“Nothing about us without us.”
This is a slogan that the disability community has adopted and it fits well to the idea of engaging and partnering with those of us who have lived experience of human trafficking.
Within the anti-trafficking spaces, you might hear of some professionals using the terms “lived experience experts” or “lived experience consultants.” So we thought it would be best to learn about those who hold these titles and what they mean when they refer to them as such.
Lived Experience Consultants or Experts are individuals who have lived through a form of commercial exploitation or human trafficking and use the knowledge and insight gained from our experiences to help shape and inform various spaces within the anti-trafficking field. We may run organizations, train professionals, advocate before legislatures and policy makers, engage in public outreach, offer consultation on cases and projects, provide expert testimonials in court, and serve within anti trafficking spaces or related intersections as healthcare providers, lawyers, mental health professionals, and more.
Our goal is to help create victim and survivor centered, trauma aware and informed, and culturally competent policies and strategies when it comes to the prevention, intervention, aftercare, and prosecution efforts. The Human Trafficking Capacity Building Center within the Office of Victims of Crime states that survivor inclusion is where a “program, policy, intervention, or product that is designed, implemented, or evaluated with intentional partnership, collaboration, and input from survivors to ensure that the program or product accurately represents the needs, interests and perceptions of the target victim population.”
To put it bluntly, we know what we are talking about. Therefore, it is important for organizations to engage with us meaningfully and in ways that do not re-exploit, minimize, stigmatize, or devalue us. Sometimes our voices are overshadowed by bigger named organizations who sensationalize human trafficking, we are used as tokens for organizations who want to look like they are doing survivor led work but who are not, or we are only seen for our stories and the emotional and experiential labor that we provide (sometimes without proper pay).
So how can you engage ethically and meaningfully with survivor leaders? Here are a few tips:
- Organizations should clearly define the purpose and outcomes of having survivor leaders, consultants, or experts on their team. This will help to increase transparency, get to the roots of the motives behind decisions and actions, and set the stage for work with survivors to be done ethically and with appropriate intent.
- When having survivors or those with lived experience on your teams, you should make sure that there is a representation of all experiences. There are different types of trafficking and overall experiences especially when it comes to issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity, expression, sex characteristics, ethnicity, race, religion, socioeconomic background, age, and other identifying factors.
- Center survivor voices. It is important for people to truly listen to our community and the diversity that we hold. For example, if there is a collective concern and/or issue that we have with how human trafficking is presented in the media or in other public spaces, listen to us. If we are against specific policies that others are trying to push, there is a reason why so listen to us and engage in further conversations.
- Engage in ethical storytelling practices. Do not ever share survivors stories without consent and permission – even if you have obtained it previously for other projects. Be mindful about the words and images that you use especially when fundraising. We do not need people profiting off of our experiences and re-exploiting us.
- Recognize that survivor leaders may still be working on healing from their experiences and face many barriers when it comes to healing. These can include financial hardships, lack of community, legal issues, education and employment barriers, societal discrimination and oppression, and other experiences. Creating spaces and opportunities to address these barriers are critical for ensuring survivors are taken care of while honoring our humanity. This will help to prevent re-exploitation and re-traumatization and help survivors to be most effective in the long run.
- Allow opportunities for growth outside of the field of trafficking where survivors only share our stories. More often than not, we are looking to move forward in our lives. We do not want to become known as simply the “one who survived human trafficking.” We have gifts and skills in other areas as well. Find out what they are and offer spaces for personal and professional growth.
- Remember that not everyone who works for or with you will disclose that they have lived experience. Therefore, it is imperative that you adopt trauma-informed, culturally sensitive, and safe workplaces and work environments that are not triggering or contain power imbalances. Treat everyone with respect, be mindful of vicarious or secondary trauma, and be careful of how you talk about specific issues. It would be helpful to create processes and policies where there are external procedures and spaces for us to file complaints if there are ethical concerns. Similarly, it would also be beneficial to have this party evaluators who can hold you accountable to the values that you say you uphold (especially as it relates to survivor leadership).
- Be receptive to feedback, own your mistakes, do not try to cover or hide them, and seek ways to better your organization. It is okay to be ‘in process.’ However, what matters is transparency and willingness to subject your organization to external and internal evaluations so that areas that need improvement are clearly identified and defined.