Not My Story to Tell: How to Rethink the Ways We Support Survivors

up|END Campaign Series
Upending human trafficking includes rethinking the ways we approach discussing the issue- particularly when it comes to survivors. Today’s post Not My Story to Tell: How to Rethink the Ways We Support Survivors from Dr. Alejano-Steele, reflects on a recent invitation to “share a real life story of human trafficking”, and why that common request is problematic. This post is also a preview of an extended position paper on this topic we plan to share during January’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month. You can support investments in survivor leadership today through our up|END Campaign by visiting combathumantrafficking.org/upend.

Localizing Global Human Rights Abuses

Recently, I had the honor of sitting on a panel alongside esteemed colleagues who have forwarded many efforts in the Colorado anti-trafficking movement. This was not my first panel, and I clearly understood that the organizers’ goal was to increase awareness of the crime, an honorable feat as they successfully filled the venue. The Colorado movement has been about 13 years in the making; many of us in the field recognize that every opportunity to shed light on how human trafficking looks in our local Colorado communities is a precious opportunity. I appreciated that many in this audience possessed global interests, and were accustomed to thinking of human rights issues on that scale. Here was our opportunity to localize global human rights abuses that encompass violence and exploitation.

A Real Life Story of Human Trafficking

Each panelist responded to questions posed by our facilitator; I was asked to share “a real life story of human trafficking” in Colorado in order to provide local context and build upon the definitions provided by the previous panelist. Now, typically, when LCHT reports on types of human trafficking in Colorado, we provide summary statistics from the statewide Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking Hotline that we have facilitated since 2013, and we note the most important thing about human trafficking survivorship: there is no common or “typical” narrative.

So when the question was posed specifically to me, there were rapid-fire mental calculations going on in my brain: event goal…audience composition and knowledge…question intention…previous question posed…others on the panel who could better answer the question…audience engagement and opportunity to invite the audience to dig deeper. Here’s a quick approximation of my response:

“With all due respect, it is not my story to tell. It is up to survivors to tell these stories in their own time and space, and at their own pace. And even when it is important to include survivors at events, it is also important to note their contributions to the field beyond the story of trauma.”

In that split second, I knew I was upending the well-intentioned educational goals of the event. My goal was not to be intentionally disruptive, and in my quick calculations, I threw faith into the fact that the definition provided by the previous panelist and the panelist who recently wrote a fictional book would offer ample examples. In that purely present moment, my goals were to:

  1. Hold space as an ally to survivors

  2. Halt stereotypical and salacious narratives of sex trafficking that have plagued the movement

  3. Take another route with the audience by inviting them to think more critically about the absence of survivor expertise on the panel

  4. Invite audience self-reflection on their role as consumers that have benefitted from the trafficked labor of others.

Imagining a Different Way To Hear About Survivorship

I needed this audience to build upon their global awareness and engage at a personal, localized, and reflective level. Out of respect of time constraints during the panel, this split-second of upending is how this blog post came to be. If I had a magic time machine that would pause real time, this hypothetical scenario is what I would have sincerely facilitated had LCHT been the host of this event. (And with additional deep respect, this is not an indictment of the very hard work that went into this event. Quite the opposite—I am ever grateful and appreciative of the space that was hosted that evening).

After hopping off the stage and positioning the audience in a circle (thereby effectively putting everyone on equal voicing, all sitting in the “front row” and eye to eye with one another), I would have motioned toward the stage to deconstruct the concept of “expert panelists,” and invite the question of where survivor representation and centrality are typically located at anti-trafficking events. We would also have a chat about the complexity of identity—not only gender, race, class, sexual orientation, nationality, gender identities, but also religious orientation, and what “expert” signifies in the United States. We would ground ourselves in what it means to talk about human trafficking globally, and what that means for us to share “Global North” learning space to talk about Colorado. These preliminary conversations would lay the groundwork for further critical thinking and talking about survivorship and ally-ship.

More Than Good Intentions and Empathy

Truly partnering and working alongside survivors happens in quiet and sacred space–the space away from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and the public eye. Being an ally to survivors is similar to being an ally to all identities, particularly intersectional identities that make “ally-ship” so tricky. Holding inclusive space for survivor participation goes well beyond possessing empathy skills. As allies, we must attend to ways in which the movement can slip into a “missionary” mindset, “saving” victims who have lost their agency and need “rescuing.” Their survivorship is a testament to their strength and resilience.

Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) Photo from www.gems-girls.org

In the words of Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, even the most well-intentioned of allies can do more harm than good. In fact, good intentions “don’t seem to translate to good judgment, sensitivity and thoughtfulness.” (2013) She shares observations that fellow survivor leaders committed to using their voices to make a difference have been overwhelmingly hurt by the very people claiming to want to ‘help’ them. As allies, attending to the ways in which we partner and support is absolutely critical. All partnerships require patience, trust, and give and take, which means that there is another dimension of partnering with survivors that can be challenging. This statement is tricky, as drawing attention to the “challenges of partnering with survivors” can result in sounding insensitive or condescending. In our years of experience working alongside survivors at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, here are a few considerations and realities: 

Considerations and Realities for Working Alongside Survivors
  • Sometimes all the planning in the world will not matter, and sometimes deadlines won’t be met because trauma triggers do not care about best-laid workplans. And that can be maddening.
  • Sometimes you’ll be the most supportive, empathic person you have ever been and you won’t be helpful whatsoever. Sometimes it’s hard to be okay with that. We train our hotline advocates on this kind of self-reflection; if you are the type of person who relies on external validation for your “good work;” the anti-trafficking movement may not be the place or best match for you.
  • Sometimes you may do more harm than good. Especially if you move beyond your skill sets and into areas that you may think you’re helping but not.
  • Sometimes it will be really difficult to authentically walk the talk of inclusion. First off, it’s hard work to do the type of self-reflection needed to best provide support and walk beside people with completely different identities than yours.
  • Many times, working in this movement requires that you work with people that society would rather ignore or sweep aside. And although they may be at risk for exploitation and violence, they are also portrayed as ignorant, unlucky, and uneducated. Working in this movement requires that you check your biases, and reflect upon your interactions with these populations. Where might your biases influence who you see as survivors “worthy” of support?

How to Hold Space for Survivors

In my humble opinion, the opportunity to share and hold space for survivors is a challenging one. It begins with self-reflection and consideration about where our identities intersect with the lives of those who have been trafficked. Those of us involved in anti-trafficking work need to listen like we have never listened before, and spend more time in quiet respect, holding back the tendency to fill space with the sound of our voices.  We must continue to advocate for survivor-centered, survivor-informed, and survivor-led efforts that guide policymaking, protocol development, research design, methodology, and therapeutic approaches (APA, 2013). Ultimately, we must patiently stand by survivors’ sides, follow their leads, and offer options. Just as we would want for ourselves.

New to the up|END Campaign? Hear what it’s all about from our Executive Director Amanda Finger:

Annjanette Alejano-Steele, Ph.D.

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3 Comments

  1. Dr. Keli Kree 4 months ago December 9, 2017

    Great article. Thank you for trusting yourself. I’ve been saying this for years, along with the desire for minimizing photos oops of survivors. People early on in their recovery are not usually aware of all the consequences of the spotlight or the boundaries they may wish they’d had in telling their story early on.
    I think it’s awesome to continue discussing & weighing out options for ways we can move forward against slavery while being ever mindful of the healing process of survivors.
    Thanks again.

    REPLY
  2. Tara Tull 4 months ago December 10, 2017

    This is an excellent discussion of the challenges that come with speaking in public forums about trafficking. Thank you for your reflection on this topic and for opening up this conversation.

    REPLY
  3. Sara Bratton 4 months ago December 11, 2017

    As Director of Hope Academy, I am constantly asked to share “real-life stories” of the girls I work with. I always respectfully answer that their stories are not mine to share. This has been received as not understanding that audiences “need” the “real” story in order to fully understand the issues surrounding the educational needs of youth survivors. I finally wrote three very novelized versions of a “story” by combining my 19 students into 3. I was told by a news reporter that they never report false news and that they needed true stories. Politely, I responded that I would not be available then, because I would not share any individual’s story. As a non-profit, it is hard to raise funds without sharing how lives are changed. Your article is timely and well-said! Thank you!

    REPLY

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