“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,” says Chris Ash, the Survivor Leadership Program Manager at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
In their powerful article for openDemocracy, Ash explores how the current dynamics of the anti-trafficking space act as barriers for survivors who want to work in and lead the movement. They lay out clear recommendations for organizations in the space and call for the urgent dismantling of harmful norms and structures that silence and side-line survivors.
The sector is holding people with lived experience back
Ash’s research led them to conclude that survivors working in the anti-trafficking sector in the United States are being held back by their employers’ and colleagues’ paternalistic belief that they are not competent or professional enough.
These harmful narratives were projected especially on survivors who are Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, two-spirit, migrants or who don’t have formal education.
Restrictions are often imposed on survivors working in the space in terms of their contributions. The roles they are given generally fall into the following three categories:
- Peer support: they tell other survivors their story while another person manages the casework
- Policy work: they share their experiences to policymakers while someone else advises on the technical recommendations for legislation
- Public speaking: they tell their story at events to raise awareness or for fundraising purposes, often while someone else gives an expert overview on the key takeaways
It all comes down to them telling their story, which risks reducing them to their experiences and trauma. It can also cause people with lived experience to feel pressure to be a perfect case study or ‘after picture’. One interviewee told Ash: “We’re all supposed to be so strong because everyone’s supposed to be healed enough.”
Ash also found that survivors felt they were not being held to the same standards as their colleagues: some had felt infantilized and coddled whereas others had been dismissed as too traumatized to be professional.
Rather than othering survivors working in the sector, Ash argues that organizations must support them in the same way as they should support all their employees, including with mentoring and development opportunities, support when they face challenges, opportunities to share their feedback, and the chance to be their whole selves without their past experiences determining how their colleagues treat them.
People bring more to the table than the experiences they’ve lived through, and survivors are no different. The anti-trafficking sector must acknowledge that survivors have their own unique skill sets and knowledge to offer and goals and ambitions to pursue in their personal and professional lives.
The sector must stop cherry-picking and address power imbalances
“Interviewees described heavy curation of who is allowed to engage in the movement and what they are allowed to do or say,” Ash writes. Organizations use their power to silence the parts of survivors’ opinions and experiences that suit them less and to push them to reframe their accounts to make them more appealing for wider media audiences and potential donors.
Most concerningly, the research found that survivors met resistance when discussing the role of structural oppression in driving trafficking and exploitation. One interviewee explained:
When we talk about the -isms, those are things that kind of get kicked out – racism, sexism, capitalism, 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.
The cherry-picking also extends to which survivors are deemed appropriate for involvement by the sector. Organizations often seek out survivors who align best with their programming rather than creating space for survivors with a diverse range of perspectives, experiences and opinions.
We need urgent systemic reform
Ash’s research leads them to a clear conclusion: the anti-trafficking sector in the U.S. is not currently set up for successful survivor leadership. Key barriers include its current framing, funding structures and values.
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.
Systemic change across the sector is long overdue. To build a movement with survivor leaders at the forefront, old structures must be dismantled, and new ones must redirect power and funding toward those with first-hand experience of the harm we are trying to end.
Take action by asking an anti-trafficking organization to sign the My Story, My Dignity pledge today and commit to create meaningful space for survivor leadership.
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