Ending slavery, brick by brick

Though slavery has been outlawed from the face of the earth, modern slavery, an estimated $150 billion criminal industry, exists in the forms of human trafficking and forced labor. In the building supply chain in particular, forced labor is like metastatic cancer – often undetected and yet everywhere. Worldwide, there are 25 million adults and 152 million children forced to work in the steel, timber, rubber, bricks, glass and textiles industries in such countries as Brazil, Russia, India and China, with no hope of escaping the crushing cycle of poverty.

It’s a subject that has taken on new significance recently as Nestlé USA and Cargill argued before the United States Supreme Court that they are not liable for human rights abuses committed against six Malian former child slaves, who were forced to work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, which supplies much of the cocoa for the companies’ products. A decision is expected in June.)

In the meantime, Grace Farms Foundation in New Canaan has stepped forward to address the catastrophe of forced labor. For the last five years, the nonprofit, which is dedicated to peace through five initiatives — nature, the arts, justice, community and faith — has been housed in the curving, modern River Building designed by SANAA, a Tokyo-based architectural firm, so it’s fitting that it should seek solutions to a problem in the building trades that Sharon Prince, Grace Farms’ founding CEO, says is all the more tragic for its insidiousness. This isn’t like going to a quarry and seeing workers abused, she adds:  “This is beyond what you see, which is why people miss it.”

To counter that, Grace Farms has created a multifaceted response, Design For Freedom. It began in 2017 with a discussion between Prince and the late Bill Menking — professor, curator and founding editor-in-chief of The Architect’s Newspaper. They convened leading principals in architecture, engineering and construction for the Design for Freedom Working Group, which has expanded to more than 60 experts from various building disciplines. The results include:

• A report on the scope and details of the forced labor phenomenon; 

• A dedicated website, designforfreedom.org, with more content; 

• Partnerships with a number of universities, including the Yale School of Architecture, where associate dean Phil Bernstein and Luis de Boca, former U.S. ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in person and Grace Farms Justice Initiative senior adviser, teach a first-of its-kind class on forced labor in the building supply chain; 

• A webinar series presented in partnership with Pratt Institute that examines the forced labor phenomenon and industry solutions; 

• And a fundraising, ethically manufactured face mask that will be sold exclusively through a partnership with Herman Miller, a member of the working group.

Face masks are in the Grace Farms wheelhouse. Since the pandemic took off here in March, the organization has delivered some two million pieces of PPE — 500,000 N95 masks, plus surgical and disposable masks; coveralls; face shields; gloves; cap; and goggles — to health-care facilities in the state of Connecticut that include Greenwich Hospital and the Nathaniel Witherell Assisted Living Facility.

Grace Farms, which has been closed since March 9, has also provided more than 60,000 food-insecure individuals with healthy meals and distributed about 145,000 pounds of food to date.

One of the upsides of this challenging year, is that “we’ve gotten to know our neighbors so well,” Prince says, adding, “we’re committed to this community.”

For more, visit gracefarms.org.

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