It isn't unusual for survivors of human trafficking to want to be involved in the anti-trafficking industry. We have seen first hand the cracks in the system that we fall through. We know what we needed, and when we needed it. Our voices, our experiences, and our story of overcoming are important parts of this movement, and many of us feel called to join the fight, whether from the frontlines or behind the scenes.
We, as survivors, have a place in this movement alongside other advocates, organizations, and communities. But to be successful, it's important that we advocate for ourselves in the process.
Here are five tips I wish someone had given me before I stepped into the anti-trafficking work:
1. "Am I Ready?"
Take a minute to truly think about if you are ready to be immersed in the anti-trafficking movement. I thought I was. I was wrong. I had done the therapy. I had talked it all through. Or so I thought. Turns out, I had a lot more to work through before I could handle constantly being surrounded by things that reminded me of my trauma.
Being a survivor myself, and in my work with other survivors, here are some guidelines I've learned around being ready for the work:
I have been out of my trafficking situation for 2-3 years.
I have received therapy for at least a year after escaping my trafficking situation.
I have adequate coping skills to ground myself if I get triggered.
I am comfortable and able to ask if I need a minute during my work.
I know what accommodations I might need in order to be successful.
It never hurts to ask someone if they think you're ready: your therapist, a mentor, etc.
2. Seek Out Organizations Already Working With Survivors
Organizations that have experience working with survivors are a great place to begin your work in the industry before jumping in with two feet. With their experience, they're likely to already have accommodations available that you might need and be willing to be as flexible or scheduled as you reasonably need them to be. If the organization asks what accommodations might be helpful to you, here are a few that have been helpful, either for myself or for other survivors working in the industry:
Flexible work schedule
Setting timelines for projects to be completed within so I am able to work on them as I am able
Open communication so that I'm able to voice if I need support on a project or an extension of my timeline
"Busywork" tasks in addition to big projects that allow me to be productive doing research or other low-energy tasks when I am feeling overwhelmed or fatigued
3. Consider Your Mental Health
Mental health struggles come with the territory when you have trauma. That doesn't mean you aren't capable of working in the anti-trafficking industry and being successful while doing it. It's important to be mindful of where you're at with your mental health throughout your time doing advocacy. Doing these few things can help your keep your mental health good while you do emotionally demanding work:
Know the warning signs of burnout. If you start showing them, it's time to take a break.
Always be prepared to ground yourself. It doesn't matter if it is my first meeting of the year or my hundredth, I always have fidgets, math games, headphones, or something else to help me ground myself if I get triggered. It doesn't mean you will. It just means you're prepared if you do.
Know the signs of vicarious trauma (or compassion fatigue.) If you start showing them, it's time to take a break.
Keep seeing a therapist. It doesn't hurt to have a professional to help you process if something does come up. A therapist can also help you identify and cope with signs of vicarious trauma and burnout.
Start slow. It's probably not wise to go on a national speaking tour if you have never spoken about your story in public before. You'll get to that, if that's where you want to go. Start with smaller speaking engagements first, or sitting on a local survivor advisory board. Your voice is just as important and impactful there.
4. Offer Strengths-Based Services
This is just a fancy way of saying "Know your worth." You know what you're good at. You know what you love. Do that, offer that. Here are some examples:
Lindsay has a doctoral degree in forensic psychology. She is a survivor of human trafficking. When doing a human trafficking training for law enforcement, she is able to not only speak from her experience as a lived experience expert, but also pull in her professional and academic expertise. She brings all of her qualifications to the table.
Jane is a singer/songwriter. She is a survivor of human trafficking. Her local restorative care home is hosting a charity concert, which Jane plays a set in. Jane shares about her love of music, and a silly story about the time she ran into a famous musician at the grocery store. She doesn't share that she is a survivor. Her story is still valid. Her advocacy is still valid. She does not have to self-identify.
I am published author. I am proud of myself for being a published author. It is part of my identity. When I am sharing my story, I like to do so in writing. When I am doing speaking engagements, I like to talk about my love of writing. My writing skills are something I bring to the table, a strength I have.
5. Use Your Voice
The best way to advocate for yourself is to do it out loud. Ask for what you need. Reach out for support if you need it. If you need to step away from the work for a while, it's okay to say that. If you feel prepared and like you can take on more responsibility, offer to do so. Your voice is an important part of your advocacy. You deserve to be heard.