How do you talk about genocide, human trafficking, modern slavery, oppression and the overall importance of human rights in ways that students can understand? For James Disco, the answer lies in creating graphic novels that tackle tough topics.
James Disco's day job involves working for the Dallas Tennis Association, teaching tennis to underprivileged children. This work that gives him an empathetic window into a world of children who cannot necessarily expect fairness or compassion, and this has inspired him to do work that stresses the importance of human rights.
His first effort was a graphic novel about the recent genocide in Sudan, Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The introduction to the book was written by Dr. Richard Halperin, director of the Embrey Human Rights Education Program at Southern Methodist University.
In an interview published on the website, Gender Across Borders, Halperin is quoted as saying that publishing stories on difficult subjects is important for many reasons, including working "to eradicate the most dangerous words in the English language, 'I didn't know.'"
This year Disco is at work to create an anthology of survivor stories about slavery; the project involves an art contest for young people, middle school through college, to encourage them to think of themselves as activists. The top prizes involve having their work published in the forthcoming graphic novel.
The book Disco and his partners are working on now will be a collection of stories about those who escaped from slavery. Some will date to the 19th century and tell about survivors such as Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) who escaped from slavery and became active in the abolition movement.
Others stories concern modern day. A particularly eye-opening one is about Given Kachepa, who was brought to the United States as a young boy in the late 1990s by an organization called Teaching Teachers to Teach (TTT). The organization visited Zambia and recruited musically-talented young boys to come to the U.S. to sing in a choir. In return the organization promised a regular salary that would be sent home to the children's families and access to education for the boys in America. TTT also promised to invest money in building schools in Zambia.
As reality set in, the children's circumstances did not live up to the promises. The boys were expected to perform regularly -- often several concerts a day -- but they never received payment, no schools in Zambia were built, and the boys were never enrolled in school in the U.S. Eventually, federal investigators became suspicious of TTT, and the boys were taken into U.S. custody; some like Given Kachepa were eventually placed in American homes.
Most Americans are unaware that slave labor still exists in this country but according to a U.S. State Department study, some 14,500-17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked in the U.S. each year. Many like Given Kachepa arrive in this country believing they will have a better life, but they find themselves involved with unscrupulous people who force them into servitude.
Kachepa, who is now almost 30 and a college graduate, says in an oral history about his circumstance that in addition to human trafficking in the sex trade, modern slaves may work in kitchens or factory workshops or as part of cleaning crews, any circumstances where a boss can control their public contact and prevent them from reaching out to people who might help them.
Echoes of Lost Boys of Sudan: First Project
Most Americans have read of an international incident referred to as the Lost Boys of Sudan. This describes a time when over 20,000 youths were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). The children -- primarily young males ages 7-17 -- banded together to walk from Sudan to Ethiopia and eventually to Kenya, doing their best to stay alive. Many died from the challenges of the trip; some were eaten by wild animals.
The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations helped establish refugee camps for the boys who made it to Kenya; some of the boys eventually were taken to cities in the United States, including Dallas. It was there that James Disco, who also works as a volunteer with Catholic Charities, encountered the boys since Catholic Charities was helping to provide a place for them to live.
"We needed to teach them to live in an American home -- that running water in the house could be used for cooking or washing. And when they first received canned food, they had no idea what it was; they lined the cans up for decoration as they thought the labels were so pretty," says Disco. "We had to show them that the cans were to be opened and that there was food inside."
As Disco listened to the boys, he decided the youths' stories needed to be told. He envisioned the work as a graphic novel because he wanted the stories to be communicated to other children. Working with co-creator Susan Clark they spent time with the boys and devoted many months to looking for the right artist. They wanted someone who could depict the horrors of the boys' experiences without making readers turn away. Ultimately they decided on Niki Singleton, a Canadian artist and activist who understood what needed to be accomplished.
The end result was a manuscript for Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The now-published graphic novel also contains a question and answer section with Dr. Carol North, professor of psychiatry and director of a trauma program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where North discussed the impact of this type of trauma on human beings.
Funding from Tennis Organization
To get the book published, Disco needed funding, and he turned to his employer, the National Junior Tennis and Learning program where he teaches tennis. While the pairing of social activists and tennis may seem unusual, fairness for youths was the original intent of the organization when it was founded in 1969 by tennis star Arthur Ashe with friends Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder.
The organization, now renamed the National Junior Tennis and Learning Network, provides underprivileged children with academic and life mentors, positive peer groups and a safe place to play. Currently over 250,000 students nationwide participate, and the Dallas Tennis Association, an extension of the NJTL, is one of the top programs in the nation. (Proceeds from sale of any of the books go to fund additional programming through the NJTLN.)
For more stories about those who have succeeded against long odds, please read some of the profiles at America Comes Alive.