Post contributed by Callie Hawkins, Associate Director for Programs at President Lincoln’s Cottage

Last February, President Lincoln’s Cottage launched Can You Walk Away?, an exhibit on modern slavery in the United States.  Given our history and the work President Lincoln did here developing his ideas around the Emancipation Proclamation, we realized that we have a responsibility to see how far our country has come in the fight for freedom.  As a result of this exhibit, we began working with a group of four high school juniors who started Students Opposing Slavery as a grass-roots, student led organization to raise awareness and action against human trafficking and modern slavery.  President Lincoln’s Cottage worked with these students in several different capacities and when the founders looked at what would happen to SOS when they graduated they approached the Cottage about becoming the home-base for SOS activity.  With the founders, we came up with a plan to host a week-long international summit for high school students and developed a strategy for continued engagement with participants throughout the school year.

Overall, the pilot was a tremendous success and one of the best professional experiences I’ve ever had.  As we make plans for next year, I wanted to share with you a few of our lessons learned.  None of these are earth shattering, but I do hope that you will add your own challenges and success stories from similar programs, so that our field can continue to develop engaging youth programs.

  • Be patient.  Since opening to the public in 2008, a youth engagement initiative that goes beyond the in-school education program has long been on our wish list of programs we’d like to do, but because we are a relatively new site we have had to prioritize our signature tours for the general public and our on-site education programs for local and national schools.  While some of our early ideas were good, none were as rich or connected to the history of our site and some of the challenges faced in our community and around the world today.  Waiting to launch this type of program meant that we had the benefit of a few years of data gathering from our middle and high school education programs, which helped us clearly identify the type of youth engagement that simultaneously furthered our mission and was relevant and challenging to our youth audience.
  • Wings and the FBI.  Critical to the development of this new initiative was getting input from high school students.  We worked with the founders of SOS on every detail for the Summit from developing the schedule of presenters to choosing dates and designing the menu.  The ownership they took over the program and its success was vital to developing a dynamic program that included presentations from MTV and the FBI and in recruiting their peers.  And, you should have heard the cheers when we carted out chicken wings and quesadillas for Wednesday’s lunch!  When engaging youth in the development phase, consider adding in statements of commitment and/or ways to ensure accountability for tasks and timeliness.  We faced a few challenges with this in our planning phase, but thankfully nothing that resulted in critical issues.  As a result, we asked all of the participants in our week-long program to sign a Statement of Commitment, which worked to everyone’s benefit and yielded fantastic results from participants.
  • Powerful partnerships.  One of the major strengths of this program was that we drew on existing partnerships to put together a phenomenal of content experts in the anti-human trafficking field.  While our organization has learned a tremendous amount about the modern fight to end slavery, this is not our area of expertise.  By drawing on our relationship with Polaris Project, a leading NGO fighting modern slavery, we made connections with other government agencies and NGOs who provided excellent presentations and workshops.  Our ability to provide historical context and relevance to this modern issue led to deep conversations around our role in continuing Lincoln’s fight for freedom.
  • Diversify.  A major strength of this program was the fact that we recruited students from both public and private schools from around the globe (we were very fortunate to have a sponsorship that allowed us to bring several international students to President Lincoln’s Cottage to attend the Summit), in roughly even numbers.  As a result, students with very different life experiences came together to strategize solutions to an issue that impacts each and every one of them.   A major goal of ours was that the students would end the week having created a network of modern abolitionists that they could call on throughout the school year.  Judging from the goodbye tears and the chatter I’ve seen since the Summit, this was a major success, and I am really looking forward to bringing them back together for our first post-Summit gathering to plan for the launch of their school-wide SOS campaigns.

These are just a few of the many lessons we learned along the way.  I am anxious to see how our ideas for continued engagement throughout the school year will go, but I am encouraged by the feedback from our student participants.