The greatest sin of our time is not the few who have destroyed, but the vast majority who have sat idly by.
--- Dr. Martin Luther King
That quote, imprinted on T-shirts sold to raise money to free Sudanese slaves, sums up the beliefs of students at Highline Community School in Aurora, Colorado. For those students are not sitting idly by. Instead, they've taken on the task of ending slavery in the Sudan -- and around the world. "Dr. King's words," says teacher Barbara Vogel, "have become the students' motto."
For most of the second half of this century, a civil war has raged in the African country of Sudan as mostly black, Christian rebels in the south have fought for autonomy from the Arab-dominated government in the north. In the last 14 years of fighting, it is estimated that about 1.5 million Sudanese have died and 3 to 5 million have been forced from their homes. According to Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a Swiss-based charity, tens of thousands of those who have been displaced are southern Sudanese, captured by Arab troops and taken to the north as slaves.
A year ago, as part of a unit on slavery in the United States, Mrs. Vogel read to her class an Associated Press article entitled Slave Trade Thrives in Sudan. The story, detailing the atrocities of slavery in that country, shocked the students, who had not known that slavery still existed anywhere in the world. Many students were moved to tears by the stories of children their own age and younger who had been stolen from their families and forced into a life of slavery. Determined to do something about the situation, the Colorado students formed their own anti-slavery organization called S.T.O.P.--Slavery That Oppresses People.
After researching Sudanese slavery on the Internet, the students contacted representatives of other anti-slavery organizations to learn how they could help. One of the people they contacted was Dr. Charles Jacobs of The American Anti-Slavery Group, who put the students in touch with Christian Solidarity International. CSI, which has been purchasing the release of Sudanese slaves -- at a cost of about $50 each -- since 1995, arranged for the students to help buy the freedom of additional slaves. To raise money for that effort, the Colorado students sold used toys, lemonade, and T-shirts, and many also donated allowances and birthday presents. Their first contribution to CSI was $200 -- enough to buy the freedom of four Sudanese slaves. As word of their efforts spread, however, outside contributions began to arrive. To date, despite the fact they do not directly solicit funds, the students have raised more than $50,000 -- and secured the freedom of nearly 1000 slaves in Sudan.
As Barbara Vogel told Education World, however, raising money is only one part of the "triangular approach" students are using to address the issue. Their main concern, she said, is to raise public awareness of the problem. The second part of the students' efforts, therefore, is a letter-writing campaign. So far, the Highline students have written more than 1000 letters to celebrities and government officials asking them to use their names and influence to help put an end to slavery in Sudan and around the world.
The third part of the students' efforts is directed toward obtaining signatures on a national petition that fights for the fundamental human right: freedom from bondage. The petition -- addressed to President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- calls for their help in rescuing 103 black women and children currently enslaved in Sudan. The students hope that governmental efforts to free those slaves will result in the freedom of all Sudanese slaves.
The benefits of the students' efforts are not limited to the Sudanese slaves, however. According to Vogel, this project has affected, and enhanced, every area of her curriculum. This year, Vogel teaches fourth grade and, although the students who began the project are no longer in her class, they still return twice a month to help the younger students continue the abolitionist project. Through their research and letter-writing campaign, both older and younger students practice and develop their reading and writing skills. Geography and history skills are strengthened as the students learn about slavery in Africa and other areas of the world. And math skills are utilized in the students' fund-raising efforts and in monitoring their contributions to CSI. As a result, test scores in every area have risen, as all the students have become involved in their learning and more aware of its relevance.
"In order to teach effectively," says Vogel, "schools must balance a student's mind and heart. Touch the heart and the mind will follow." This project has touched her students' hearts and engaged their minds.
And not all the benefits of the project have been academic. As Vogel told Education World, most importantly, this type of work gives children a chance to practice being adults. "The kind of people we are," she added, "determines what kind of country we have. It is the school's responsibility to teach and model humanitarianism -- to help children learn how to be good citizens."
Because of their efforts, Vogel and her students have become national celebrities. They've won a number of awards, including the "How They Grow" award from Parents Magazine and the Anne Frank Award from the University of Colorado. They've been prominently featured in a number of national publications, including Time magazine, The New York Times, and People magazine. Their story has been told on such television broadcasts as Good Morning America and the CBS News. But when Education World asked Vogel what she considered to be the most important benefit her students derive from the project, she didn't mention the awards or the accolades. "They're learning," she said, "how good it feels to do good. They're learning the power of doing small things with great love."
Editor's Note (08/22/1999): There has been a backlash to this project. Click here to see the twist to the story and read Barbara Vogel's response.
Article by Linda Starr
Copyright © 1999 Education World