The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Young innovators accept Social Justice Prize: James Kofi Annan

For most of us, childhood evokes images of T.V. shows, swing sets and grade school. But at age six, Social Justice Prizewinner James Kofi Annan was sold into slavery in his native Ghana and forced to work in the fishing industry for the next seven years until he finally escaped. He now works to tackle issues of child slavery and helps rehabilitate rescued children.

Annan, who at the time of his escape was illiterate, went on to pursue an education, ultimately graduating from university to become the manager at a Barclay’s bank. Conscious of the fact that he was lucky to have escaped his masters, Annan created “Challenging Heights,” an organization that strives to address the problem of child slavery in Ghana.

“Challenging Heights was formed because I needed to live by the motto ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’” Annan said. “Though I didn’t have a privileged childhood, several children went through the same situation [as me] and never survived. For me to survive alone is a testament of what has been given to me and so I have to give back.”
Challenging Heights engages in preventative work by encouraging children, families and communities to resist slavery through public education programs. Considering that most child slaves in Ghana are sold to their masters by family members desperate to alleviate their poverty, these programs inevitably help many at-risk children escape the dangers of slavery.

“Prevention includes identifying at-risk children, sending them to school and removing them from the preying eyes of traffickers and also includes empowering communities [through] educating parents on the dangers of trafficking and mobilizing communities to rise against slavery and providing public education on the issue of trafficking and its dangers and using the law to let people know that it is wrong,” said Annan.
Additionally, Challenging Heights leads “rescue” programs and negotiates with slave masters concerning the release of children who are then returned to their families and provided with educational support. To date, it has led 216 rescues and supported over 10,000 children.

The Social Justice Prize is Annan’s sixth international award and is the largest in terms of its monetary value. Other awards he has received include the Barclays Chairman Award, the World NGO Award, the Freedom Award and the African Philanthropic Award.

Coming to Grinnell to receive the award, Annan encountered many raised eyebrows but affirmed that Grinnell exceeded his expectations.

“Before I came here most people asked me what I was going to do in Iowa. When they heard I was coming for an award they’d say ‘okay then go for it and leave,’ but coming here I’ve seen that there is a sense of community [and there is] ownership of responsibility. Students have a sense of purpose—that’s good,” Annan said. “Grinnell is beyond my expectations and I’m happy about [the prize] because it comes with a lot of exposure and a lot of money.”

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