Survivors are speaking. Are we listening?

Minh Dang | Survivor Alliance,
Executive Director & PhD Student, University of Nottingham

Survivors of slavery and human trafficking regularly receive invitations to share their experience, whether by the media, at congressional hearings or at conferences. When the organisers are asked to expand on the nature of their requests, the typical response is: “We would love to hear your personal story, how you overcame it, and we want our audience to leave inspired.” The clear assumption in these requests is that survivors will speak about their traumatic experiences of slavery.

The problem

The presumptive role in these requests is for survivors to provide a face to the issue and to make it real for the audience. As some of the best interpreters of modern slavery in the broadest sense, survivors’ insights are wasted when they are restricted to telling personal stories. Survivors become tokenized when there is only one survivor invited to participate in an event and asked to “speak for all” survivors. Treated as an afterthought, most anti-slavery efforts assume that there are no survivors in the room, or the voices and agendas of survivors are not critical to the agenda of an event, publication, or exhibit.

Survivors are also undervalued through a widespread assumption that they will volunteer their time and expertise. They are regularly unpaid for their contributions or even required to pay out of pocket for travel expenses. Their work products are not treated with the same considerations normally given to intellectual property, such as acquiring consent for publication or reuse.

Deepening our understanding

Survivors are placed in an exasperating predicament: to be heard in limited ways, with little to no compensation, or to be excluded from important conversations that affect their lives. Similar to the weariness that people of colour experience when asked to educate white people about racism, survivors of slavery are weary of being asked to share traumatic stories. What is implied is that their “personal story” is purely a story of horror and atrocity, and other important aspects of their identities are negated.

Many survivors understand the benefit of sharing some aspects of our story to raise awareness; however, our experience in slavery is not the only, nor the primary, topic that we want to discuss. We want to talk about policy change. We want to design social service programs and lead our own organisations and programs. We want to build grassroots solutions and to sustain ourselves. Like all humans, we want self-determination and autonomy, coupled with interdependence and community support.

Our personal experiences include our identities as parents, scholars, business and NGO leaders, activists, artists, lawyers, and so much more. Our experiences in slavery inform our anti-slavery efforts, but we are people, just like you. We are people who seek access to a healthy, safe, and secure life for ourselves and our communities.

As such, many survivors engaged in anti-slavery efforts have full-time jobs to make ends meet, support families, and pay off debt. Many of us desire to be actively engaged in the anti-slavery movement but we do not have the capacity to volunteer our time. Thus, our request for compensation and reimbursement of expenses is the same as any other professional.

While at times there are occasional legal or logistical difficulties to compensating survivors, these challenges are not insurmountable. To lay it out plainly, here are some reasons why survivors need and should be compensated:

  • A request to speak, present, or give feedback on documents is a request for expert input or consultation. It is common to pay consulting fees to any subject matter expert.
  • A request to appear in a venue that is away from the survivor’s home or workplace involves an additional travel expense that the survivor likely cannot incur.
  • To tend to health and self-care needs, pre-, post-, and during involvement in anti-slavery efforts, additional costs are incurred.
  • Survivors must often use vacation or unpaid time to participate in projects and may need to make alternative child care arrangements.

The solution

Going forward, to be more inclusive and to ensure that survivors can contribute in meaningful ways, it is time for the anti-slavery movement to focus on developing and deepening opportunities for survivors that are not centred around sharing their trauma narrative, and to provide compensation for their time, travel, and expertise. I recommend the following actions:

  • Add a line item to your budget for survivor participation and develop a fundraising plan to support it.
  • If you feel unsure about how to incorporate survivors, hire a veteran survivor leader to conduct an assessment and make recommendations.
  • If there are no existing survivor groups in your area, work with allied organizations to recruit people who exited slavery long before it became the social issue of the moment.
  • Request anonymous survivor input through surveys of program participants. Offer gift cards in exchange for participation.
  • Invite a survivor to join your Board of Directors or an Advisory Board.
  • Invite survivors to review and provide input on program plans, training curricula, and media campaigns.
  • Involve survivors in creating research questions and measurement variables.
  • Develop employment opportunities for survivors within your organisation and provide support for their success. These include discussing confidentiality, making workplace and cultural norms explicit, and if necessary, training other staff members on how to engage.
  • Invest in survivor leadership programs such as the National Survivor Network1 in the United States, Utthan2 in India, and a new international organisation that I am launching, the Survivor Alliance.3

The Survivor Alliance unites and empowers survivors of slavery around the world. Incubated in the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab,4 it focuses on developing a global network of trained survivor leaders. In addition to empowering survivor voices in the anti-slavery movement, the Survivor Alliance shifts the focus from the moment of emancipation and the immediate aftermath, to the long journey of (re)building a life in freedom.

Until we actively support the development of survivor leaders, there will be a dearth of such leaders to call on to support anti-slavery efforts. We believe the wider movement has a moral obligation to help make this happen.

The more successful our anti-slavery efforts become, the more survivors will live among us. Survivors will demand a prosperous life and the ability to sustain our freedom.

Freedom is more than the absence of slavery.

It is imperative that our movement integrate survivors as equal members of our community. We are here to build with you. When we knock on your doors, please invite us in. We do not want our words to continue to fall on deaf ears, but rest assured, we will not be silent.


1For more information, please see: National Survivor Network. Available from: [22 February 2018].
2For more information, please see: Utthan. Available from: [22 February 2018].
3For more information, please see: Survivor Alliance. Available from: [22 February 2018].
4For more information, please see: Rights Lab, University of Nottingham. Available from: [22 February 2018].