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The Antislavery Usable Past

Award Information

AHRC Ref: AH/M004430/2
University of Nottingham, September 2016 - August 2019
Professor Kevin Bales

This five-year AHRC-funded research project is uncovering and applying the lessons of past antislavery movements for contemporary antislavery efforts.

An estimated 40.3 million slaves live in the world today.  But we are in the middle of history’s fourth great antislavery movement and ending slavery by 2030 is a target of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To help achieve this goal, the Antislavery Usable Past is harnessing the examples of past antislavery movements for NGO strategies, international law, and government policy.

Through advisory seminars, interactive digital archives, exhibitions, public events, and policy briefings working with leading NGOs, the project has demonstrated that particular laws, definitions, literary devices, visual culture, opinion-building activities and organisational strategies were useful to earlier antislavery generations, and can be useful for contemporary abolitionists if they are properly adapted.

Kevin Bales Project Lead for Anti-Slavery Usable Past
Professor Kevin Bales Project Lead for Anti-Slavery Usable Past

One NGO who worked with the programme said: “We now understand how past abolitionist leaders operated, what helped them succeed, what stalled their progress. Analysing the critical power pressure points and the order in which they were accessed has helped us to structure our own work.

“Because a truly successful movement is powered from the ground-up, we have found tremendous value in understanding the psychology of the rank and file in past abolitionist movements.”

In policy, Antislavery Usable Past researchers made a submission to the Joint Committee on the UK Draft Modern Slavery Bill. This led to further involvement in consultations over the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015. The UK Home Office has used one of the measurement techniques developed by the project lead, Professor Kevin Bales (University of Nottingham). Professor Bales has given evidence to government reviews of antislavery policy in the USA, Cambodia and Australia, and one of his project outputs was cited in a 2016 UN Report.

Professor Allain from the Anti-slavery Usable Past giving evidence before the Inter-American Court
Professor Allain from the Anti-slavery Usable Past giving evidence before the Inter-American Court. Credit: Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The project has also had an impact on public attitudes towards antislavery campaigning. More than 10,000 learners from 150 countries took the world’s first massive open online course (MOOC) about contemporary slavery, delivered by the Antislavery Usable Past team. This free four-week course asked participants to help design a new blueprint for ending slavery by 2030. Aspects of this course have been embedded in at least 5 undergraduate courses in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, and used as professional development by numerous antislavery NGOs. The MOOC was shortlisted for the Learning on Screen Awards 2017.

The project has received media coverage by the Telegraph newspaper, BBC Radio, CNN, Al Jazeera, and North Korea Radio, among numerous other outlets. It has generated numerous exhibitions and workshops worldwide, including a major exhibition of antislavery imagery at the Museum of African American History in Boston which has been extended until 2018 due to public popularity, and has launched the UK branch of the international organisation Historians Against Slavery, which brings together hundreds of historians to continue delivering historical lessons for abolitionist efforts.