Recently, there was a request for information made by the US State Department’s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons. The Senior Policy Operating Group (SPOG) asked for input from key stakeholders and community members on how it can advance racial justice and equity in work combatting human trafficking. We’re glad this request was made, and we submitted this answer for consideration:
In the two decades since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000) established the foundation for a comprehensive federal response to human trafficking in the United States, the anti-trafficking movement has made important strides in recognizing trafficking in persons as an entrenched, widespread, and under-addressed crime. As a result of these efforts, child-serving agencies have begun to develop protocols, standard operating procedures, outreach programs, and screening tools to identify and serve youth who have been trafficked. Despite progress, however, systemic failures and inadequate structural responses allow for the ongoing exploitation of children.
National and local research and Love146’s own direct service provision to over 600 children in the United States alone indicate that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) children are particularly vulnerable and have been disproportionaly victimized by the crime of human trafficking. If the anti-trafficking movement is organized around the belief that trafficking is a vile crime that no person should have to endure, we must be committed to addressing the underlying systems and structures that perpetuate the disproportionate victimization of BIPOC individuals. It is with a commitment to our vision of the end of child trafficking that Love146 is responding to the Senior Policy Operating Group’s request for information on conducting anti-trafficking work using a racial equity lens.
What does racial equity mean in the context of human trafficking?
In order to advance racial justice and equity within the anti-trafficking movement, trafficking must be viewed as a social, political, and public health problem, and policies and programs must explicitly address the systems and structures that lead to and sustain children’s vulnerabilities – particularly those that disproportionately impact BIPOC individuals. Love146 recognizes equity in the context of human trafficking as universal access to the opportunities and resources that all people need to thrive. In order to adopt a racial equity lens, then, the field must commit to dismantling the inequitable practices and structural barriers that preclude access to resources and opportunities. Such work requires dismantling the institutional racism that is endemic in our housing, banking, child care, education, child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice, policing, and public assistance systems.
Policy recommendations aimed at dismantling racism within our nation’s systems and structures abound. Adopting these recommendations will reduce vulnerabilities that disproportionately impact BIPOC children. In addition, racially equitable anti-trafficking work must attend to the disproportionate representation of BIPOC children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, the school-to-prison and foster-care-to-prison pipelines, and the causal correlation these systems and pipelines have with increased vulnerability and trafficking victimization (Williamson & Flood, 2021).
Please describe any racial injustice, inequity, or unfairness you have observed or experienced that resulted from a federal anti-trafficking activity.
Because federal anti-trafficking activities are so intertwined with the larger federal infrastructure, it is difficult to disaggregate racial injustices, inequities, and unfairness specific to federal anti-trafficking activities. The anti-trafficking field, however – both within and outside the government – needs to acknowledge and address the disproportionate representation of White individuals who sit in positions of authority, including on councils and committees convened to advise the government. Greater representation, especially from people who have not previously had seats at the table, is a necessary precursor to promulgating a racially equitable movement.
In addition, the federal government must wrestle with the reality that it continues to subjugate incarcerated individuals under the 13th Amendment, which prohibits “slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” The disproportionate incarceration of BIPOC individuals, compounded by the continued exploitation permitted by the 13th amendment, makes it impossible to fully realize an anti-trafficking framework that tackles racial injustices and advances racial equity.
How have federal anti-trafficking policies, programs, and systems created barriers to advancing racial equity, and how might the executive branch address and help reduce these barriers?
In recent years, the federal government has taken several steps to begin addressing racial equity within the anti-trafficking field, with this request for information being just one example. But by continuing to narrowly view work in the anti-trafficking movement within a discrete-issue narrative, several policies and activities aimed at addressing trafficking have not adequately considered – and thus negatively impacted – other populations, particularly those with large BIPOC constituencies. One such example of this is FOSTA-SESTA. Supported by Love146, FOSTA-SESTA was pushed for by the anti-trafficking movement in order to hold websites that knowingly facilitate the trafficking of human beings accountable. In the years since its passage, however, significant data point to the negative impact of this legislation on sex workers, a population disporoprtionately comprised of BIPOC individuals. It should be noted that sex workers are now raising concerns about the EARN IT Act similar to these they raised about FOSTA-SESTA. If anti-trafficking efforts are to be based on the criminal definition of human trafficking, we must recognize that trafficking is different than sex work. While the latter might be at risk for the former, there is a legal difference, and if anti-trafficking efforts negatively impact sex workers they must have a seat at the table.
In order to fully embrace a public health approach and address racial equity, the anti-trafficking movement must acknowledge and thoroughly examine the impact our work has on other populations, including sex workers. As Emily Rothman notes, “Public health advocates should not be ‘single-issue’ activists who are so enthusiastic about their one pet issue that they are willing to sacrifice the health of vulnerable populations in other ways as long as their own special topic is gettting attention – we have to know, and consider, the full story when we participate in anti-child-pornography activism” (2021).
A racial equity approach also requires that the movement, including the federal government, assesses our use of language, specifically our use of terms such as “modern-day slavery” and “abolition.” Such assessment should go beyond seeking input from individuals within the anti-trafficking movement; it should include soliciting input from individuals – especially Black individuals and communities – who are not involved in the movement to assess whether such language creates barriers to engagement that could hinder prevention, identification, and intervention. Unfortunately, too many people within disproportionately impacted communities – including BIPOC communities – are still unaware of the crime of human trafficking. Proactive outreach to these communities is imperative; however, we must also examine whether our language is a potential contributing factor and barrier. As part of this assessment, the federal government should do an audit of the language and imagery it uses and the extent to which it embeds references to chattel slavery in legislation, website, and other materials. For example, the bill entitled “Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2021” proposes to change the name of the most prominent federal legislation addressing trafficking by inserting the name of prominent activist and former slave Frederick Douglass. The federal government must consider whether a change such as this advances racial equity or co-opts the name of a prominent historical civil rights figure. As the National Survivor Network explained, “slavery and trafficking are two different experiences that may correlate and have similar structural concepts but are not the same” (2019).
What promising approaches or efforts have been successful in embedding a racial equity lens in anti-trafficking work? What examples and/or data are available to support this?
At Love146, we have embedded a racial equity lens into all of our work. Our work has moved beyond simply ensuring representation on our staff and board of directors and providing diversity, equity and inclusion training. We have wrestled with the language we use and made changes. Our commitment to pursuing a racially equitable society also compelled us to make a statement regarding our learnings, apologize for our use of what we believe can be offensive terminology, and encourage others in the field to consider the use of their own language (Love146, 2021). In addition, we have proactively used our platform to advance conversations regarding the intersection of race and human trafficking through our publications and presentations (e.g., Gilchrest, Porter, Williamson, & Young, 2020; Young, Johnson, Bidorini, & Williamson, 2019; Williamson & Clark, 2021; Williamson & Flood, 2021).
Our racial equity work also extends to the design and implementation of our direct service programming. As part of our prevention education Not a Number facilitator certification training, we discuss the importance of language, put “promiscious” and “delinquent” narratives in their historical racist conexts, and ensure facilitators understand and appreciate the systems and structures that lead to and perpetuate vulnerabilities, as well as their disproportionate impact on BIPOC children and youth. We have high expectations for how facilitators who implement the Not a Number curriculum talk to youth about these issues and this expectation is modeled by our staff through our training and ongoing technical assistance support. We adopt a posture of forever learning, recognizing that the anti-trafficking movement is by definition a movement that will continue to grow and evolve and that we will inevitably need to acknowledge and grow from our mistakes and our new learnings. With that in mind, we revise our Not a Number curriculum every three years, with a focus on ensuring that each version is more inclusive than the previous.
In our Survivor Care Program, we work with youth and their families recognizing the historical racist legacies of government systems while also learning and acknowledging individual families’ own experiences within these systems. Our staff work alongside many of these systems but do so with eyes open and informed of histories. Because victimization is not random but patterned and predictable, we talk with youth about the role that race, gender and sexual orientation played in their vulnerability, victimization, and recovery. We discuss the culpability of systems in producing vulnerability and victimization, and recognize and address the real, persistent interactions these children have had with systems that too often fail to protect them and why they often do not see these systems as safe resources. Our youth and families are our teachers, and we center their experiences in our work. Our program is designed to go to them and offer services in their communities, as opposed to having them come to us or removing them from their communities. A racial equity lens requires recognizing, focusing on, and empowering the strengths of communities, and supporting youth in recognizing the helpers within their communities that they can turn to for support.
Beginning this quarter, Love146 will be implementing a new Training and Outreach Program to specifically engage communities disproportionately impacted by trafficking – including BIPOC communities. Too often members of these communities still do not have the information necessary to prevent, identify, and address human trafficking. Rather than viewing trafficking as a discrete issue and recognizing that outreach efforts cannot be siloed, Love146’s training and outreach will also address interlinked issues of healthy relationships, consent, and the differences between trafficking victimization and sex work. This training and outreach will also be implemented in a manner that respects and is sensitive to these communities’ histories and trauma related to these topical areas.
What can SPOG agencies individually and the SPOG collectively do to advance racial equity and integrate it into federal anti-trafficking work?
As a collective, the SPOG has significant implicit and explicit power and influence within the anti-trafficking movement. One of the most significant ways in which the SPOG can advance racial equity is to lead by example and with humility. If the SPOG shows that they are willing and able to grow and learn in their knowledge and understanding of how to do this work, it will send an important, needed message to others in the field that it is permissible to change perspective, adapt based on new learning, and envision a different movement that is more inclusive.
As described above, Love146 recommends that the federal government examine its use of language and that members of the SPOG conduct audits of the language and imagery they use within their individual agencies. The SPOG might also consider racial equity when they make funding awards, offering increased points for organizations that are led by BIPOC individuals, specifically serve communities of color, or can demonstrate their commitment to racial equity through the representation of BIPOC individuals on boards and staff and through formalized policies, statements, or strategic plans. Through this effort, the SPOG can ensure that federal funding is also going to survivor-led organizations that are proximate to BIPOC communities that research indicates have higher rates of trafficking, and not inherently awarded to the more familiar, long-standing organizations in the movement.
The federal government has historically pursued a criminal justice approach to counter human trafficking. In practice this has meant that federal investment has been predominantly allocated through the Department of Justice (DOJ) as the primary means of service provision for this victim population. As a result, the focus has been on prosecuting traffickers and supporting confirmed trafficking victims through law enforcement and social service organizations. Funding for service provision through the Office for Victims of Crime within the DOJ, for example, can only be used for “confirmed” victims of trafficking. As has been noted, trafficking victimization is complex and not black and white. Children who are receiving these types of services are clearly at risk whether or not trafficking victimization can be confirmed, and the designation severely limits who can be served.
These responses are important, but alone they are one-dimensional and myopic. It has meant that for too long the federal government’s approach has not been preventative or holistic, and it has not addressed the systems and systemic racism that leads to and sustains vulnerabilities. The federal government’s approach has focused on relationships with law enforcement and prosecutors at the expense of the child-serving education, child welfare, health, housing, and immigration systems. In addition, funding allocation through DOJ as opposed to the Department of Health and Human Services means that attention is only on children who are already victims rather than on those who are vulnerable or at risk. It is clear that arresting traffickers and buyers and providing services to victims will never be enough to end trafficking. It is crucial the federal government’s anti-human trafficking strategy not only address the crime itself, but its underlying causes. By addressing human trafficking through a public health lens – that sees the problem as interconnected, systemic, and entrenched – the government will be able to open up the possibility of a comprehensive, preventive response that addresses the dynamics of human trafficking in a racially equitable manner and at the scale they occur.
What are promising practices or strategies for how anti-trafficking policies and programs can address the compounded barriers at the intersections of systemic racism and other forms of discrimination.
Recognizing and addressing intersectionality is critical for any and all anti-trafficking work, especially given the disproportionate victimization of women, girls, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled individuals. Many of the same recommendations provided above are also applicable to other communities disproportionately impacted by trafficking.
What processes or approaches should SPOG agencies have in place to proactively and meaningfully engage individuals with lived experience of human trafficking and communities that are most directly impacted by human trafficking?
As noted in the request for information, meaningful stakeholder engagement includes collective problem-solving and decision-making, equitable partnerships, and collaboration that fosters a sharing of power. Unfortunately, the federal government has a history of not including or silencing perspectives it does not agree with; this is also true of the federal government’s anti-trafficking efforts. True commitment to sharing power will require all members of the SPOG to engage in self-reflection about who is selected to participate in various efforts and why others are too often left off these invite lists. As part of these efforts, SPOG members should always make sure that survivors of color are included in their listening sessions and represented on committees and councils, and that invited survivors of color represent a wide diversity of experiences, perspectives, and opinions. This work will require making a bigger table, setting clear ground rules for all participants based on mutual respect, and being willing to hear and engage with divergent perspectives. At Love146, we take a big table approach. We believe that this approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of the issue of child trafficking and encourages continued conversations that can lead to real solutions for children. We do not expect everyone to be comfortable at all times or to agree on all things. However, for those who want to listen, learn, and grow alongside us, there is always room at the table.
Love146 journeys alongside children impacted by trafficking today and prevents the trafficking of children tomorrow. Founded in 2002, Love146 is exclusively focused on the issue of child trafficking and has a deep history of developing innovative aftercare, reintegration, and prevention programming across the country and around the world. Our work is achieved through the power of relationships and collaboration, listening to those with lived experience and diverse backgrounds, scaling proven practices, and challenging the systems that leave children vulnerable. We realize our mission by:
Providing transformative services: We believe in the power of relationships to increase children’s resilience and survivors’ recovery and over well-being. Beyond helping children achieve specific goals, Love146’s programs foster relationships, both with our team and other community members – out of a belief that it’s these relationships that will bring about lasting transformation. Through this approach, we come together to support individuals and make a safer world for children.
Developing outcome-focused solutions: In order to be effective, programs need to be informed by evidence, based on strong theoretical frameworks, and promote practices that are proven to produce positive outcomes for children. Love146 is committed to investing in and delivering innovative services and rigorously evaluating our efforts. By measuring the impact of our programs on the children we serve, we aim to set a standard that reimagines what effective child trafficking prevention and survivor care can look like, and share our findings so that they may be replicated at scale.
Challenging society’s response: Love146 recognizes that society’s inadequate response and systemic failures allow for the ongoing exploitation of children. In addition, social determinants and marginalization put some children at higher risk, and result in the inequitable provision of services and justice. Alongside survivors and a movement of those committed to the same vision, Love146 works to address these issues in our communication, programmatic work, and efforts to advocate for broad-based responses that reduce children’s vulnerabilities, and uphold their rights and dignity.
Gilchrest, J., Porter, R., Williamson, E., & Young, Y. (2020, February). Race and Child Trafficking in Connecticut. Presentation at the Connecticut Legislative Office Building.
Love146. (2021). Words matter: Why we no longer call trafficking “slavery” and anti-trafficking “abolition”. https://love146.org/words-matter/
National Survivor Network. (2019). Using “modern slavery” is not recommended to decribe human trafficking. https://nationalsurvivornetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/NSN-HT-Statement.pdf
Rothman, E. F. (2021). Pornography and public health. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Williamson, E. & Clark, T. (2021, November). Addressing Race in Anti-Trafficking Programming: Practical Guidance and Lessons Learned. Session conducted at the JuST Conference, Washington, DC.
Williamson, E. & Flood, A. (2021). Systemic and structural roots of child sex trafficking: The role of gender, race, and sexual orientation in disproportionate victimization. In M. Chisolm-Straker & K. Chon (Eds.), The historical roots of human trafficking: Informing primary prevention of commercialized violence. New York, NY: Springer.
Young, Y., Johnson, B., Bidorini, C., & Williamson, E. (2019). Let’s talk about race and human trafficking. https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/DCF/HumanTrafficking/pdf/HART-Helps-Spring-2019—Final.pdf