NYC Urban Teens Meet to Grapple With Sexual Slavery and Become 'Global Kids'

08/05/2010 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Francine Russo Author, 'They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy'

Were the people who sexually enslaved Esperanza ever convicted?" asked the teenage boy in sweats.

"What about the parents who sold her to that man?" asked another a few seats down along the table.

I'll get to the person being asked the questions in a minute, but first I'd like to talk about the table. Around its perimeter were arrayed a group of about 25 kids from under-served New York City high schools. The table was huge. And imposing, as was the elegant, high-ceilinged room which it occupied. It looked like the kind of table you see on the news with the President presiding over a meeting with his Chief of Staff. It was a table--and a room--where you'd expect to see world luminaries discussing the urgent matters of the day. That's not surprising, since we were in one of the conference rooms of the Council on Foreign Relations, that uber-prestigious think tank on Park Avenue. And during this three-week Global Kids summer program on critical international issues, these urban kids would, in fact, be addressed by a host of luminaries, from Richard Haass, Ted Sorensen and George Stephanopoulos, to Theodore Roosevelt IV and Leslie Gelb.

Now back to the today's topic: human trafficking. The kids' questions were addressed to Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, who had just shown the group an emotionally wrenching video. It recounted the horrific journey of 14-year-old Esperanza, who was sold by her parents for $280 to a man who brought her from her home in Guatemala to his suburban Florida house, where he terrorized her, imprisoned her and made her his sexual and household slave.

Smolenski had begun her presentation by telling the mostly minority students, "I will assume a level of sophistication I wouldn't usually assume for high schools students." Her assumption was correct. These teenagers, many of whom had been in the program for years, had spent the morning poring over data on trafficking; they not only understood Smolenski's points, but they asked some sharp policy questions about government corruption and private companies that profit from trafficking. All college-bound now after some iffy beginnings, they had become global activists in their own schools and communities, working to make a difference near at hand on such issues as food justice and energy conservation.

That's the idea behind Global Kids, said Executive Director Carole Artigiani. After 20 years of operation, they've seen 90 percent of their participants graduate from high school and the majority go onto to college. Moreover, she said, they emerge as "global citizens," who know how the world beyond their neighborhood and country affects them every day and who work for change on issues that matter to them.

Take Leonor Walcott and Rebecca Travis, Global Kids graduates who are here today as college-graduates and full-time trainers. "The program molded me," said Lenore, who went to Penn State. "It gave me opportunities, like the chance I got to meet Kofi Annan. And it helped me get a scholarship." Rebecca, who joined as a freshman and is now a Colby College graduate, agreed. "I had the life-changing opportunity of going to Croatia, a country with a recent experience of war," she said. "And I had a Serbian roommate."

Global Kids, she added, isn't just about problems in the larger world, but encourages its members to bring their activism home. Each one picks a project to do in his or her own community. One notable student project was "food justice": the relative lack of fresh, nutritious food in the community and lunchroom. The kids did community surveys about which nutritious foods were missing. They created a vegetable garden and studied policies that discourage healthy food from coming into their neighborhoods.

Civic engagement can also act as a means of helping students improve their skills, said senior trainer Kevin Murungi. "We recruit from under-served schools," he explained, "where there is poor attendance and high drop-out rates." Some of the kids now on college track, he said, started with attendance issues or low test scores. But the program engages them in a way that helps them both personally and academically. And civic engagement is in itself a success.

Shreese Trumpet, an 11th grader of Caribbean background, is an eloquent example. Today's program on trafficking has spurred her, she said, to do a project to take on companies that use child labor. "This school year," she said, "I will introduce HRAP at my school--the Human Rights Activist Project. We'll try to find those companies that do the child labor and get so much profit, find out what companies exactly, and get people knowing all the names."

Shreese was powerfully affected by the video. She was struck, she said, by how only an accident of fate helped 14-year-old Esperanza escape enslavement after six months. "Experanza's story struck me," she said in a gentle, barely audible voice, "because it was literally in our own back yard in the States--and because nobody noticed! She could have experienced that for years and nobody noticed, and that's what really moved me."