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United Way Blog

Combatting Human Trafficking Requires Survivor Leadership


Human trafficking is the act of compelling someone to work or engage in commercial sex, for little or no pay, through force, fraud or coercion. It happens throughout the world — and in all 50 states and territories of the U.S. More than 40 million people are affected by it globally. 

The United Way Center to Combat Human Trafficking is bringing anti-trafficking projects to scale by energizing, coordinating and mobilizing the global United Way network and the many organizations working on the frontlines.  We believe a strategy that unites all stakeholders and centers survivors is the most effective approach to combatting trafficking. 

People with lived experience in social injustice serve as the best leaders of any movement because they know the issue better than any outside observer could. Unfortunately, the anti-trafficking field has historically lacked survivor leadership. However, at the Center, we are working to change this through the below programs, partnerships and initiatives and by recognizing the following three facts. 

1. Following the lead of survivors means recognizing that they are experts. 

The world’s best experts on human trafficking are survivors who have lived through it and those who are leaders of targeted and vulnerable communities.  Survivors are uniquely qualified to lead this movement because of this expertise. This knowledge should be appropriately utilized to protect and empower survivors and create solutions to eradicate human trafficking. 

At United Way, we see survivors as experts of their own unique experiences, and therefore believe they must become the powerhouse upon which the movement is centered. We are creating new pathways for survivor leadership through programs like the Rising United Leadership Program, which is built in partnership with Rising Worldwide, and centers around the understanding that survivors are experts in this issue.   

Through this program, survivors, called “Rising Experts,” are being trained to educate the public about the complexity and intersectionality of human trafficking. "It is no small task to inspire people to take action, especially on an issue as painful and misunderstood as human trafficking. But this is what each Rising Expert does, by sharing an authentic voice to highlight not only lived experiences but also a passion for creating change,” explained Deborah Pembrook, the Rising Expert Program Manager at Rising Worldwide.  

Beyond educating the public, the Rising United Leadership Program also seeks to contribute toward the professional development of each Rising Expert involved. The program "not only honors each individual's story and experiences but goes beyond limiting [participants] as just survivors,” said Ummra Hang, a Rising Expert currently in the program. She continued, “I have a space to explore and expand on my skills as a leader and collaborate with others, where my values and knowledge are honored and supported." 

2. Following the lead of survivors means providing access to job opportunities where they have decision-making power and access to benefits.  

In July 2021, United Way sponsored the very first Survivor Alliance World Congress, which brought together over 200 survivors from around the world to build a stronger survivor movement. A key learning from the World Congress was that there is an urgency for survivors to be represented in decision-making roles within the broader anti-human trafficking movement.  

“Speaking engagements and consulting gigs are nice, but they do not provide consistency, security, or benefits,” explained Wade Arvizu, Associate Director of Employment Pathways at Survivor Alliance.   “A person relying on contractual income must always consider how their message might impact future consulting opportunities. This can hinder the transparency and authenticity that drives effective change.” Employing survivors in roles with job security, particularly those where they have decision-making power, allows organizations and companies to truly learn from and utilize the wisdom of survivors.   

The Center is currently partnering with Survivor Alliance to address this need. We know that building employment pathways for survivors means investing in their professional development and requires a focus on inclusive and intersectional representation. Through a combined approach featuring all these efforts, organizations and companies can truly learn from and utilize the expertise of survivors. 

3. Following the lead of survivors means truly listening to what they want and need. 

We know that knowledge is power, so to have power in the movement, survivors must be involved in knowledge-gathering processes that shape it. This is why the Center is partnering with Polaris to sponsor the first ever National Survivor Study to document human trafficking’s effects from a survivor perspective and aggregate survivor advice on how to combat traffickers. The study “leverages the fact that survivors themselves have the most valid and valuable knowledge available about sex and labor trafficking,” explained Sara Woldehanna, Director of Learning, Innovation, and Data Systems at Polaris.   

A key component of this project is that it is not a “study of survivors,” but rather is a “partnership with survivors.” According to Woldehanna, “With survivors as full partners from the beginning to the end of the process [Polaris is] ensuring that the Study has the best minds in the fields to lead every step of the way.” An impartial and ethical inclusion of survivors to lead in various aspects of projects such as this – including conducting research, planning project scopes, soliciting funding, and building communications strategies – will surely lead to the most impactful results possible. 

Please join us in our efforts to elevate, prioritize and center survivor leadership in the fight against human trafficking by taking the following actions: 

  • Recognize that survivors are experts in their own healing and creating an appropriate community response. 
  • Learn from survivors. Research survivor-led organizations in the anti-human trafficking movement and learn from the resources they provide on their websites. Explore resources from Survivor Alliance to learn how to ethically engage survivors in your work. Invite *and pay* survivors to educate your team and organization about human trafficking. (Note, however, that this does not mean asking survivors to share their story.)   
  • Support survivors’ professional development. Hire survivors and offer mentorship to them.  Make sure your hiring practices do not discount or exclude people who have lived experience of trafficking. Review your HR and employment policies to ensure they are inclusive and conscious of the diverse professional credentials survivors bring to the table. 
  • Institutionally support survivor-led organizations and initiatives with your philanthropic giving.  


Blog Co-Authors:
Eseosa Eguamwense, a survivor of human trafficking who worked as a Community Impact Advisor at United Way’s Center to Combat Human Trafficking from September-December 2021. She joined United Way through her involvement with one of the Center’s partners, Survivor Alliance, and participation in their Survivors LEAD program.  She has worked in various capacities in the communications, media, and performance arts fields. 
Sofia Williamson-Garcia, a Program Intern at the Center to Combat Human Trafficking from September-December 2021.  She is a senior at American University majoring in International Studies.  Sofia is also pursuing a minor in Philosophy and certificate in Spanish Translation. 

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