles of students,” Sheedy said. They asked, “what can we do as students that is really using our role to our advantage? What we realized was that the research work was a huge collaborative effort with other schools.” They learned a lot from other schools, but saw this tendency of schools to only work within their campus and not reach out to other schools. “Harvard had no idea what MIT was doing or what BU was doing and there are 200 schools in Boston and none of us are really working together. So we first wanted to see more students from other schools collaborate. And secondly, there are a few really passionate people on this but there is high student turnover so how do you really train the students who want to work on this and help them feel equipped to do this work.” As is often the case with the fast pace of college life and the even faster time in which four years at Harvard passes you by, leaving with the knowledge that you made the most of your time and opportunities is a prize highly sought after. Sheedy further relates it to campus culture: “With things like consulting and finance, people attach a sense of quality and rigor to that work and then human rights work seems to be like a nice little thought. The reality is when you’re dealing with human lives you need really qualified professionals, you need the highest, most intense analysis. The human rights field has been doing a lot but there is a long way to go, especially in bringing that intensity back to students.” In so many words Sheedy has expressed the criticism many have of Harvard and institutions like it: why are we churning out Wall Street suits when we have all the talent and smarts necessary to save the world right here in Cambridge?
Saving the world may not have been what Sheedy had in mind when she founded the Intercollegiate Coalition Against Modern Slavery, but saving just a little part of it is exactly what it intends to do. “When we thought about the convention we decided not to do a traditional conference because we didn’t want to just [superficially] educate people who were probably pretty interested already. So we have been going out of our way to contact student leaders and to make this practical and skills-based. Whatever initiatives they go off and do, either on campus or afterwards, they feel more equipped to do that knowing it’s influenced by experts and knowing what is going on in the field. Whatever it is, we want them to feel more empowered.”
Since Sheedy’s group is currently unrecognized by the college, the convention is sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School. Sheedy and her colleagues want the “framework [of the convention] to help people see where their biases lie,” and help people “recognize how those biases shape their initiatives.” This emphasis on intersectionality and realizing that issues transcend traditional categorization is one that is underlined by many student groups at this point in time. And so, the convention is broken into a series of sessions that include amazing speakers and student-led discussions so that all attending can learn from each other and reach outside their current skills bases.
The logistics of the convention and how Sheedy began this group should not take away from the true horrors that exist within the worlds of human trafficking and modern slavery. Sheedy stresses taking care of oneself while learning about these issues and facing failure in the face of human rights endeavors. She is grateful for a strong support group within the Coalition and among her family and friends. For Sheedy there are three important things to remember: “First is knowing what keeps you motivated. There are many times that I just had to let myself feel the emotions and not to become numb when you talk about these things from an academic or formal level. Just remembering that as your fuel for why you do what you do is important because at the end of the day no matter how much you fail, every effort forward is going to help. I could never imagine looking back and feeling like I didn’t give everything I could to these people.” Sheedy knows that keeping such a perspective is crucial to the work she does.
“Secondly, having a great support network – from students to teachers to mentors to family members – having people to give encouragement and keep you focused and honest,” is what helps Sheedy remember what she wants to do and how she is capable of achieving it. The Coalition is comprised of a number of dedicated students from multiple schools that each bring so much to the team and make it even stronger. The goal of collaboration is unachievable without the talent and efforts of every individual involved.
The final of three necessary components of her fight: “having a larger narrative underneath your initiative.” The Coalition has the convention and it also has the research. But beyond that, the collaboration creates a community of people capable of so much more because every individual does what they can. Sheedy compares the weaknesses of human trafficking initiatives to the recycling problem – an individual may not recycle one soda can because that one person doesn’t think that one can save the planet. “Knowing that everything you do helps and keeping that optimism really helps, too.” Because at heart, “you can’t understand these things even at a surface level and not be changed by it.”
Being changed by the knowledge of human trafficking, Sheedy hopes, will inspire people to walk away from the convention just a bit more informed and dedicated. The convention does not measure success by the number of people who attend, but by the simple knowledge that more people than did before know about human trafficking and feel that they can move forward with their own ideas while working alongside other groups, schools, and individuals. Knowledge of human trafficking can be a controversial topic because of the lack of much hard data on the volume of it within society. And Sheedy acknowledges that perfect data may not ever be available in studying the seedy world human trafficking – but “you hear survivors talk and that is enough. Their testimony is enough for us.”
It is enough to inspire Sheedy to fight for a cause she knows affects real people every day. It is enough for a coalition to equip college students with the skills to continue that fight. It is enough to make a difference.
Caroline Cronin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is inspired by the work done and fight begun by the Coalition and knows that this weekend we will come a little closer to winning that fight.