Working for a service organization, we know the importance of listening to our clients. But what about our colleagues?
I work for Polaris, where one of our primary programs is operating the National Human Trafficking Hotline (among other work we do in the field such as policy advocacy). I started out answering phones on the hotline before moving into several positions that gave me experience training diverse audiences, advising stakeholders as they developed anti-trafficking response systems, and eventually moving into managing the entire hotline program. By this time, I had a unique skill set and robust expertise – the kind that only comes from extensive experience in a field. Then I came out. As a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation.
I became public in a field that was set up to serve a population of which I was a part: victims and survivors of trafficking. Me. Suddenly, rather than wanting to hear my expertise people told me “we just want you to tell your story.” When I was finally about to be true to my life’s experience, I was suddenly not treated as an equal.
I’ve done a lot of work trying to piece together how I became to be seen as a story, and not as a person. It manifests in terms of exclusion and othering, tokenism, tied to notions around trauma and the need to be rescued: “you are too traumatized to do this work.”
What it really does instead, serves as a barrier for engagement in the field. Rather than contribute to the sector in a more profound way, I just became part of the idea of the singular way a trafficking survivor is. I was no longer seen as a person.
That’s when I connected with other survivors and realized my life experience was not unique and really spoke to the culture in the field. We were repeatedly dehumanized.
I’m white and middle class, which fed right into the dominant victim frame that media and criminal justice system play out with their image of a white child whose mouth is taped up: passivity and lack of agency.
There are many implications to this, and it impedes progress for the movement. For one, this is not what happens to survivors of color. Take the example of Cyntoia Brown, a black woman, who was charged with murder because she shot a buyer out of fear for her life when she was 16. She got a life sentence. The further you get from the white middle-class frame, the less you are seen as a victim of anything. The more criminalized you are for your situation, overlooked in healthcare, blamed by society. You become a highly vulnerable person.
We need to engage survivors in the field. This field is not immune to these dynamics. All of these things – race, culture, institutions of oppression – they don’t disappear within the field. We need to make conscious efforts to decolonize within our sector.
It really starts with listening to survivors and bringing voices in and making opportunities diverse. I am advocating for two things. First, understanding survivors have more to offer than their stories. And second, as a consequence, create paid opportunities for that to happen, and to break the barriers down.
Opportunity is tied to privilege. Before I had my daughter I was able to make ends meet in DC, but I couldn’t have made it there as a single mom. When I moved back to the midwest, Polaris allowed me to rewrite my contract so I could continue my work remotely. There are many survivors who can’t live in a major city. They shouldn’t have barriers to engage around this field. In fact, the anti-trafficking field should be the most accessible avenue for income available. To do this, we must offer diverse options to engage including offering more flexible work arrangements and more consultant opportunities.
I realized through working with Feedback Labs, that the feedback world is exactly what I’m trying to do at Polaris and what I’m getting everyone in the field to scale. No one was calling it feedback, but it’s essentially about constantly and consistently consulting people. I’m calling it Feedback and Innovation where survivors have regular feedback and engagement with the field.
With the feedback world, people just got it. Feedback is not just the smart thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do as well.