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How I can amplify survivors’ stories

A couple of weeks ago at a community collaborative meeting, I had the privilege of listening to and learning from a few survivors of human trafficking about ethical storytelling. This is a topic I am very passionate about because as I conduct anti-human trafficking work, I strive to advocate in a way that does not re-victimize, exploit, or harm survivors, but honours and uplifts them. Ethical storytelling is the practice in which I recognize the power of storytelling to convey ideas, histories, experiences, and perspectives in ways that center and honour the person and how they want their story conveyed.

Here are some reflections I have following my experience of listening to these survivors. What I’m about to share is a reflection on my work with survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, but could certainly be applicable to any group of people whose stories are amplified in the Do Justice space.

It is a privilege for me to hear their story. 

Those of us who are entrusted with hearing a story - whether it’s in private, or shared in a public forum - are in positions to hold stories with reverence and respect. Survivors often put careful thought into what they want to share and how. It is not owed to us to hear their story - or to hear all of their story - even if we are in positions where we can influence change. Histories and experiences are filled with personal, and often painful, details, and it is a privilege to be trusted with this.

When working one-on-one with survivors, I always try to be thoughtful about how I ask them about their histories and experiences. As information is disclosed throughout a conversation, I try to carry on the conversation in gentle ways that give opportunities for a survivor to share what they want, when and how they want. For example, there is a difference between coming straight out and asking a survivor “what happened to you?” and being in a discussion where they start to disclose details in ways that prompt gentle and curious questions and deeper conversation. This can be true for engaging with survivors in a public setting as well. For example, just because a survivor has been invited to share publicly through a presentation, this doesn’t give spectators a right to ask whatever question they might have in ways that do not prioritize a survivor’s wellbeing and care.

Stories often share common themes and shed light on human trafficking in general. But stories are also distinctive and unique. 

When I share stories about human trafficking - especially in spaces with little time or space - it is easy to default to generalized stories and common themes. There are common themes that help us understand the realities of human trafficking. Statistics highlight common vulnerabilities including but not limited to age, economics, racism and the legacy of colonialism, gender inequality, mental health, and addictions. But each person’s story is unique, personal, and important. Survivors are not carbon copies of each other. If you are in a position to invite a survivor to speak at your event, try to find someone whose story might shed light on an aspect of trafficking with which you might be unfamiliar. 

Advocates and allies are in a position to listen and be challenged. 

As we look to learn more about human trafficking and consider stories that might not be as familiar or common, are we prepared to be curious and listen to stories that share details or issues that are uncomfortable for us to hear? Are we prepared to listen to those who have said they have been harmed by the Church or by Christians? Are we prepared to listen to those who have said that their race, gender identity, history, or actions have led to their vulnerabilities to being trafficked? Are we prepared to listen to stories that might challenge our understanding of what we already think about trafficking? Are we prepared to really listen to experiences and to hear what they have to say about their own lives? Or are we really just looking to inform our already formed narrative and understanding of what we believe about trafficking? 

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9 

I continue to evaluate the language I use around human trafficking, and I try to humble myself to be challenged about the language I use or have used. Years ago, compelled by Proverbs 31:8-9, I wrote a blog post about how I was called to “be a voice for the voiceless.” The thing is, survivors aren’t voiceless. They have a voice. I do not have to speak for them. I am in a position where I can amplify their voices. I can use my position and my privilege to have their strong voices be heard, so I have committed to no longer using this “voice for the voiceless” language. Another example is “rescue” language. Many survivors have shared that when organizations or individuals use phrases like “we rescue victims,” it elevates helpers as “saviors” and diminishes survivors’ own power and resiliency.

Storytelling is an incredible tool to share experiences, promote empathy, and to raise awareness. As I think about how Jesus told stories and parables, I see the ways that he centered and uplifted people. He told stories in ways that made people think and reflect critically. And he often compelled people to act.

There are great resources to help you dig deeper, reflect, and commit to a posture of ethical storytelling. One resource is where you can sign a pledge.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov


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