GEORGETOWN — Slavery is a hot topic at Georgetown College, and it is not a history lesson.
A group of faculty and students is spreading the word that modern slavery can be an ingredient in the chocolate we eat and the coffee we drink. It can be found around the world — and, sometimes, around the corner.
Leaders at the Baptist-affiliated college say it is an issue of economics and faith, and the cause has captured students' attention like few they have seen before.
The college's Student Abolitionist Movement will sponsor a talk at 7 p.m. Monday by Dave Batstone, president of Not For Sale, a non-profit group that raises awareness of modern slavery. At 7 p.m. March 8, there is a talk by Soreyda Benedit Begley, a Lexington fashion designer who began her career at age 14, sewing garments in a sweatshop in her native Honduras. Both events at John Hill Chapel are free.
Last week, Dr. Jeffrey Barrows, a physician, spoke about a form of slavery that is shockingly close to home: child sex trafficking. The founder of Gracehaven ministry said that at least 100,000 American children are forced into the sex trade each year, including some his Columbus, Ohio, shelter gets from Central Kentucky. One way to stop it, he said, is to teach medical professionals, educators and social workers to look for the signs of abuse, because victims are often too ashamed to seek help.
These events are part of a yearlong series of Georgetown College programs on modern slavery. Six faculty members are working the subject into course curricula in several departments. Bryan Langlands, the campus minister, also is involved.
"This is not just something for liberal activists to get huffy about," Langlands said. "It has very literal implications for our faith as Christians."
This effort began about six years ago, when Regan Lookadoo, an associate professor of psychology, was teaching a course on the psychology of slavery. The more the discussions moved from historic to modern bondage, she said, the more she researched the subject.
About the same time, Alison Jackson Tabor, an assistant professor of education, was reflecting on her experiences studying in Ghana, West Africa, a decade ago.
"During that time, I saw some things I didn't understand," she said, such as why some children never went to school, because they worked for low wages on banana plantations.
"It wasn't until I got back to the states that I began connecting some of the dots between labor issues and consumer choices," she said.
Their passion for the issue has attracted many others. While slavery is a complex global issue, they say, individuals can make a difference.
Coffee, chocolate, cotton, fruit, tea, sugar, rice, wine, cell phones and gold are among the most common consumer goods sometimes produced overseas by people who are paid very low wages and exposed to hazardous chemicals. Child labor is sometimes used to make goods such as soccer balls and carpets.
The best thing consumers can do, the professors say, is to buy products labeled "fair trade." Fairtrade International, a non-profit organization, certifies producers to ensure that workers are paid and treated fairly, and not exposed to dangerous working conditions.
"There's a lot to be said for contacting the managers of stores where you shop and asking them to carry fair-trade products," Lookadoo said. "A lot of them are willing to do it if you just ask. And that filters up. Companies will change the way they do business when they know there's a consumer demand for it."
The next best thing to fair-trade food is certified organic. It minimizes the chance that workers — and you — will be exposed to hazardous chemicals, Lookadoo said.
They acknowledge that fair trade and organic products often cost a little more, but there are other ways to economize. Besides, they say, this is about more than money.
"A lot of this is about helping people to make connections between our ethical values and the things we buy," said Langlands, the campus minister. "It's making people realize that we're addicted to cheap stuff, and there are moral consequences to that."