Using the emotional power of a historic site and personal stories to raise awareness of current human rights questions

Recreating an 1897 apartment and dressmaking shop, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum brings together representatives from conflicting sectors of the garment industry to discuss what needs to be done — and by whom — to address the problem of sweatshops today.

The Tenement Museum restores the apartments at 97 Orchard Street, where more than 7,000 immigrants from 20 different nations lived between 1863 and 1935, and tells the stories of their struggles in America. In 1897, Harris and Jennie Levine, immigrants from Plonsk (now in Poland) operated a garment shop from their apart­ment, representing the very space the word “sweatshop” was first coined to describe. Today, there are more than 400 garment shops in the U.S. employing nearly 15,000 immigrant workers. The U.S. Department of Labor clas­sifies nearly three-quarters of them as “sweatshops,” but the debate still rages over what a sweatshop is, what should be done to address labor abuses and who is responsible.

The museum has transformed the Levine home into a center where people in the garment industry can exchange ideas about how to solve problems. For its first meeting, in 2002, it invited an unusual mix of participants that in­cluded representatives from Human Rights Watch, UNITE! (the garment workers’ union), Levi’s and Eileen Fisher (clothing brands), the King’s County Manufacturers Association and more. Packed in an intimate circle, these leaders of what are often considered opposing sectors of the garment industry listened to the story of how this im­migrant family slept, ate, raised a family and turned out hundreds of dresses in a tiny 325-square-foot space.

In conjunction with this meeting, the group held a day-long summit about the new perspective to be gained by looking at the garment industry’s past and the new ideas it suggested for preventing sweatshop conditions in the future. Since the first meeting in 2002, the museum has hosted similar dialogues with dozens of garment industry groups.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Stories can help bring seemingly dry or distant human rights issues to life. The Tenement Museum in New York City uses stories from the past to generate discussion and awareness of current labor rights issues.

It is crucial to have a strong facilitator and to carefully construct the dialogue so that people move from personal reactions to larger civic issues, appreciate and listen to opposing views and have the opportunity to exchange views in small group settings as well as large forums.