Alan Fraser Images/shutterstock
Alan Fraser Images/shutterstock

Perhaps one of the most promising trends philanthropy has seen in recent years is a shift toward not just supporting marginalized voices, but centering them, as well. Across a spectrum of issues, people from affected communities are stepping into leadership roles to guide philanthropy toward more effective and meaningful change.

Minh Dang is hoping to do the same for survivors of human trafficking. Dang, who is herself a survivor, is a leader in the anti-trafficking movement and was named by President Barack Obama as a Champion of Change for her work to empower survivors of human trafficking and slavery.

In 2018, Dang co-founded Survivor Alliance and has since served as its executive director. In the three years since its funding, Dang and her team have worked to unite and empower survivors of human trafficking around the world. Currently, Survivor Alliance has a network of over 350 survivors worldwide.

Before co-founding Survivor Alliance, Dang worked as an independent consultant and found something sorely lacking in the anti-trafficking field: survivor inclusion. “A lot of anti-trafficking organizations focus on direct services, which is needed,” Dang said. “But there isn’t as much around really building community amongst survivors and helping survivors become leaders of social justice efforts and/or to pursue it as long-term employment.”

According to Dang, Survivor Alliance was formed to fill that gap. A key part of its mission is to help survivors not only to participate in the anti-trafficking field, but to lead it.

In addition to cultivating leaders, Survivor Alliance works with politicians and policy-focused organizations to offer insights and perspectives on the potential impact of policy. It also signs letters of support to ensure that survivors have access to the care they need, including healthcare and mental health services, and supports issues relevant to survivors, like immigration and immigrants’ rights.

A pattern of exclusion

The exclusion of actual survivors has been an enduring pattern in anti-trafficking work. According to Lawanna Kimbro, managing director of Stardust Fund, one of Survivor Alliance’s funders, this speaks to a paternalism that has often permeated the anti-trafficking field and philanthropy as a whole.

“Oftentimes, the organizations that dominate or have the most funding or the most attention about them have not always centered the voices of the communities that they served,” Kimbro said. “Survivor Alliance has been bravely and doggedly working on many fronts, both inside organizations, with funders like ourselves, and in every platform I can think of to remind people that… people closest to the issues are always closest to the solutions.”

That idea is not a novel one, but it is becoming increasingly prominent in philanthropy and advocacy circles.

Natasha Dolby, co-founder of Freedom Forward, echoed this. “Philanthropy is increasingly aware that a commitment to survivor leadership is rooted on this very straightforward principle that representation matters,” Dolby said. She added that the idea that representation matters has become prominent in the entertainment industry, in politics, in corporate boards and certainly in the fight against slavery.

“Philanthropy is paying attention differently since George Floyd’s murder last year. And I think people are starting to really click that being inclusive of all voices and social justice movements is not ‘to be nice’ or because it’s the right thing to do. It’s because it’s actually effective when you [incorporate] those perspectives into how you think about investment and change,” Dolby said.

Funders at the table

Survivor Alliance has attracted several notable funders. In addition to Stardust Fund and Freedom Forward, United Way Worldwide and the UPS Foundation also support its work.

According to Nicole Clifton, who heads the UPS Foundation, UPS and its employees have donated more than $5 million since 2018 toward the United Against Human Trafficking Impact Fund at the United Way Center on Human Trafficking & Slavery.

“Ultimately, survivors are able to bring to light the realities of the crime that many of the individuals working in philanthropies to end human trafficking have never actually experienced,” Clifton said. “This is what is needed to develop and support effective strategies to support survivors and end or prevent human trafficking.”

Mara Vanderslice Kelly is the executive director of the United Way Center on Human Trafficking & Slavery. She previously served in the Obama administration for five years, where she helped lead the administration’s work on combating human trafficking. Vanderslice Kelly explained that United Way sees itself not just as a funder of Survivor Alliance, but as a convener and a strategic thought leader, as well.

In addition to funding Survivor Alliance’s upcoming first World Congress—more detail on that below—United Way has also awarded a planning grant to develop a survivor fellowship, which, according to Vanderslice Kelly, will place survivors in anti-trafficking organizations and provide survivors with the job skills to be leaders in their own field.

“In almost every other social movement, you have the people that are impacted by the issue… working as the leaders in the space, whether it’s the gay rights movement or the women’s movement or the Black Lives Matter movement. You have to have the people that are impacted leading the way, and I think the anti-trafficking field has not always followed that model,” Vanderslice Kelly said.

Building leaders

In addition to advocating for the inclusion of survivors’ voices in the field, Survivor Alliance is also working to build leaders in the movement.

“That’s something that actually we need to work on proactively, and that funders and philanthropists need to not just listen to the policy experts and service providers, but to the people that have been impacted,” Vanderslice Kelly said.

According to Dang, Survivor Alliance is looking to train a wide network of survivor leaders from around the globe that organizations can look to for lived experience and expertise.

“Can the U.N. rapporteur on human trafficking be a survivor leader? Can the State Department Trafficking in Persons ambassador be a survivor?” asked Dang. “So really starting to flip the script in terms of survivors aren’t in addition, but actually front and center in the leadership roles around this issue.”

Correcting past mistakes

As part of its work, Survivor Alliance consults with funder organizations looking to employ the best practices of survivor inclusion. This includes guiding staff to think about the importance of including the lived experience of survivors.

“We are helping them think through ethical storytelling, how not to re-exploit survivors’ stories by kind of… tokenizing them and saying, ‘Well, we’re going to use their stories to fundraise for us’ in a really re-exploitative way. So how to do that ethically, how to get really, truly informed consent, and also for their board to really start to think about, how do we include this as a metric of success,” Dang said.

Gina Reiss, who serves on the board of Survivor Alliance, compared how Survivor Alliance is working to change philanthropy to how the LGBTQ+ movement shifted foundations and corporate America to be more inclusive. Just as the LGBTQ+ movement prompted funders and firms to add gender identity and expression to their giving priorities and to equal employment policies, Survivor Alliance wants to build a mainstream culture of inclusion for survivors of human trafficking.

“Survivor Alliance is also working to raise awareness about survivors in the workplace around DEI issues,” Reiss said. “Survivor equity in employment, specifically trauma-informed HR policies, generally need to be keystones of workplace equality—these are dialogues SA is helping to lead as we consider pathways to employment for survivors.”

For Kimbro, change is about more than paying lip service. “If we say we care about survivor voices and leadership and centering them in the room, we can’t just say it as a value,” Kimbro said. “We need to actually build [centering them] into our funding and also into our programmatic work… because correction doesn’t happen casually. Correction has to be pointed and potent and directed to redress the harm.”

Survivors are more than their trauma

Part of the solution, which Kimbro points out will be uncomfortable for many, means giving up power so that funding is done in a way that is not exploitative or extractive. For instance, a significant problem in anti-trafficking work has been the practice of having a survivor retell their story over and over again as a fundraising tactic.

Having this “singular story of pain be trotted out,” Kimbro said, is not only exploitative, it also suggests that survivors can only participate in anti-trafficking work by telling their stories and not through active leadership.

“There is this notion of being acted upon as opposed to being agentic actors in their own destiny,” Kimbro said, pointing to the paternalistic belief that survivors are merely passive victims to be rescued and not active in shaping their own lives following their freedom from trafficking.

As Dang pointed out, survivors are more than their trauma and experiences. Equally important to ending trafficking is supporting individuals after they’ve found freedom.

“One of the things that’s absolutely is true is that survivors of human trafficking suffer from severe trauma, and that’s kind of where we stop the conversation,” Dang said. “We don’t talk about the lives that people create afterwards, and so there’s kind of this narrative of ‘we’re just traumatized people.’”

Survivor Alliance’s first World Congress will take place online this year from July 26 through July 30. There, human trafficking and slavery survivors will convene to build a strong movement. Survivor Alliance wants the convening to serve as a place to increase leadership in the anti-slavery movement, increase survivors’ capacity to engage in transnational collaborations, and increase the capacity of allies to engage with survivors as peers.

“Quite literally, we are representing our own voice,” Dang said. “We get to have our own voice. We get to show them that we aren’t just that service recipient who needs trauma care. We’re doctors and social workers and all these other people.”