Hull is a leading voice in the modern slavery debate

Published: Friday 8th December 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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This Sunday is Human Rights Day. We spoke with John Oldfield, Director of WISE, to discuss human rights, modern slavery and the Wilberforce legacy.

Based next door to the birthplace of MP William Wilberforce, WISE is the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation. Their pioneering research into historical slavery plays a huge role in local and international discussions on modern day issues.

Can you tell us a little bit more about WISE?

We are an interdisciplinary research institute devoted to the study of slavery in all its forms – historical and contemporary. WISE acts as a forum for debate and discussion on slavery past and present. We partner with museums, policymakers, businesses and other organisations to provide a lead in the community and within government when informing policy, practice and public participation.

WISE has a close working relationship with the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, as well as with the Humber Modern Slavery Partnership (HMSP). Some of our clients include Waitrose, Yorkshire Water and the John Lewis Partnership, but our reputation relies on the quality of our research.

Is there any specific activity that you are currently working on?

We continue to work with the HMSP to raise awareness of contemporary slavery and provide training for first responders, such as the police and social services. Linked to this, we are continuing to develop our Risk Assessment Service, which trains and educates businesses on slavery.

Research-wise, we are collaborating with the universities in Liverpool and Nottingham to focus on building resilience to slavery in sub-Saharan Africa. This fits in very much with Hyland’s focus on eradicating contemporary slavery ‘at source’. This project is called The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network.

WISE advocates using the past to inform our present and future. In what way can our heritage help to educate people about modern issues?

We are keenly aware of the Wilberforce legacy. Our work aims to set contemporary debates around slavery in a historical context. This involves correcting mistakes and challenging assertions made by the media and sometimes even by policymakers. Only by understanding the past can we, as a nation, imagine a future that is significantly different. This certainly applies to slavery, too.

We are not saying that historical and contemporary slavery is the same thing – in fact far from it – but our job is to help others to understand how slavery has evolved over time. We can also profit from studying past anti-slavery movements, which brings us back to William Wilberforce and the people who joined him in the struggle against the slave trade; raising awareness, building coalitions and opinion-building were all challenges that these individuals faced.

It’s quite remarkable, actually, how sophisticated some of the techniques developed by early abolitionists were.

How can we get involved with WISE?

We run a regular lecture series throughout the academic year, which is open to the public. For those who are interested, we can share resources with teachers and youth group leaders. Members of WISE will also come and speak with interested parties and we do a lot of outreach work with civic groups and historical societies.

WISE is based at the Oriel Chambers, 27 High Street, Hull, HU1 1NE. To find out more about the institute, please visit the University of Hull website.

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Published: Friday 8th December 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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