“What do you do when you’re not a grad student?”: An Interview with Karlee Sapoznik

As part of our efforts to connect graduate students outside of the classroom/department, we’re interviewing our fellow grad students about what they do when they’re not reading, writing, or researching.

This week we interview Karlee Sapoznik, a PhD candidate who researchers and writes about slavery in all of its forms, human rights, abolitionist movements, servile forced marriage, genocide and memory, and the Holocaust. She is also the co-founder and president of the Alliance Against Modern Slavery.

1. What do you do when you’re not a grad student? Describe your hobby/job/talent keeping in mind that others may know little or nothing about it.

The audience at the Alliance Against Modern Slavery's third conference in Toronto on February 23, 2013. Photo © Stephanie Kretzschmer of AKA Photography

The audience at the Alliance Against Modern Slavery’s third conference in Toronto on February 23, 2013.
Photo © Stephanie Kretzschmer of AKA Photography

When I am not a graduate student, I am the President and Co-Founder of the Alliance Against Modern Slavery (the Alliance), a free-standing incorporated and registered non for profit charitable organization in Canada. The Alliance works at the grassroots, community, and academic levels to raise awareness about, conduct groundbreaking research on, and devise solutions to end slavery. Friends and family often tease me that you can usually find me in places most people avoid. Our team and I have spent time in Mali, where Tombouctou is located and where we met President Amadou Toumani Touré before the coup-d’état against him in March of 2012. We have also spent time in Cusco, Peru, not at Machu Picchu, but working with survivors of slavery and constructing a vocational centre. Most recently, I helped lead training on understanding and working with children and youth who have been exploited and trafficked in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is a hot spot for human trafficking for the purpose of commercial exploitation. You can also find me regularly speaking to individuals many people avoid, including reporters, law enforcement, front-line service providers, shelter staff and government officials.

2. How long have you been doing this, and how did you get involved?

My grandparents are survivors of slavery. Through them, I witnessed what slavery can do to an individual, to a family and to entire communities. As a result, I suppose I have been exposed to anti-slavery thoughts and efforts since birth. I have always felt a deep moral and social responsibility to do all I can to ensure freedom, dignity and justice for all. In 2008 while I was completing my Masters at York University in historical anti-slavery, a survivor I met shared her testimony of a brutal servile marriage. That was a major tipping point for me. I began to research modern slavery more seriously. At that time, experts placed the number of slaves at 27 million, about the population of the entire country of Canada in the early 1990s. I quickly came into contact with more survivors and families whose loved ones had been enslaved. Yet, there was no non-profit anti-slavery organization in Canada with a non-partisan, non-denominational, multidisciplinary, inclusive local and global mandate. In 2009-2010, our first executive and board came together to found one. We officially launched as a charity in January 2011.

Since its beginning, the Alliance has been a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual organization. We have collaborated with people of all ages and backgrounds to foster a spirit of cooperation across traditional language, cultural, religious, and political divides. RCMP personnel estimate that only 5% of Canadians understand that Canada is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, forced labour and forced marriage. Fewer realize that many everyday commodities we consume, such as coffee, chocolate, cell phones and clothing, are produced by slave labour. We are deeply motivated to improve this awareness while simultaneously working to eradicate the practice of enslaving men, women and children in our local and global communities.

3. What’s your favourite aspect of this activity?

There are two things that I find equally rewarding. The first is seeing the joy that freedom brings. It’s amazing to see survivors heal and dream again. Often their deepest hopes are things that you and I take for granted: finishing school, getting a job, getting married and having a family. The survivor of servile marriage I mentioned above is now married to a man she chose to wed based on mutual love and respect. The second is working in collaboration with our incredible team, students and communities across Canada who are standing up for freedom, and speaking out against injustice. They and the next generation inspire me on a daily basis.

4. How do you manage the balance between your graduate career and your activity?

My family, friends, fellow graduate students, supervisors, work-out buddies and wider community help me maintain a healthy balance. I am grateful for their wonderful support, and the ways in which they collectively help me discern when to say yes, no and later to opportunities.

Karlee and her team following the Alliance Against Modern Slavery's conference in Toronto. Photo © Stephanie Kretzschmer of AKA Photography

Karlee and her team following the Alliance Against Modern Slavery’s conference in Toronto.
Photo © Stephanie Kretzschmer of AKA Photography

Thank you, Karlee, for finding the time to answer our questions! If you or someone you know would be interested in being interviewed for this series, please contact us!

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This entry was posted in "Not Just a Grad Student" series, 2013-2014 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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