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Hope and humility: La Jollan speaks at international youth conference as ‘advocate of conscience’

La Jolla resident Russell Low spoke to essayists in the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange’s Youth Assembly.
La Jolla resident Russell Low spoke to essayists in the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange’s Youth Assembly following the publication of his book about his great-grandmother’s ordeal with human trafficking.
(Courtesy of Russell Low)

Following his participation in the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange’s Youth Assembly, La Jolla resident, physician and author Russell Low said he is filled with hope and humility.

The event, named for Soyinka — a Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet and essayist and the first Nobel Prize laureate from sub-Saharan Africa to be honored in the literature category — invites young essayists to tackle complicated subjects. This year’s subject was “That our future may not disappear.”

“They took that to mean the disappearance of our humanity,” Low said. “That can mean human trafficking in a physical sense, but also economical, psychological, social, cultural, educational oppression.”

This year, there were 5,000 submissions, and some participants were invited to speak July 13 in an online forum. Because the organization is based in Nigeria, many were from there, but speakers came from different continents.

As part of the event, a few adults were chosen as “advocates of conscience” to speak to the essayists. Low was one of them.

“I was, quite frankly, honored and humbled to be selected,” Low said. He was chosen following the publication of his book “Three Coins: A Young Girl’s Story of Kidnapping, Slavery and Romance in 19th-Century America,” which is about one of his ancestors surviving trafficking.

“The book is not to talk about history but the implications of human trafficking 140 years ago,” Low said. “This isn’t something that just started today.”

When she was 9, Low’s great-grandmother was sold by her family in China to a wealthy merchant family in San Francisco. That family beat, burned and further mistreated her. At 15, she escaped to a rescue mission and was so malnourished the staff thought she was 12.

She managed to gain independence with the man who would become her husband, Low said. But on their honeymoon, she was kidnapped by “thugs who wanted to make her a prostitute,” Low said. She ran away again, and her husband filed a writ for her fate to be settled in court. The rescue mission wanted her back and her husband wanted her back — the thugs also wanted her back — and it was up to the judge. Because she was able to go with her husband, she went on to have a family.

In speaking at the conference, “I wanted to give them hope,” Low said. “I often talk about ripples, how the actions we have today and the ripples of what happened 140 years ago have ripples. ...

“The changes these people are making today can have tremendous impacts across time and generations. I almost felt inadequate in the presence of these young people, some of whom are living this. Oppression isn’t something they talk about from 140 years ago, it’s their world today. They were passionate, articulate and committed. They present themselves as the leaders of tomorrow. I hope they are given a voice and a way to act. I hope they are given that opportunity.”

In hearing the young participants’ essays, stories and perspectives, Low said that “if they are reflective of their generation, it’s a wonderful thing. They are the hope ... the activists ... a voice. But my concern is they may be the minority. They have individuals like Wole Soyinka to guide them and give them a mission. I think with that kind of leadership we can do a lot in the world, but you have to identify the problems first. ... I hope my small contribution impacted them.” ◆