The following interview with Evan Robbins was conducted via phone by Rabbi Debra Orenstein, on July 11. Evan, the founder of Breaking the Chain Through Education, was in Ghana, helping former slaves and supervising staff.
Breaking the Chain Through Education (btcte.org) began as a private mitzvah project in 2006, when Evan, a New Jersey public school social studies teacher, read an article about a six-year old boy enslaved by a fisherman at Lake Volta in Ghana. The boy slept on a mud floor and spent 14 hours a day in dangerous work on a boat. The accompanying picture of a malnourished child in tattered pants touched Evan deeply. At the time, his own child was also six years old, and the contrast between the lives of these two innocents was too big of an injustice for him to bear or ignore. Evan began taking action to help save child slaves in Ghana.
He brought this issue to his family, to his high school students, and to campers at Jewish summer camps. Together, they embarked on a quest to learn more about slavery as it is practiced today and to raise money to fight child trafficking. Thirteen years later, his students and family are still raising both awareness and funds — in amazing magnitudes — each year.
Since its founding, Breaking the Chain Through Education has supported more than 100 formerly enslaved children with education, trauma recovery, health care, job training, and food, as well as with micro-grants and business advice for entrepreneurial ventures. BTCTE assists and accompanies each child it embraces into adulthood and has rescued 56 children from fishing boats. From its original mom-and-pop status, the organization has grown; it now employs five staff members in Ghana — one of whom was trafficked as a child — and partners with other anti-trafficking organizations, including Free the Slaves and Challenging Heights.
Evan is the president of Breaking the Chain Through Education.
Debra Orenstein: You have an amazing track record of inspiring young people to help in the fight against slavery. What are the keys to your success?
Evan Robbins: Awareness must come first. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know about it. Young people have to be made aware of the issue. But information isn’t enough. You have to tell them stories, to give them individual examples and connections. Then, they need guidance in how to direct their passion and empathy. The principle is: let them run it, but you guide.
DO: How do you bring in stories?
ER: I start every meeting by telling them a story from Ghana. It’s a continuous education all year about what we are doing, why, and how. They receive updates on children. We show pictures, too. They are helping people who are 5,000 miles away; we have to make it real and give them the stories, so they can understand emotionally as well as intellectually.
In 2019, I brought Michael Mikado from Ghana to tell his own story. He is now age 22 and a senior in high school, but spent much of his childhood as a slave on a fishing boat, working 15 or 16 hours a day. Today, he has a business making brooms, and he aspires to be a lawyer and work for justice. He is one of the children we were able to rescue through Breaking the Chain.
DO: Amazing! I can only imagine the impact of that storytelling — for him and for the students he spoke with. How do you guide the teens in the Breaking the Chain Club?
ER: I have them develop programs. I started off by teaching about slavery in the social studies classes I teach, and eventually I transitioned the efforts to a school club. It’s called Breaking the Chain because the kids came up with that name. I consult with them and I advise them, but they have the freedom to come up with the ideas, to run the programs. They don’t like to be micromanaged. They need both guidance and the freedom to lead.
One of my students came to me and asked to do a dance benefit to raise money for our efforts in Ghana. Dancing was her talent and her interest. I would never have thought to do that. I would never had had the passion or the connections. We invited various studios to participate, and we charged the parents and grandparents money to attend. Last year, we had our eighth annual dance benefit. It raises between $6,000 and $7, 000 every year.
I help students lead in settings and ways that are comfortable for them. High school students run the elementary school’s Breaking the Chain Club independently and assist me with the middle school club too. Overall, my students have raised about $25,000 every year since we started the club in 2012.
DO: What are some other important elements to your success in fostering a long-term commitment among teens to this issue?
ER: Teens want to be active. If you want to kill a club and stop kids from coming, then have them attend a meeting and don’t give them anything to do. We always have events. They never come into a meeting without us having a project to work on. There is always the next thing to do. And when the school year ends, we are starting to plan the next events for the fall.
I break up my high school Breaking the Chain Club into committees, and the committees are in charge of running multiple events. We run about ten events a year. That’s a lot.
I also try to put the kids in the position where they fit best and do their best. I have some kids who are amazing at soliciting contributions from business. Others are great at recruiting and involving their peers. It’s important to play to their strengths so they can be successful.
DO: Can you tell me about your Jewish background and how that has informed your work?
ER: Being Jewish is part of who I am. I don’t know how to separate it. I grew up on Long Island and went to a Reform synagogue called Temple Beth Am in Merrick. As an adult, I belong to Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell. My daughters went to the Golda Och Academy. We have a kosher home and enjoy Shabbat dinner every Friday night.
I worked at New Jersey Y and Deeny Riback camps. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Golda Och Academy is a Solomon Schechter school, and Camp Deeny Riback is a program of the JCC Metrowest; both are in West Orange.] During the five years I worked at camp, I taught the kids about slavery, and I continued to go back and do a presentation each year even after I stopped working there. One girl I taught at camp, Jessica Baer, took up the cause, and now her whole family is heavily involved. They have traveled to Ghana with me five times.
Tikkun olam is real to me. I believe that when you save a life you save a world. I get incredible satisfaction and joy from being able to help these children. Some of the kids call me “daddy” and cry when they see me. They jump into my arms. They send me messages of love. I am very fortunate.
DO: Thank you so much for talking to me all the way from Ghana.
ER: It’s perfect timing. I have been in transit, and I just arrived at the school we built. I can’t wait to see my kids!
DO: Readers, you can learn more Breaking the Chain Through Education at btcte.org.