We Name It So We Can Repair It

We Name It So We Can Repair It

We Name It So We Can Repair It

In recent years, research and dialogue about best practices for incorporating survivor input into anti-trafficking programming and policies have come to the forefront of work to end human trafficking. Historically, the infrastructure of addressing any form of violence emerged out of the work of impacted people organizing to advocate for their needs.*

For example:

  • Early work to eliminate sexual and partner violence emerged from the efforts of survivors finding ways to care for each other. It eventually formalized into nonprofits and government agencies that address sexual and partner violence.
  • Early work to end labor exploitation emerged out of worker organizing and the development of unions. This includes a variety of factory and trade workers, as well as farmworker organizing. The Department of Labor emerged in response to demands from the labor movement, which was led by impacted workers.
  • The sector that arose to address civil rights and modern anti racism emerged out of African American grassroots organizing. The NAACP (and eventually the Office on Civil Rights) did not spearhead the movement to address anti-Black racism; rather, those organizations were developed in response to the movement, to advocate for its needs. Still, it took 20 years for the NAACP to have its first Black executive leader.

While all of these sectors and organizations have struggled at times, they have always been driven by the work of impacted people.*

The modern anti-trafficking sector has not historically had the same responsive relationship with impacted people. In the United States, much of the momentum from the chattel slavery abolition movement has continued through anti-racism activism critiquing oppressive systems and structural racism (such as policing, the prison system, and forced prison labor), but the anti-trafficking sector has historically leveraged these same systems. Such anti-trafficking efforts were developed by people without lived experience, with the stated aim to help people and communities of which they had limited understanding. In the US, much of the modern anti-trafficking approaches echo messaging from the racist White Slave Panic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Abroad, many anti-trafficking efforts are directed and funded by Western nonprofits working in Global South countries, often without regard for the ways in which colonial legacies created the very conditions that allow human trafficking to flourish.

Policy research demonstrates that when anti-violence initiatives and accountability structures are developed largely by people who are not part of the communities they want to help, these initiatives are far less likely to succeed. Further, there is the risk of causing additional harm by using oppressive practices, principles, and messaging to try to “help” people recover from harm they experienced as a result of similar oppressive practices, principles, and messaging. To quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”* Because colonial intervention to “civilize” indigenous populations created famine, war, and poverty, colonial intervention cannot “fix” those problems; rather, decision-making power must be in the hands of those who are closest to the problems. Because oppressive systems (financial, carceral, housing, etc.) created the conditions of poverty, de facto segregation, mass incarceration, and historical trauma that are now risk factors for human trafficking, those oppressive systems will not themselves “fix” those problems. Radical transformation must be led by the people most directly impacted.

People can do good, be good, and still cause harm. Similarly, the anti trafficking sector can engage in powerful advocacy, support many victims of human trafficking with essential services and support, and to the survivors who work in its initiatives. While not all survivors have experienced such harm, many have indeed been hurt by an anti trafficking movement that states its aim as supporting and serving survivors. It harms them through prevention strategies that replicate the very stigmas, power dynamics, biases, and cultural oppressions that make people vulnerable to violence (including trafficking), or by not speaking out when “bad actors” within the movement do so. It harms them through forced services that don’t meet clients’ needs, or by telling survivors and other clients the service organizations know their needs better than they do. In order to stop causing this harm, we must first understand these actions and many others as harm, fully acknowledge the harm, commit to making repairs, and change our approaches.

We recognize that we are a small number of the many survivors who are working in the movement. As such, we do not reflect the numerous perspectives, needs, and concerns held by all survivors of human trafficking. However, we made intentional choices to increase the diversity of our work. Survivors were selected for our project based on their extensive skills, knowledge, and diverse experiences working in the anti-trafficking sector. These survivors also bring their own identity-based and cultural knowledge, based on their lives as queer and trans survivors; Black, Indigenous, migrant, and Mestizo survivors; survivors of both sex and labor trafficking; survivors who are neurodivergent, disabled, or have chronic illnesses; survivors who have worked in corporate positions, government, philanthropy, nonprofits, and as community organizers and activists.** Almost all of us work in positions mentoring and supporting newer survivor leaders, and as such we are familiar with the challenges faced by people currently moving into leadership. Additionally, we are drawing on existing research exploring survivors’ experiences of leadership, and by doing so, we expand the perspectives brought into this conversation. Not all of the harms described in this document have been experienced by all survivors nor even all survivors on our project team. However, these harms are common enough that most of us have either experienced them personally, or we know someone who has.

We recognize that all of us are doing work in the United States; in fact, this working group emerged out of a convening of US-focused anti-trafficking leaders. This document was written specifically with our colleagues in the United States in mind. We cannot write effectively and authoritatively about harms and repairs needed in other regions. We have heard from our global partners that the US’s export of its definitions and approaches to trafficking, as well as its models for survivor leadership, have caused harm to communities abroad. This is often the case when Western NGOs and governments establish interventions in Global South countries without strong leadership from local groups closest to the problem and its solutions. For this reason, we caution our global partners from taking this document and modeling global solutions on it. Rather, we present the findings from our own process of research, discovery, and discussion, and we have included an appendix outlining “lessons learned,” so that those in other regional contexts who wish to hold similar working groups can conduct their own processes of research, discovery, and discussion. Survivor-centered processes in other regions of the world will likely lead to unique findings and recommendations, which will be far more effective and impactful for the local populations than anything our group could create.

We offer our gratitude to Philippe Sion and our other partners at Humanity United for supporting our project with continued encouragement, a willingness to engage in dialogue, and through financial support. Finally, we recognize that our readers come from different backgrounds, different levels of familiarity with either grassroots accountability expectations or nonprofit norms, varying degrees of the lived experience of exploitation, and different roles in our sector (funder, executive leadership, direct service provider, or activist). While we hope that this complete resource will be useful and spark an innovative transformation of sector norms, we have provided a full table of contents so that those with limited time or capacity can easily find sections specifically relevant to their work.

Read or download the full report here.

*It is important to note the power funding has to shape how “the work” is done. For example, the powerful activism of movements often leads to the creation of sector structures, but government funding does not fund activism that continues the movements’ work (which often challenges government’s power) and private funding is often guided by the values of the donor rather than the values of the movement. This is a power dynamic that must be acknowledged, especially among sector professionals trying to bridge the movement-sector gaps.

**Some individuals prefer person-first language, such as “people with disabilities” or “person with autism.” For a while, this was broadly recommended in social services and advocacy spaces to highlight that all people are people first, and that their humanity isn’t defined by their disabilities, health conditions, or other experiences or identities. Some self-advocates have pushed back on person-first language due to a concern that it downplays the extent to which their identities or experiences impact their daily lives and self-understanding, or that person-first language somehow makes their disabilities or identities feel like something of which to be ashamed. Identity-first language might be worded as “disabled person” or “autistic person.” It is important to always remember that changes in language norms (person-first, identity-first, “survivor,” “victim,” “thriver”) must always be paired with changes in perceptions and biases to have more-than-superficial impact. It’s always important to follow the lead and language preferences of the person with whom one is speaking. Learn more at: https://educationonline.ku.edu/community/person-firstvs-identity-first-language