The Evolving Perception of Human Trafficking: Walking to End Slavery

This is the next in a series of interviews with individuals working to address human trafficking. You'll meet students and educators, parents and professionals whose voices will give readers a new and better understanding of this crime while teaching us how to respond more effectively to it.

Barry Jurgensen is a history teacher at Arlington High School in Arlington, Nebraska. On June 1, he will begin a 500-mile journey from Nebraska City, NE to Chicago, Illinois that is being called, Walk Forever Free. Barry is retracing the foot steps of two women that escaped slavery in 1858. He'll stop at Underground Railroad historic sites along the way to teach about their amazing odyssey and raise awareness of contemporary slavery. Barry also strives to raise $50 for every mile he walks to support human trafficking prevention education and teacher training in schools. He hopes to finish the walk on July 2.

Robert: Barry, I guess the first thing any rational person wants to know is: Are you serious?! Have you lost your mind?! But, really, what does your family think about the trip and how did you come up with this outrageous/great idea?

Barry: I first came up with the idea of following the Underground Railroad and creating awareness for human trafficking a few years ago, but I didn't think I could leave my wife and kids for a month. The idea of accomplishing the walk and doing something to fight today's slavery stayed with me. After researching the men and women of all races, who risked their lives for freedom, I could not put off the walk any longer. Slavery in our country would not have been abolished in 1865 if it were not for the individuals who made sacrifices to destroy this injustice. Knowing that slavery still exists today, I didn't want to be a spectator and witness incidents of human trafficking on the news.

I discussed the details of the walk with my wife. She was extremely supportive. Undoubtedly, she has concerns for my safety but understands that I have to do this walk to help in some small way to prevent the growth of today's slavery. She will be sacrificing just as much as I will. My family and I are a team and we will fight slavery together.

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Matt Dixon/ The WORLD-HERALD

Robert: What are your students doing to support your walk?

Barry: My honors history class is researching the history of the Underground Railroad and working on the fundraiser for Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives.

We also have a student, Zoe Welch, who would like to pursue graphic design in college. She has designed a logo for the walk. Students and teachers of our Student Council, National Honors Society, and Future Business Leaders of America will also be involved. Some students will be a part of designing t-shirts and bracelets to help raise money for the fundraiser. Others will be reaching out to student groups in towns along the way. We would like to challenge those towns, whose ancestors were a part of the Underground Railroad, to once again pick up the torch and help fight today's slavery.

Robert: What outcomes are you hoping for with Walk Forever Free?

Barry: That the walk will show how amazing our country is, and, when united as one people, we can fight injustice. We do not have to depend on someone else to do something, we can stop human trafficking together. Furthermore, I hope to help students and adults realize that the preservation of our history will help us solve and understand present day issues that we see all around us. Lastly, if we are going to stop slavery, we need to start with our kids and educate them about present day slavery. I truly believe in "abolition through education" and that we can prevent the growth and, eventually, the existence of slavery.

Robert: How would you recommend other teachers talk about historical and modern slavery in the classroom?

Barry: First of all, I look at history like a Jackson Pollock painting. Just like history, everyone will look at a Pollock painting and have different interpretations. History's various interpretations provide an excellent opportunity for students to learn in an abstract way. In every class, I encourage students to think outside the box, as well as the textbook, and expand their understanding of history.

The topic of contemporary slavery can be somewhat controversial, but, as history teachers, we cannot present the past in a biased way. In class, in order to truly understand who we are, we must show the light and dark sides of our history. I would encourage teachers to look at slavery abstractly. Discuss the slavery of African Americans, Convict Leasing, the Peonage System, the Bracero Program, child labor, sex trafficking and other forms of today's slavery. The greatest thing that a teacher can do is to start a discussion about the topics and help students create opinions based on factual information, not hatred or fear, which will contribute to improving society for future generations.

It's important to discuss slavery in the classroom because we often take our freedom for granted. After studying the subject, students reconnect with what freedom actually means. Then they're more likely to be motivated to become active in society to support the freedom of others.

Robert: Has activism changed you since you began talking and walking about this issue of slavery?

Barry: Yes, I feel more free to be who I am. I enjoy life in a whole new way. Often times in the past, I have let fear control my decisions. After committing myself to this walk, fear is not an option anymore; it won't restrict what I can or cannot accomplish.

Robert: I wouldn't normally use this word, but I'm gonna say it anyway -- this will be EPIC!

Coming up next: Inside the mind of Officer 2.0