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Rebecca Bell: Modern Slavery Research Intern

This is the second in the series of blogs written by our graduate interns. Meet Rebecca Bell, who was appointed as Research Assistant to a modern slavery project led by Dr Zahra Shirgholami.

Rebecca Bell

I started my role as Research Assistant at the Wilberforce Institute at the beginning of September. Having graduated in July 2023 with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in History, the 10-week internship position advertised at the Wilberforce Institute shortly after sparked my interest right away.

During my time at the University of Hull as an undergraduate, I had particularly enjoyed studying the inglorious wrongdoings of the British Empire and how the impact of imperialism had been to destroy colonial nationalism socially, politically, and economically for its subjects. This area of interest is reflected in my dissertation which explicitly explored and analysed the Mau Mau Rebellion in the British colony of Kenya, between 1952 and 1960. The dissertation delved into how the British Empire, through draconian laws, restrictive policies, and cruel punishments, significantly reduced the Kikuyu tribes’ autonomy and power in a bid to expand and grow its own power.

Closely intertwined with the history of empire is of course slavery. Slavery has been an aspect of human life since antiquity, and still occurs worldwide. Yet many people today are unaware of the extent of modern slavery and the oppression still faced by so many people every day. When I first got the internship role, I spoke with some of my friends about what the role entailed and the topic area I’d be addressing. They thought slavery was a feature of the past, not a phenomenon of the present. This misconception, alongside people not realising the current magnitude of slavery within contemporary society, is what makes the Wilberforce Institutes’ work so important.

Cultural Awareness graphic

I think one of the main drivers of people’s lack of understanding and awareness of modern slavery is the tendency for schools to focus heavily on slavery of the past, especially the Transatlantic Slave Trade, whilst failing to acknowledge modern slavery. I know from my own experience that I never got to study modern slavery until I started University, despite attending many lessons on slavery throughout my time at school and as an A-level history student. It is great that the Wilberforce Institute addresses the gap in a lot of people’s knowledge on modern slavery by enlightening people on the broad subject area, highlighting that slavery continues to occur in contemporary society and that it was not just a product of the past. The Wilberforce Institutes’ mission of spreading awareness of slavery past and present, together with my interest in researching and studying these topic areas, is what resulted in my applying for the fixed-term research assistant role.

Since starting in September, I have been helping Dr Zahra Shirgholami with the project An assessment of the value of cultural competency in addressing modern slavery risk for those facing identity-based oppression.’ My task currently is to explore and analyse data from an array of secondary datasets with a focus on four different geographical areas: North Wales; Humberside; West Midlands; and Cleveland. My work has involved delving into the presence and prevalence of food banks per geographical area, and the cultural and identity barriers different groups of people face in accessing these services. By examining different categories such as the prevalence of food banks, homelessness, and the mapping of transport links, for example, we can determine how services can be improved for people facing identity-based oppression. Examining the data has allowed me to identify trends and patterns which I’ve found an interesting aspect of the role.

Despite having worked at the Institute for only four weeks so far, I already feel that I have developed and enhanced my work-based skills. The role has considerably strengthened my analytical skills, for instance, as I have been working with a lot of quantitative data across the four geographical areas above as part of my research role. As a history student, analysing statistics / exploring quantitative data isn’t something I had much experience with, so the use of Excel spreadsheets, local authority statistics and high-quality reports has been a refreshing change. After analysing the data for each category, I have also been presenting the data in different forms, creating an array of histograms, pie charts, bar charts and tables to reveal the findings in various ways.

Working alongside like-minded, passionate people at the Wilberforce Institute, who strive to make a difference on a local and national level, is really inspiring for me as a History student. I feel grateful for the opportunity the Institute has provided, and the experience it’s giving me along the way.

I am looking at going down the teaching route in the future. No doubt the valuable work-based skills I have developed at the Institute alongside the new knowledge I have acquired will help me with this next step. I look forward to continuing my internship and strengthening the skills I have developed even more.

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