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Arts Activists Call Out to Human Trafficking Victims
WAC Professor Peter Sellars discusses art's role in social action at the 'Globalization and Human Trafficking' conference Friday. (Photo by Hudson Hou for the Daily Bruin.)

Arts Activists Call Out to Human Trafficking Victims

Symposium on human trafficking is one of three recent globalization events sponsored by WAC with support from the International Institute. The others were a symposium on globalization and the arts and WAC's activites on World AIDS Day.

This article was first published in the Daily Bruin.

By Amanda Semaan, Daily Bruin contributor

At the "Globalization and Human Trafficking" symposium held Friday, professors of the World Arts and Cultures Department, art students at UCLA, and a number of representatives from a wide array of organizations met to discuss the issue of human trafficking as a global phenomenon and demonstrate the ways in which art can be used to spread awareness of this issue and in the broader context of social activism.

[Event sponsors included the UCLA International Institute and several of its constituent centers: the African Studies Center, the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.]

In his keynote address, WAC Professor Peter Sellars spoke of the urgency to collaborate across ethnic lines and transform the issues of globalization and human exploitation, and of the role art plays in doing so.

Human trafficking, which Sellars calls "modern-day slavery," is the sale of human beings, often across national borders, for the purpose of involuntary servitude or commercial prostitution.

"For me, one of the most important things about looking at the possibilities of the arts is, first of all, just to look at the economics of slavery now. And if I could just emphasize – many, many things can be legislated but just because you've legislated it, doesn't mean it's over," Sellars said.

"Slavery has been officially made illegal in all kinds of places, and it carries on. And this is where we get to the cultural dimension of going beyond legislation and reaching into a place that has to do with people's hearts," Sellars said.

Throughout the remainder of the day, representatives of different organizations conducted round-table discussions, in which they spoke of what was being done to spread awareness about the issue in addition to what the next steps will be.

Karen Chan, co-coordinator of the UCLA chapter for the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., discussed the ways in which the organization's "Slavery Still Exists" campaign, held at UCLA last May, advocated student involvement in spreading awareness of human trafficking.

This photographic campaign consisted of students, committee members and politicians holding up signs saying "Slavery Still Exists," and having their photos taken and put on display in various locations on campus, including Bruin Plaza and Northern Lights Cafe. It also encompassed recorded testimonies of victims, which were played alongside the photos on exhibit.

"It was a very powerful and effective medium in which people could see that it's an issue where you don't have to be some government official or civil-service provider necessarily to work on this," said Kaitlyn Lim, co-coordinator of the UCLA chapter for the Polaris Project.

Professor Victoria Marks of the WAC department spoke of her collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Chuang of the David Geffen School of Medicine in exploring connections between the young artists studying at UCLA and the clients of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles. They constructed a two-quarter course entitled "Arts Activism and Human Trafficking," which began fall quarter this year.

During the first quarter, students became acquainted with human trafficking as a global phenomenon and considered the role of arts activism within the context of this issue.

During the final two weeks of fall quarter, students designed projects that would engage trafficking survivors, and they are now spending this quarter putting their projects into action. The projects include weekly cooking events in which survivors share their favorite dishes from their homes of origin, as well as weekly dance parties in which students share dance experiences with a multinational group of survivors and their children.

Students go to a shelter located in Los Angeles once or twice a week in addition to their class meetings. This shelter houses many of the coalition's clients, those who are victims of human trafficking.

"We're talking about a phenomenon which is about the erasure of identity and about the erasure of culture, and about seeing the body as some kind of material labor only," Marks said.

Mythili Prakash, a first-year graduate student enrolled in "Arts Activism and Human Trafficking," expressed the appeal that a collaboration among many different artists can have to the public.

"A lot of us are artists. Dancers, musicians, painters, choreographers, actors, all sorts of things. So it really allows us to be inspired by it in our work. We all work with different modes of expression, so I think that really creates an opportunity for us to communicate to a wider audience," Prakash said.