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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Path Appears: Awareness, Engagement, and Action

A documentary series examining human trafficking and youth empowerment can raise students' awareness of national and global humanitarian crises, inspiring them to engage and act.
March 27, 2015
Adult and six children reading
Photo Credit: Audrey Hall/Show of Force

One of our greatest challenges as educators is being able to imbue in our students a sense of responsibility for challenges in our world that must be dealt with, even though they may not be part of the students' daily lives. This begins with stimulating an awareness that can be awakened and engaged by films capturing these problems in communities across the world -- including those in the U.S.

This thought is behind my recommendation of A Path Appears, an excellent series of three films for increasing student awareness and stimulating them to think about ways they can help. The films appeared on the excellent PBS series Independent Lens, now available on DVD. There are also excellent supplementary materials designed especially for teachers available online.

About the Films

The project began when the renowned New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and his wife Sheryl WuDunn embarked on a major international project to uncover gender-based oppression and human rights violations, and to develop and implement effective solutions to combat them. Their first series for Independent Lens and PBS was Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (also available as a book), which could easily be the subject for another teaching unit.

However, this post will focus on their latest effort, because I found it emotionally moving, and also because, unlike the first series, it includes this country.

Kristoff and WuDunn engaged the help of well-known actors, including Ashley Judd, Jennifer Garner, Alfre Woodard, Eva Longoria, and Mia Farrow. What struck me was that most of these stars became deeply involved in helping to bring about change and, in some cases, were themselves transformed by the process. Their participation and experiences will help make this film even more effective for reaching high school students.

The focus of the film and for your students is the prejudice and, in many cases, the extreme oppression related to the treatment of young women.

The website provides a detailed description of each of the three episodes and all of the sites visited and affected, from Nashville, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and West Virginia in this country, to Haiti, Colombia, and Kenya abroad. But I want to focus on the two that moved me the most, in part because you may also wish to choose some selected parts of the three programs to use with your students.

A Widespread Problem

In Part Two of the first episode, actress Blake Lively accompanies Kristoff to Boston, where there is a relatively effective system of finding missing girls: My Life, My Choice, an anti-trafficking organization with national recognition. The film captures a powerful story in which Maria, the mother of a missing girl, begins sobbing when Kristoff and Lively somehow locate her daughter using the web service backpage.com. We then follow the path to locating her. The intimacy of these scenes, and especially the reconciliation, is part of the film's strength. The information is important, but the intimate scenes pull us into the humanity of these lives and the pain, the hope, and, in many cases, the joy, experienced in this process.

Kristoff makes it very clear that what we are looking at in each of these cases is a problem that is widespread, in which girls are often treated as commodities. There is sex trafficking going on not just in distant countries, but throughout the United States.

Shining Hope and the Kibera School for Girls

The other episode that remains embedded in my psyche is presented in the second part of Episode Three: the amazing odyssey of Kennedy Odede and his wife Jessica Posner Odede. It could easily be a script for a classic film.

Kennedy, a quietly charismatic and exceptional human being, came out of the truly dismal slums of Kibera in Kenya, living in a tiny room with many other people. At the age of ten he ran away and, homeless, lived on garbage. He also taught himself to read and, after reading about Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, decided he wanted to be a leader like them.

Connecting with Kristoff, they work together to start a youth empowerment program, beginning with soccer and street theater. Then Jessica, no less exceptional, an American student from Wesleyan, comes to help in Kenya and begins working with them. She and Kennedy fall in love and get married. Along the way, Kennedy also gets a scholarship to Wesleyan, in the U.S., completes his work, and returns to Kenya. I guarantee this wonderful romantic story will grab your students!

The program they develop, Shining Hope, results in the creation of the Kibera School for Girls, an incredible place filled with girls who combine both the greatest vulnerability (15 percent of the kindergarteners have been raped) and the greatest promise.

Kennedy and Jessica are better than any fictional characters and actors you could create and cast. And they will be inspirational models for your students.

Extraordinary Filmmaking

I think it is also important to mention that the filmmaking itself is extraordinary in the intimacy that develops between the filmmakers and the people whose lives they enter. The openness and accessibility of the people in these films could only be established through authentic relationships. The cinematography capturing human faces and emotions is exceptional.

It is also important to focus student attention on this piece of the narration:

[W]hen a story [about domestic violence] has a face, it's always different. . . This is a national and international crisis that disproportionately affects women in terms of the violence that they experience. . . but that affects men and women, boys and girls equally in our society and the inequalities that we grow up with. . . We actually need men to understand that this issue is something that impacts and shapes their very existence. We need to educate boys and young men so that then we can also make a difference.

Your students need to know that there is significant sex trafficking going on in this country. And they also need to know that these stories demonstrate hope and joy in successfully turning around lives headed for degradation, and that they too can be part of innovative strategies for making a difference.

Our Challenge to Care and Act

I strongly suggest that teachers read at least part of the book written in conjunction with the films, providing additional information and directions with regard to how students can get involved. Chapters such as "The Neuroscience of Giving" and "Healing Through Helping" also suggest ways in which using the films can act as a stimulus to change the hearts and lives of some of your students.

The films make it very clear that there are solutions, and that it's up to us to care and act. The first step is awareness. The second is engagement. The third is action. This film can help engage your students in each of these steps.

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  • Service Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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