Flipping the script on Survivor Leadership™ in anti-trafficking
Survivors are much more than their trauma
Near the end of my first year working full-time in the anti-human trafficking sector, I attended a conference presentation on providing shelter services for trafficking survivors. The presenter spoke of the survivors she’d worked with tenderly, the way a hobbyist gardener might speak of plants she was nursing back to life. She sounded committed, thoughtful, and assured that any success showcased her skills as a caregiver.
When she was done, I asked how she builds independence among survivors while controlling so much of their everyday lives. After some back-and-forth, she said that in her experience, survivors of human trafficking are so broken down by their traffickers that they don’t know how to make their own decisions anymore. Because of this, she said, she had to decide for them.
I’d heard anti-trafficking professionals say things like this before, but they usually buried it under a veneer of ‘survivor-centred’ language. So I wasn’t surprised by the message. I was stunned she’d said it out loud.
It has become normal in anti-trafficking spaces to view survivors as incapable of having agency. They are always in need of rescue. They are also exoticised, so different from other people that they require different fundamental rights and opportunities. It’s a patronising attitude that turns many survivors off from seeking out the support they need.
It also bleeds over into the treatment of ‘survivor leaders’, a term of art for people with lived experience working in anti-trafficking. These are colleagues, not beneficiaries, yet the attitude is often the same. Survivor leaders are too often viewed as incapable of learning or doing effective anti-trafficking work, and they are tokenised in ways that deny them the opportunities and respect afforded to other anti-trafficking professionals.
Can survivors be professionals?
I spent much of 2022 researching this question. I’ve come to the conclusion that this presumed lack of competence impacts survivors working in the anti-trafficking sector in the United States in several ways.
First, it causes some survivors to hide their personal connections to the subject matter. One person interviewed said they had been discouraged from disclosing their survivorship when they were hired, even though they’d been working openly as a survivor leader in their prior anti-trafficking work. They said that prevailing (and paternalistic) norms about how to engage with survivors as clients strongly impact how the movement engages with survivors as colleagues.
For the first time ever, I was someone's success story.
These norms limit the collective imagination about what people with lived experience have to offer. They make it difficult for even those survivors with professional experience to be seen as professionals, and keep survivors seeking to develop further from being taken seriously. “A lot of survivors are put down,” one anti-trafficking professional with lived experience said. “They're not able to grow, or people just want to keep them small.”
This theme was brought up repeatedly in my interviews. It resonated with my own experiences as well. Survivors benefit from positive support, from choosing their roles within the movement and setting their own goals for ‘success’, and from having other professionals invest in their success. “It's more than just bringing in people and hiring them to talk to us,” one interviewee clarified. “It is building people so we can decentre ourselves and … expand the platform to survivors.”
Second, the belief that survivors cannot be professional limits what roles they are allowed to do, and the work they are offered often comes with an expectation of storytelling. This falls into three main categories:
● Peer support, in which they share their stories with other survivors to give them hope while the case manager or clinician manages the logistics of the client’s support.
● Policy work, in which they share their stories to influence anti-trafficking policy while policy advocates manage the details and complexities of the legislation.
● Public speaking, in which they share their stories at events to raise funds or awareness, sometimes co-presenting with a non-survivor who re-frames the details into professional recommendations and educational takeaways.
At first, it can be exciting for survivors to share their stories and be heard and believed. For many this is a new experience. “You're not really aware of the ways that this can kind of become harmful after a while,” one interviewee said. “But for the first time ever, I was someone's success story, right? Like, someone's inspiration porn. It was like, ‘you’re so resilient, you're so incredible...’ And I never had anybody tell me that before.”
Unfortunately, receiving this much intense validation for being resilient and incredible also carries an expectation to always be an appropriate ‘after picture’. “We're all supposed to be so strong because everyone's supposed to be healed enough,” this interviewee shared. “We’re not allowed to be human.” This puts professionals with lived experience under the microscope in their professional spaces in ways their co-workers are not.
A crisis responder getting overwhelmed by an upsetting hotline call and needing to debrief afterwards with their supervisor is seeking trauma-informed supervision; a co-worker with lived experience who does the same may find their readiness to work in the field questioned. An employee getting frustrated during a team meeting and snapping at a colleague may be seen as having a bad day and receive a follow-up discussion about ways to navigate workplace trauma in the future. A co-worker with lived experience who does the same may find their legitimate concerns entirely dismissed as the trauma responses of a person who is ‘hard to work with’. Alternatively, they may be coddled or overly accommodated in ways that create tension and lead to an unsustainable working environment.
Whether the survivor is dismissed as too traumatised or infantilised by not being held to the same standards, survivors receive the same message: they are not seen as full professionals. It’s true that survivors’ experience of exploitation impacts their relationships and gives them unique insights. But they are not exceptions and should not be ‘othered’ in limiting ways. Like all workers, survivors deserve:
- supportive mentoring and development
- redirection when they are struggling in their work
- routine opportunities to provide feedback about workplace dynamics
- the freedom to bring their whole selves into the workplace without their personal experiences becoming the focus of how they are treated.
Power dynamics amplify disparities
The interviews I conducted with anti-trafficking professionals in the US made clear that these confusing and harmful experiences and biases are often amplified for survivors working in the sector who are Black, Indigenous, migrants, two-spirit or LGBTQ+, do not have formal education, or otherwise carry the weight of societal and structural oppression. When these survivors share their insights or experience, they are likely to experience microaggressions if not outright harassment. As one interviewee said:
People would come up to me and say things like, ‘Oh my God, you are SO articulate.’ … People think that if you speak in African American vernacular or if you have words in Spanish that you might throw in there from time ... this doesn't take away from my intelligence or capability or the story that I'm telling unless you're projecting that onto me.
Furthermore, these survivors reported being told to refrain from speaking about the connections between structural and cultural oppression and human trafficking in order to better suit narratives that receive funding and media approval. “When we talk about the -isms, those are things that kind of get kicked out – racism, sexism, capitalism,” one interviewee explained, “because when we start to talk about those things, we're talking more on a macro level of change versus the micro level of change.”
We need to move away from norms that see survivors as their trauma
Interviewees described heavy curation of who is allowed to engage in the movement and what they are allowed to do or say. “While we are survivor leaders, we have yet to be centred in the movement,” an interviewee said. “There's a power imbalance. So a lot of the power is with those who run these organisations who don't have lived experiences. And while they are leveraging a lot of the experiences that we have … they also have the power to cherry pick what they want to put in and what they don't want to put in.”
This power to cherry pick also applies to which survivors are deemed ‘worthy’ of engagement as a leader. Those survivors are chosen to present an appropriate image and say what the organisation wants. “So many agencies want to be survivor-engaged,” one said, but “they sometimes will only look for survivors that align, or will see what's helpful for their programme versus what's helpful for the people.”
Organisational and interpersonal power dynamics affect who is heard and what they say. These include telling the right story, an emphasis on trafficking in the sex trades over other forms of labour, level of formal education, citizenship status, race, culture, and funding or organisational support. These power dynamics make changing the norms of survivor engagement for the entire sector difficult, and speaking one’s mind as a survivor may backfire. As survivors' expectations around storytelling, leadership, and best practices develop, and as they more strongly advocate for themselves, they may find themselves out of a job – replaced by less-seasoned or more compliant survivors.
Where intentional efforts to ensure a diversity of survivor perspectives are welcomed, creative solutions can be found. Feedback from clients can highlight gaps and suggest ways to improve services. Similarly, deliberately creating space for diverse survivor identities, experiences, and recommendations can lead to policy and programming that better meets survivors’ needs and more effectively addresses root causes and structural drivers of human trafficking.
Survivors offer more than their stories
Ultimately, if we are to co-create a movement capable of ending human trafficking, we need meaningful movement leadership by survivors at every level of grassroots, organisational, governmental, and intergovernmental decision-making. And if we are to have meaningful movement leadership by survivors, we need to move away from norms that see survivors as their trauma and move towards norms in which survivors who desire to engage in movement leadership are valued collaborators on effective solutions.
Decision-making professionals in the sector – with or without lived experience of trafficking – can remember that survivors have skills and wisdom as well as stories. Some survivors may welcome a mediator who takes their ideas and helps turn them into reality. Others, however, want to build the skills to manage their own programmes without the added filter of a third party translating their ideas.
If a survivor advocate has a brilliant idea for a mentoring programme but isn’t sure how to make it sustainable, decision-makers could, for example, ask if they’d prefer support to fill in the gaps or if they’d rather be connected with education on programme design. If a survivor advocate is overly focused on their singular trafficking story in a way that excludes the reality of other survivors, decision-makers could connect them with a mentor to help them learn broad advocacy skills. If a survivor advocate wants to effect change but is proposing a strategy that is unlikely to be effective, they could be given access to culturally-responsive mentorship on strategic planning. If a survivor advocate already has extensive skills from either formal education or on-the-ground learning, acknowledge those skills.
Most importantly, anti-trafficking decision makers in the US can recognise that the sector as it exists today is not set up for successful survivor leadership. Its framing, funding, and values too often interfere with the development of an authentic anti-trafficking movement.
Meaningful survivor engagement means seeing survivors as people who can heal, learn, and grow, personally and professionally
Our sector’s norms reflect the values of those who initially framed it – racialised ‘helpers’, law enforcement, and people concerned about the morality of the sex trades. Our structures for funding non-profit work create logistical and programmatic barriers that often exclude the kinds of radical, grassroots work that would more effectively address the issues. While continuing to support survivors who want to access existing structures, decision makers can modify the processes under their control to build more flexibility into programme and funding requirements.
Meaningful survivor engagement means seeing survivors as people who can heal, learn, and grow, personally and professionally. It also means recognising the ways in which oppression, discrimination, and bias – rather than moral failures, ignorance, or lack of motivation – have kept certain people and populations from equal access to education, professional opportunities, and safety.
Finally, it means advocating for systemic change to our sector and society to ensure that movement leaders with lived experience are at the forefront. They should be designing new structures that put the power and funding to end trafficking directly into the hands of those who understand the issue best. This work is aspirational. And according to our interviewees, it is also essential.
This article was produced as part of the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre’s (Modern Slavery PEC) study on survivor engagement in international policy and programming, conducted by the University of Liverpool as a consortium partner of the Centre. To learn more, read the author's full regional report. The research was funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). It took place between February-June 2022.
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