Human Trafficking Blog

Survivor Leadership in the United States

Today’s post, “Survivor Leadership in the United States” by Kara Napolitano and Amanda Finger, highlights national initiatives to support survivor leaders as well as a look at how the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking is engaging with survivors in Colorado. This May, join LCHT in taking support for survivors to new heights through the Ascend Campaign!

When we set out in 2005 to respond to human trafficking in Colorado, very few survivors of the crime were publicly leading and informing the anti-trafficking movement. In part, this low participation was because of the very nature of how the movement evolved.  Consider the fact that the first legislation defining the crime didn’t appear until 2000. Funding quickly followed, however only in specific regions of the U.S. and with focus on piecemeal components. For example, funding directives focused on outreach to foreign national victims for several years before expanding to include outreach to domestic victims. We often describe this movement as one that has organized from the “top down,” meaning that government officials and professional networks worked to develop protocols and responses rather than communities leading grassroots, “bottom up” efforts.

In Search of Survivor Voice

This history matters because we suddenly had nonprofit organizations, service providers, faith leaders, and law enforcement taking the lead in telling communities what to look for and how human trafficking might appear. In fact, it would have been far more beneficial to have had a large base of survivor voices leading the anti-trafficking community, teaching us how human trafficking actually does appear. As we move closer to completing a second decade since the passing of the initial Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), focus on survivor leadership programs must take greater priority.

Despite a track record of sparse investments in survivor initiatives, there are now a growing number of trauma-informed and survivor-led programs in place across the United States.  This trend can also be seen at the federal level on the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which included an Advisory Council made up of survivor leaders for the first time last year. The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), housed within the U.S. Department of Justice, echoed this sentiment in their Federal Strategic Action Plan: “Responses to victimization must retain a focus on the needs, beliefs, and interests of the victims. OVC recognizes that engaging survivors in anti-human trafficking leadership and decision making is imperative in providing effective services. OVC continues to find opportunities to engage with survivors in anti-trafficking efforts and support survivor leadership.”

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Current Survivor Leadership Initiatives

1. National Survivor Network and the Survivor Advisory Caucus

Both the National Survivor Network (NSN) and the Survivor Advisory Caucus are managed through the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST) based in California. The goal is to foster connections between survivors of all forms of human trafficking and to build an anti-trafficking movement where survivors are at the forefront and recognized as leaders on human trafficking issues. By connecting survivors across the country, the NSN supports and encourages survivors to realize and become confident of their own leadership qualities and teach others to value their insight not just as survivors but also as experts in the field.

2. Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) Survivor Leadership Institute

Girls Educational and Mentoring Services’ mission is to empower girls and young women, ages 12–24, who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the commercial sex industry and develop to their full potential. GEMS is committed to ending commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking of girls and young women by changing individual lives, transforming public perception, and revolutionizing the systems and policies that impact sexually exploited youth. According to GEMS website, “The Survivor Leadership Institute and Resource Center is the only national platform for survivors of CSE and domestic trafficking aimed at strengthening and supporting survivors at various levels of growth and leadership.”

Very few survivor leadership initiatives exist in the United States.

3. Freedom Network USA

Freedom Network USA is a national alliance of advocates advancing a human rights-based approach to human trafficking. Together with survivor insight they influence federal and state policy through action and advocacy.

4. Sun Gate Leadership Scholarship

Sun Gate is a survivor led anti-trafficking organization based in Virginia/Maryland, they offer tuition and book scholarships to a private high school or college for trafficking survivors.

5. The United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking

The United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking (survivors appointed from across the country) produced its first annual report at the end of 2016.  The Justice of Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 created the Council, and former President Obama appointed 11 survivors of various forms of human trafficking to guide the U.S. Government in responding to trafficking.

In 2016, The President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons included an Advisory Council made up of 11 survivor leaders.  Read their full report here.

6. The Survivor Leader Network of San Diego (SNLSD)

The Survivor Leader Network of San Diego (SNLSD) is a group of local survivor leaders who have been active in the community of San Diego for years. As experts, they offer services to the local NGO’s, and law enforcement providing trainings and speaking engagements in San Diego.

7. Survivors for Solutions

Survivors for Solutions offers peer-to-peer education and survivor leadership engagement and development using client centered, trauma-informed models. They advocate for the inclusion of survivor voice in policy making and service provision.

More Than Survivor Stories

Labor trafficking survivor Evelyn Chumbow recently expressed the need to shift the conversation on survivors: “While I don’t want to diminish the need for addressing the issues that enable traffickers, we must also strive to empower victims who are desperately trying to make the overwhelming shift to survivor, as well as survivors who need and deserve to be recognized for more than his or her ‘story’.” Chumbow was a victim of domestic servitude in the United States for nine years.  She found and received a scholarship to university through the ICE Foundation Granting Courage Initiative. During this time she spoke at a conference where she met members of the Baker & McKenzie law firm who offered her an internship. This law firm has now partnered with the ICE Foundation to start a pilot program that will provide survivor participants with comprehensive training, support, mentoring and professional development- an impressively unique and innovative partnership in the anti-trafficking movement.

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Elevating Survivors in Colorado

At LCHT, first as Polaris Project Colorado, we spent our early years learning, building relationships, and finding our purpose in serving the community. We worked alongside survivors in many capacities including research, training, internships, and the development of the 24/7 CoNEHT hotline. Despite that, we know that Colorado still does not have an established base of survivor leaders working on anti-trafficking. This year, we’re working to change that as we begin developing a Colorado survivor-leader group to inform work around the state. At the same time, we remain committed to providing survivors access to a 24/7 hotline with trained advocates, and connecting survivors to a vetted list of statewide agencies and resources. This month during the Ascend Campaign, you can have a direct impact on all of those initiatives as we invest together in survivor leadership that will guide the movement for years to come.