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What’s So Great About Being Great? The Legacy of Frederick Douglass
Lives Through Vital Community Work


“Are you great like Frederick Douglass?”

frederick douglassIt sounded innocent enough coming from an 8th grader, but it’s the same question that has launched a thousand doubts in the minds of generations of the great Abolitionist’s descendants.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for some of my ancestors living their lives in the long shadow of Frederick Douglass. I did not. Certainly, I felt the weight of his stern glare from above the mantle, but I was always free to find my own path. That path finally led me back to the Douglass legacy.

Recently, I was invited to speak at Yale University before a distinguished international audience of leading historians and the top anti-human trafficking activists. Humbling is the best way I can describe it. But, to say this was the path I had chosen may not be entirely accurate. In late 2005, my friend and business associate, Robert Benz, showed me a National Geographic Magazine cover story called, 21st Century Slaves. When I read and absorbed it, the life I had lived for all of those years ended abruptly and I became an Abolitionist. Call it fate or fortune, destiny or DNA, I had, in fact, been chosen by this path.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Frederick Douglass

frederick douglass
Frederick Douglass III, Nettie Hancock Washington
and Booker T. Washington, III. (L-R)
After having launched the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation (FDFF) with my mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, and with Robert Benz, we turned immediately to schools.

We initially did this not with the idea that the modern abolitionist movement would help young people but, instead, that young people could help effect change on the issue of modern day slavery.

Robert and I visited schools as part of the Frederick Douglass Dialogues Tour with a formula in mind: we would discuss today’s human trafficking within the context of history then ask students to teach their friends how slavery still exists.

Young people and teachers seemed inspired by the stories of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington both of whom were superb examples of the power of education. Douglass was born into slavery and never spent a day in the classroom. His determination, however, to read and become not just a proficient writer but to master the written word can make us all believe that anything is possible no matter how dire our circumstance. Washington was also born a slave and freed as a boy by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. He became known as “The Great Educator” by devoting his life to some of those newly freed 4 million Americans of African descent and helping them develop skills to make their way in a new American economy after the Civil War. We have designed our work around the lives of these two American legends and even our mantra, Abolition through Education, reflects their influence.

frederick douglassWhen we first began our Frederick Douglass Dialogues Tour in 2008, I visited an elementary school in an area of Southern California. That day I carried with me an original copy of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave. After I told the story of Frederick Douglass, a 6th grader named Malik raised his hand and asked if he could come to the front of the assembly and read from the book. He began reading with poise those words that can be very challenging even for an adult. I remember thinking to myself, “This must have been what Frederick Douglass was like as a boy.” He read the entire first chapter then sat down to the applause of his classmates. I was very impressed and handed him one of our Frederick Douglass lapel pins. After class the young man’s teacher came to me astonished. He said that Malik had never raised his hand in class to answer a question let alone stand and read. The teacher had been brought to tears when Malik read so eloquently.

About two years later, I attended a reception that featured a young man on the piano. Knowing something about the instrument myself, he sounded to me like a prodigy. To my surprise, the young prodigy, along with his father, approached me afterward and asked if I remembered him. Somewhat embarrassed, I admitted that I did not. He was the boy that read from the Narrative! I was so glad to see him. I commented to his father that I didn’t know Malik was such a great piano player. The father, as it turns out, didn’t know either until a couple of years ago when something had changed in his son.

Malik pushed his lapel toward me, “Look I’m still wearing the pin you gave me.” Needless to say, at that moment, I was very happy this path had chosen me.

When we crafted our lessons for students, we imagined their role in today’s anti-trafficking movement by using the guidance of history. In the 19th century, Abolitionists helped the public understand the inhumanity of legalized slavery through the communication tools they had at the time. Douglass, for instance, communicated through his newspaper, The North Star, his books and through his powerful speeches. More than anything else today, the public needs to become aware and to understand what human trafficking is all about before real change can be undertaken. If the communication vehicles used to raise awareness are critical to making progress, young people today have a tremendous advantage over their predecessors. The Internet, social networks, digital media - whatever you call it – young people are experts at using today’s incredible communications tools and, therefore, they are potentially the greatest agents for positive change that we have ever seen… that anyone has ever seen.


frederick douglassAbout three years ago, Robert and I had a call with a vice president from the organization, America’s Promise. After explaining how we would go into classrooms or assemblies and teach about contemporary slavery through the context of history then ask students to help us raise awareness through digital and traditional media, she casually said, “What you’re doing is called service-learning.” This simple comment was a revelation that helped us to chart what we saw as the future for our organization.

We could only visit so many schools in person and decided that we must find a way to reach more students. 2011 marked the release of our digital service-learning curriculum that would be called, History, Human Rights and the Power of One. The purpose of the accompanying project, “The Abolition Day Project” was to raise awareness around the United Nation’s day of commemoration called, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery which happens every December 2nd. It’s a perfect time to both reflect upon the work that Abolitionists did in ending legalized slavery around the world and to talk about the fact that slavery still exists today in many forms as part of an illegal industry.

The service projects that students did with their teachers in support of the Abolition Day Project had to do with digital media and with traditional media. Of course, videos are a popular and powerful way for young people to communicate a message as well as starting Facebook and other web pages. A letter-writing campaign helped students get an article written about their work and some students even had a television news segment done.

“Power concedes nothing without demand.”
Frederick Douglass

Although most of our work takes place in classrooms, we’re sometimes able to participate in real activism. In 2012, we led two demonstrations: one in April and one in July, both in Phoenix, Arizona, to protest is an online classified site much like Craigslist. In 2010, Craigslist was accused of profiting from ads that facilitated the prostituting of children and adults. Craigslist finally gave up hosting these ads under pressure from anti-trafficking groups and the media. At that point, traffickers moved their ads to where anyone could go to sell a car, buy a used bike or rent a child or an adult for sex.

As groups including Attorneys General, Senators and faith leaders aligned to demand that stop facilitating sex trafficking, FDFF organized a demonstration at headquarters in Phoenix while our partner, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, organized a simultaneous demonstration in New York City. Today, continues to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children and adults. The groups above will keep working until they stop.

Sex trafficking is a form of modern slavery. Of course, when most Americans hear the word Slavery they think of the legal slavery that existed in this country prior to 1865. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, FDFF and its partners created a service-learning project called, 100 Days to Freedom.

“100 Days” refers to the period between September 22, 1862, when Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and January 1, 1863 when he signed his executive order into law. This was a dynamic time in our history when every American thought about slavery and freedom and what it all meant.

Our group developed a four-part curriculum for the project that includes units on Slavery, Freedom, Human Trafficking or Modern-day Slavery and Creating a New Proclamation of Freedom. Nine secondary schools from across the country helped us create a New Proclamation of Freedom that addresses new forms of slavery around the world. Knowing the importance of educating young people on this issue, we drafted a proclamation that asks the United States Department of Education to help facilitate a national human trafficking education program.

I was so proud of the work the students accomplished as part of this project. When the New Proclamation was completed it was turned into a online petition. We all have a very ambitious dream that President Obama will sign our proclamation just like Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years earlier. It’s a long shot but, with thousands of signatures on the petition, perhaps the dream can come true!

“If you want to lift up yourself lift up someone else”
Booker T. Washington

Starting a non-profit organization means a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Starting one at the beginning of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has made it even harder for us to make ends meet. There are so many moments, however, when I realize how much more I get than I give. One of those moments happened recently at Intermediate School 229 in the Bronx, New York.

frederick douglass
Ken Morris, Nettie Washington Douglass, Robert Benz

I.S. 229 is the only middle school that participated as one of our nine New Proclamation schools. They were a late addition to the group and still managed to meet our very aggressive deadline for producing their “Whereas Statement” for the document.

The students showed just how prepared they were recently during a brilliant presentation for an audience that included representatives from Mayor Bloomberg’s office, the NYC Department of Education, the District 9 Superintendent, the teacher’s union and many others. Robert and I were blown away by the determination of these students—as were all of the other guests. Mayor Bloomberg’s office and the Department of Education were already interested in having FDFF bring human trafficking education to New York City Public Schools. Now they could see the potential of this kind of learning at work.

Mayor Bloomberg’s office has been interested in the subject of human trafficking for quite some time. New York City is one of the most proactive cities in the country on this issue. They decided that they wanted us to bring our service-learning human trafficking education to New York City Public Schools starting with at-risk schools.

In the international anti-trafficking world, much of the focus and investment has been placed on intervention – how can we help the victims of human trafficking? Of course, it’s essential to assist those already victimized by this crime, but a small portion of the focus and investment should be placed on prevention education.

Prevention education provides young people with information that will help keep them from becoming victims or even perpetrators of human trafficking. Targeted lessons can also help those that may become part of creating demand for trafficked individuals understand how their actions in the future could hurt others. This kind of education can help reduce violence against children and even serve as an intervention tool if students are able to notice when their friends may be in trouble. Of course, as I saw with Malik, this learning can be a great source of empowerment for impressionable students as well. Starting in New York City with at-risk students is a great opportunity for us to reach, and maybe even change, young people that may otherwise become victims.

Whenever I hear that question - Are you great like Frederick Douglass? - in whatever form it comes, I think about the grandfather I never had the chance to know. His name was Frederick Douglass III and he was the great grandson of the “man with the big white hair” as my great grandmother, Fannie Douglass, used to call him.

My grandfather was said to have been a truly brilliant man—a surgeon—assigned to Tuskegee University during the early part of World War II. It’s there he met my grandmother, Nettie Hancock Washington, the beautiful granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. They came together by accident on the Tuskegee campus, fell madly in love and married shortly thereafter. They were a very handsome couple.

I mentioned that I was raised outside Frederick Douglass’ shadow of expectation and my grandfather is the reason why. When my grandmother was 3 months pregnant with my mother, my grandfather took his own life. It’s impossible to know exactly why he did it, but, when I was born, it was agreed that I would not feel the same pressure of expectation that my grandfather did.

Now that I have wandered closer to that vast shadow, I have experienced some of those same pressures I imagine my ancestors felt. But we all have doubts about who we have been, who we are and who we will become one day.

No, I’m not great like Frederick Douglass and I never will be. But, what I like to make clear to students is that you don’t have to be a descendant of someone famous to make a difference. We all descend from people that did great things in this world. I know that, whether you’re a student or a teacher or an administrator, there’s time for you to make a difference in the lives of others. By learning the examples of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, two men born into slavery, I know I can be great in my own way. And I know you can be great too.

* Download the 100 Days to Freedom curriculum:

* Sign the Petition:

* New Proclamation of Freedom document download

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