With, Not For

Many anti-trafficking activists, passionate about our work and the people we want to protect and support, like to believe we are equipped with the information necessary to prevent and end modern slavery. But, the truth is, we lack a critical perspective.

Yes, we can understand the laws and the supply chains and how funding, education and better interventions begin to turn the tide against the traffickers. What most of us can never fully understand, however, is what it is like to be trafficked; what it’s like to lose your identity, be brutalized and enslaved, then, when you’re finally free, what it is like to overcome such a horrific trauma.

As viscerally as I felt the injustice, I couldn’t really imagine what it was like to be one of my first clients, a Cambodian woman who was trafficked by US citizens protected by diplomatic immunity to serve as their domestic worker. She worked excessive hours, endured harshness by her employers, and survived prolonged isolation from her loved ones. Despite the dehumanizing treatment, she survived, she overcame, she participated in the prosecution of her trafficker for visa-related crimes, she reunited with her family, and she looked forward.

Like most of the survivors I represented, resilience defined my earliest impressions of this survivor of trafficking—it was her strength, not the exploitation she survived, that touched me deeply and compelled me to represent her zealously. Today, it is the same resilience and strength that energizes me to pursue policy solutions to prevent and end trafficking in persons and modern slavery.

I think of her, and other survivors I’ve known, when I try and imagine what it’s like to be living today as a trafficked slave, and when I see the disappointing response to the bold and justified prosecution of Devyani Khobragade. How did the young woman she victimized—portrayed by the media as a criminal—feel when she heard the Secretary of State express regret for arresting the perpetrator of her abuse? Does she doubt her own rights? Do others like her wonder if the government will also fail to stand up for their rights? And when victims learn of the Indian government’s response, will they worry for the safety of their loved ones at home who may face retaliation for their actions? Will they choose not to escape?

These are questions we need to know the answers to if we are to do our jobs effectively. At a recent meeting with a group of trafficking survivors, my colleague David Abramowitz of Humanity United reminded me of how important it is for survivors to have a voice in what we advocate for, and how we go about doing it.

“With, Not For”, a concept coined by Andrew Zolli of PopTech, points to the risk we take if we fail to realize the necessity of working alongside the communities we serve. Many well-intentioned advocacy campaigns are unsuccessful because solutions to hugely complex social problems cannot be imposed without perspective and “buy-in” from the people we are trying to help.

Take, for example, Beth Jacobs. More than 20 years ago, at age 16, she was trafficked into the sex industry, and endured unspeakable horror for six years. Astonishingly, she is still paying for the prostitution-related “crimes” she was charged with, even though she was a minor at the time. Under Arizona law, she is required to tell prospective employers about the charges—which means it is nearly impossible to find work and live a completely free life. In effect, she must endure a life sentence because she is viewed as a criminal even though she was the target, not the perpetrator.

Today, Beth is a great advocate for pushing the state to vacate convictions when it is acknowledged that a victim was subjected to force, fraud or coercion in the commercial sex industry. Without her perspective, we may never have fully understood or properly addressed the long-term ramifications of being sex trafficked.

Survivors like Beth hold the solutions to preventing and ending trafficking. Harnessing their acumen and instinct will unleash a trove of information that practitioners, advocates, and policymakers thirst for—the details that will uncover the promising practices and solutions for eliminating modern slavery.

During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month – and every month – I hope all of us who are working every day to stop human trafficking and to ensure better treatment of trafficking victims will make it a point to ask whether we are truly trying to work ‘with, not for’ the people who know this horrendous human rights crime first-hand.

The image accompanying this post is of painting by Margeaux Gray entitled, “Ocean in a Drop.” Margeaux said of the acrylic and found object piece, “The phrase ‘working with not for survivors’ continued to play through my thoughts as I was creating this piece. It made me think of a quote by Rumi, ‘You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.’ When all the little oceans in a drop come to work with each other, what an impact we can make.” Margeaux is a survivor of domestic, child sex trafficking. She has transcended her experience as a trafficking victim, and today she is an independent activist, policy advocate and artist. Follow Margeaux at @GeauxFreedom – See more at: http://test-atest-wp.pantheonsite.io/with-not-for/#sthash.ocHZH9Uf.dpuf


The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) is a U.S. based coalition that advocates for solutions to prevent and end all forms of human trafficking and modern slavery around the world.

See more posts by ATEST