Reading, rights and research: working together to end modern slavery

One of the key elements of the welcome itinerary for new students at the University of Nottingham each year is the Nottingham Reading Programme.

This is the fourth full year of the programme where we provide a book to all new starters, encourage them to read it and then offer opportunities to discuss it with others in their halls or elsewhere on campus. It’s not a new idea having been common in the US for many years.  Other UK universities, such as Kingston, do it too and it remains a really positive contributor to helping new students orientate themselves to university life.

What’s distinctive about this year’s programme is that the book is non-fiction for the first time. It’s a result of a partnership with the Rights Lab  (a university research Beacon of Excellence) and the Faculty of Social Sciences to provide all new students with a copy of a specially designed copy of the book Slave: The True Story of a Girl’s Lost Childhood and her Fight for Survival by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis.

The autobiography tells the story of Nazer’s experiences in modern slavery in Sudan and the UK. It is a chance for students to learn about something they may not have previously considered and acts as an icebreaker, giving everyone something to talk about and events to attend with other new students.

This year’s chosen book will also act as a catalyst to a year-long programme of events hosted by the Rights Lab, the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Campus Life office, with the aim of educating students about the issue of modern slavery and empowering them to support the work being done to tackle the issue and, in turn, help make Nottingham’s campus slavery-free:

Organised by final-year undergraduate in sociology and social policy, Amelia Watkins, who is the Rights Lab Slavery-Free Campus Coordinator and Reading Programme Director, the events will be a chance for students to better understand modern slavery and learn how they can contribute to ending it by 2030, which is the target set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There will be opportunities to hear from slavery survivors and world-leading experts.

The events, which are also open to members of the public, will give students the chance to become advocates and get involved in anti-slavery work. Beginning this month, there will be a series of lunchtime talks at Lakeside led by experts from the Rights Lab focussing on different areas of modern slavery, a photographic exhibition in the spring, and a campus fun run later in the year.

The largest group of modern slavery scholars in the world, and home to the world’s leading academic experts on modern slavery, the Rights Lab’s team of more than 100 academics at Nottingham is answering four main questions:

  • How many slaves exist in the world and where are they?
  • Why does slavery persist?
  • What works to end slavery?
  • What difference does freedom from slavery make to the world?

The partnership between the Rights Lab and the Reading Programme represents a really interesting development. Not only does it potentially help students settle in to the university community, it involves them in a the university’s working in helping to bring an end to global slavery, says Zoe Trodd, Director of the Rights Lab.

“The Rights Lab and its leadership believe that slavery finally teeters on the brink of extinction, and that we can help to push it over the edge. We are very excited to work with our fantastic student community this year towards that goal of a slavery-free world: including a slavery-free campus and a slavery-free city here in Nottingham.”

Todd Landman, Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Faculty of Social Sciences says an expanded program of supporting activities for the reading programme includes talks from academics and survivors of slavery, film screenings, workshops, and photography exhibitions.

“The team has also contacted all schools across the university to ask how they think they might link their academic disciplines to the topic of modern slavery,” he says.

So, there are plenty of engaging activities for new students at Nottingham as well as the opportunity to read and discuss this fantastic book. It is a challenging issue but one I think is absolutely right for this kind of programme. As this recent blog from Trodd and Andy Winter, Campus Life Director, noted:

We understand that this book tackles a challenging subject – but we shouldn’t be afraid to confront difficult subjects. While media narratives raise panic about the suppression of freedom of speech on campus, the reality is that universities have always been and remain places for debate. They are places where we should be challenging our students to broaden their understanding of the planet that they live on and take responsibility for changing it for the better.

For some, they are already in that place – taking part in student groups like Anti-Slavery Society or the Environment and Social Justice Network. For some it might never be something that they take an interest in. But for others, it may just be that by providing this window into the subject, this opportunity to join our battle against slavery, we present them with their first step towards changing the world.

It’s a great initiative and one I’m delighted the University of Nottingham is undertaking. You can find out more about the Rights Lab  and what is modern slavery here as well as events around campus and in Nottingham. The book is also available on Amazon to non-students too.

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