*Trigger warning: Issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, sex and labor trafficking of children and youth
I am a planner by nature. A Happy Planner supply obsession has only enabled me to plan out each week, task by task, event by event. As I reach week’s end and prepare to literally turn the page to a new week, I look back at my notes, stickers, lists… my plan. Maybe I should be more embarrassed than I am to confess this, but there is unavoidable carryover from week to week. The plan never seems to go quite according to plan. I have to adapt, be flexible, squeeze in the leftover tasks and to-dos from last week into the coming week’s plan. I am confident I’m not alone in this. Am I right, working parents?!
More than ever before, this past year has underscored the non-negotiable requirement to adapt. To be flexible. To set the original year’s plan ablaze because there is simply no part of it you can honor now. Jobs lost, education reformatted, businesses closed, meetings restructured, trips postponed perpetually. Like I need to tell you. We have all been forced to recognize that plans are great to have but will most likely need to change. And probably change drastically.
This understanding and ideology is a guiding premise of the work I do with Nebraska Children and Families Foundation as the Assistant Vice President of Trafficking and Violence Prevention. I joined Nebraska Children’s Connected Youth Initiative team in January 2021 to serve at the helm of the Support for Youth Victims of Human Trafficking in Nebraska project. I have the honor of coordinating statewide community-based efforts and identifying strategies to support children, youth, and families impacted by human trafficking, sexual or domestic violence. The plan for this three-year project is to build and maintain a comprehensive and collaborative response system that enhances well-being and outcomes for child and youth victims of sex and labor trafficking.
To pursue and secure this grant from the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), in partnership with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), a thorough plan was, of course, required. Who would we partner with, what would we accomplish, how would we measure and document our efforts, how much would it cost? Obviously, we had to know what we are aiming to achieve and how.
In my first month on the project, I had the opportunity to participate in a national meeting for fellow grantees of the same award. We are each in varying stages of our respective projects; some states were five years into their project by way of their second round of funding, some were rounding out their final year, and three other states were in the same boat as Nebraska – just beginning our first year.
Any grantee that was not just starting out echoed the same advice to new grantees: be flexible. Stay open and be willing to make changes… because you will need to. I would guess that most anyone involved in the work against sex and labor trafficking is involved for the purpose of helping those affected by it. Efforts are rooted in good intentions. We’re helpers, right? I know I think of myself that way.
My first job after college was as a Safehouse Advocate in a sexual and domestic violence shelter. I was there to help everyone I could and in every possible way.
One of the residents who had just entered the shelter a few days prior still had visible bruising on her face. She came into the advocate office one morning and asked if I would call in sick for her from work. She didn’t want people to see her still bruised.
“Of course!” I said, ready to help everyone I could and in every possible way.
I documented this effort into case notes and, much to my inexperienced surprise, my supervisor would later ask to meet with me about it. Certainly, you’ve heard the overused proverb of giving a person a fish versus teaching a person to fish. I had robbed this survivor of building and practicing the skill of calling in to work (aka “asserting her needs”) through my own overriding desire to help everyone I could and in every possible way. To actually help her, I should have empowered and supported her in taking the steps she needed and wanted to take.
Similarly, folks experiencing trafficking need to be empowered with tools, resources, and choices. They need to feel empowered to take the steps that feel appropriate for them when and how they are ready. Only the survivor themselves can know what is best for them. They are experts of their lives and their experience.
Personally, I have witnessed more humility among service providers regarding trafficking than in comparison to domestic and sexual violence. Or maybe we’ve just known what we’re dealing with in regard to domestic and sexual violence for far longer than trafficking and we’re simply witnessing the evolution of the work. Either way, this compassion has lent itself to a great regard for any insight offered by trafficking survivors. More of us are ready to learn from survivors and recognize how invaluable their wisdom and guidance is.
Thus, in the spirit of walking the talk of valuing the voice of lived experience, funds have been dedicated within this grant to properly compensate survivors and young people for their time, energy, and heart’s contributions to this project. An official call for engagement is forthcoming. Also recognized is that only a survivor can decide if it is safe enough for them to engage. Only a survivor can decide if they want to even be identified as such. Only a survivor can decide if they are ready to revisit and illuminate their experience for others to see.
The fact remains that looking to survivors and those with lived experience is essential. We might assume we know how we would respond and what we might need if we were in a trafficking situation. But we cannot properly conceptualize that from the comfort and safety of wherever we’re reading this right now. None of us actually have any idea how we’d respond to any given situation until we’re faced with it (thus, emphasizing the need to empower survivors).
Here is an example of responding differently to a situation than we think we would – outside of a violence or trafficking context – again from the time when I served as a Safehouse Advocate. I had just moved to New Jersey for my then-partner’s job. I literally worked in crisis management daily by answering our emergency hotline and simultaneously providing case management for shelter residents. We had been living in our new apartment only a few days and there were moving boxes everywhere. It was my first time ever living in a high-rise tower – Harrison Towers at 575 Easton Avenue – and we had a cute little balcony off of our living room.
We were unpacking one day, and I came from the bedroom around the corner to the main, open living area to find a raging fire enveloping our entire balcony. From floor to ceiling, all I could see were flames. If you had asked me an hour prior how I might respond in an emergency situation like a fire, I’d respond calmly with all of the steps and procedures I’d take to address said emergency. After all, I’m a crisis manager, right?!
There I stood. Mouth gaping wide open, catching flies. Useless. I stood. I stared. And I stood and stared. In total shock.
After some time, my partner came around the corner to see me frozen like a Narnia statue and followed my gaze to the blaze on the balcony. She sprung into action. “Call 911!” she instructed me.
There I stood. Pie-hole agape. “Call 911!” she screamed again. I finally came alive and called 911. “There’s a fire on the balcony of my apartment! 757 Easton Avenue. Second floor. Harrison Towers!”
Anyone catch it? In crisis, I transposed the numbers of my brand-new address. Thankfully, I also shared the name of our apartment towers and the fire department was able to respond speedily.
My point is… no matter our experience, history, or background, we cannot possibly know how someone might respond in crisis or to trauma. Advocacy with and on behalf of survivors is not making decisions for them. It is not “fixing” their problem and it is especially not “fixing” them. Those who have survived trafficking are not in need of saving nor rescuing. We are neither their saviors nor rescuers.
Much of the work of anti-trafficking is still taking shape; a “build it as you fly it” situation, if you will. Organizations are just being formed, consulting firms being launched, trainings being developed and reformatted. While we know where we’re heading and the direction we’re pointing toward, we are also entirely willing (particularly with the help of survivors’ voices and input) to realize we’ve been pointed north instead of south, or that the destination looks completely differently than we imagined…or even discovering that we’re in a helicopter and not a plane, as we once understood.
Staying open to a completely new path – and being willing to ruthlessly advocate for that new path – is essential when working for and with survivors of violence, and perhaps even more so with trafficking. The experience of trafficking survivors is so dynamic and as we gain a deeper understanding, new approaches are informed. Every time we learn more about what the experience of those who have been trafficked actually looks like, it empowers us to affect greater change and do better.
This grounds me in Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s vision of a Nebraska where all children will have the resources and support to thrive. And we will allow young people and survivors to define what “thriving” means for them. We commit to elevating and amplifying their voices. And guiding us in the process is a humble understanding that we are here to help through empowerment.