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Amistad America executive director offers glimpse of ship's future

New London — The Amistad sailed into New London Harbor Saturday morning and less than two hours later, the new executive director of Amistad America outlined her plans to return the organization to financial stability and expand its mission.

Hanifa Washington, who was appointed to the post earlier this week, stood amidst the Amistad exhibit in the Custom House Maritime Museum with representatives of Love146, a New Haven group that works to raise awareness of modern day slavery, to announce a partnership between the two groups.

The two groups already have begun to mesh the story of the Amistad, in which 53 African slaves won their freedom after first being brought ashore behind the Custom House in 1839, with that of modern human trafficking, especially involving children, in southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

"I can't tell you the joy I have this morning," she told groups of supporters at the museum on Bank Street. "The freedom schooner Amistad reaches thousands of people every year. I can't think of a better thing to do in its 13th year than tell the Amistad story, which is part of Connecticut history and world history, but now give people something to think about, something to do," she said referring to the human trafficking issue.

She said that in 1839, when everyday people in New London and other parts of Connecticut saw the Amistad captives, they said, "This isn't right. We have to do something about it."

"I can't think of a better thing to do but protect the most vulnerable people on our planet. Even if one child is saved from slavery, then we are doing our job," she said.

Washington said her first priority is to rebuild Amistad America's board of directors, which now has just three members, and then draw up a plan to finance the ship's $1 million annual expenses and seek out corporations, individuals, organizations and grants to help fund its operations.

"We can't depend on the $359,000 a year we get from the state. We don't want people to think the only reason we're here is because of state money," she said.

While some Amistad watchers have long wondered why the ship and its story have been unable to attract corporate or other sponsorship, Washington said that is easier to do when people feel the ship is stable.

"We want to be transparent about the ship, where it is and what is doing," she said.

Washington said a deal with NBC to use the ship for four months this fall to film a mini series about the pirate Blackbeard would give the organization some breathing room as the project will generate a quarter million dollars for Amistad America.

Washington said plans are to keep the ship in Connecticut during the four summer months, rotating it between New Haven, New London, Bridgeport and Mystic. In the winter, the ship will be the Caribbean, involved in sail training and education programs. Each spring, it will return to Maine for repairs and maintenance. Maine is the home of Ocean Classroom Foundation, the group that has signed a contract with Amistad America to co-manage the vessel. It funds the crew and routine maintenance and the two groups split revenues.

Amistad America has come under fire over the past month from state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who successfully has pushed the state to investigate how the organization, under former past executive director Greg Belanger, spent the $8 million it received from the state over the past 15 years. Amistad America also is seeking to regain its nonprofit status, which it lost after failing to file tax returns for three consecutive years. At times, the organization has struggled to find money to keep operating.

Department of Economic and Community Development Deputy Commissioner Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom attended Saturday's event and welcomed back the "iconic tall ship" to the state.

He said state taxpayers have spent $2.5 million on the construction of the ship at Mystic Seaport, $2 million to create docking facilities for it in New Haven, and $3.5 million for operational expenses. The state has plans to give Amistad America more than $700,000 over the next two years, despite questions about how it has been spent previous funding.

"The organization has gone through some rough times, but with new partnerships, like this one with Love146, we believe it is turning the corner to financial solvency and great impact," he said.

Fredrica Gray, chairman of the Amistad America board of directors, said all state money has been spent "honestly and fairly," as evidenced by the survival of the vessel at a time when other tall ships are tied up and not operating because of financial problems.

Rob Morris, president and co-founder of Love146, said that like most people, he once thought slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.

"But slavery exists today in some of its worst forms," he told those gathered at the Customs House, pointing out that an estimated 20 million people are enslaved today in a multi-billion dollar industry.

He said what has made the Amistad story so compelling is that it takes a cause or issue and focuses on the individual people effected by it, much as Love146 does with modern day slavery. Posters and other materials advertising the partnership show photos of Sengbe Pieh, who led the slave revolt aboard the Amistad, with a 2013 photo of Maria, a survivor of human trafficking.

Morris explained that the group got its name from an experience he had in 2002 when he traveled to a Southeast Asian country with another group working to expose human trafficking. On the trip, members posed as buyers and entered brothels where girls were being sold. They collected evidence and turned it over to authorities.

"I'll never forget that night as long as I live," he said.

Inside, girls wearing red dresses with numbers pinned to the front stood behind a window while Morris and the male customers stood on the other side. He said the girls seemed "devoid of emotion and emotionally shut down" except for one who had fire in her eyes.

Her number was 146.

"Most nights, it's the last thing think about before I go to sleep," the father of six said.

Today, Love146 not only works on the prevention of trafficking but cares for survivors from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the United States.

Washington said she plans to meet with Rep. Urban next week. The child slavery issue may resonate with Urban, who was unable to attend Saturday's announcement, as she heads the state legislature's Children's Committee and is known for her work on laws protecting children.

Washington said the cooperative agreement with Love146 is for the summer. The two groups plan to meet in the fall to assess its effectiveness. If it works, she said, it could lead to expanded programs both on and off the ship.

She said the agreement with Ocean Classroom, where Belanger serves as executive director, expires in November 2014, but can be cancelled by either side with 60 days notice. Amistad America pays Ocean Classroom a minimum of $5,000 a month to cover insurance and other expenses.

While past Amistad crew members recently have expressed concerns about the ship, Washington said she is willing to talk with them at any time.

The Amistad is slated to remain at Amistad Pier in the city until July 14.


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