One of our followers on Instagram reached out with a question that we thought would be good to address more broadly on our blog. He asked, “How has your approach to anti human trafficking developed over the years?” We’ve talked about how the anti-trafficking field has changed over time and how risk and vulnerability has shifted both where we work and in the U.S., but we have grown and learned too. Today, we’d like to share about how we’ve grown and developed our organizational approach over the past decade-plus.
Changes to TFS’s Approach Over Time
There are 4 main developments we’d like to highlight:
The Balance Between Depth and Reach
The problem of child sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation is so huge, with so many children and youth who could be at risk of becoming exploited. And yet, prevention is not always so simple as an ad campaign or telling kids to be careful. Those who are most at risk are so because many other factors in their lives present challenges–and there are many potential pathways to trafficking and exploitation. If it were as simple as raising awareness, our focus would be on reaching as many people as we can. However, prevention is often a complicated mix involving awareness raising, financial assistance to reduce the need to turn to exploitative schemes to earn money, mentorship through all the reasons students who’ve experienced various forms of trauma and other challenges might struggle in school, helping families develop better relationships and/or alternative sources of income, and of course deep mentorship when a student is flirting with danger and our staff steps in to try to convince them of the danger they’re in and to make safer choices.
This involves staff capacity to run awareness raising events in multiple villages, often through schools or other community centers. But it also involves staff capacity to develop the deep relationships of trust necessary for mentorship to take root. It takes talent, knowledge, appropriate demeanor and the right mix of fun and wisdom, and the heart to stay with children through the trauma they elect to disclose to our staff. While shifts in the balance in one direction or another happen over time, both have also increased over time.
Our Deepening Commitment to Ethical Storytelling
Storytelling has always been a fundamental part of what we do–after all, our organization was founded because of a documentary. Truth telling, as clearly, transparently, and as aware as we can, has always been a hallmark of how we spread awareness about child sex trafficking, as has consent and privacy for underage subjects. But, as we have learned, telling these stories in an ethical way requires even more than that. Thanks to the honesty and bravery of Cat, our first scholarship student, we’ve learned about how to be more sensitive to power dynamics, to the lasting impact of sharing sensitive information, and to the need to include the subject as co-writer of the storytelling process. Our commitment to sharing stories ethically has deepened in sensitivity and scope over time. We continually check in with our own standards of telling stories with care and maintain procedures that help ensure we adhere to that. We also seek to learn continually from our constituents and fellow practitioners as collective awareness evolves over time.
From Individuals To Families and Communities
At the beginning, our approach focused primarily on individual students–supporting them through scholarships and with extracurricular activities and resources. However, time and experience showed us that in order to support these students, we needed to be reaching and helping to strengthen their families and their communities as well. We’ve come to believe in the importance of a holistic approach to prevention and that protecting children requires strengthening the networks around them. Our programs have expanded to include not only family camps for emotional-social support, but also a sustainable livelihoods program geared towards helping families learn about alternative sources of income and the business acumen that can help them succeed.
Monitoring and Evaluation: More Data
The final way our approach has shifted over time is in the robust monitoring and evaluation program we’ve developed, spearheaded by our Director of Strategy, Lucy McCray. It includes both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis, such as: surveys of our students to assess how well we’re serving their needs, as well as extensive tracking in participation in various activities, graduation rates, risk factors, and other related benchmarks to measure our impact. It has contributed greatly to evidence-based understanding of how prevention works best and to improved professionalization of our efforts.
These are the four main ways our organization has shifted, grown, and developed over time. We are grateful for the trust and tremendous support our community has shown us over the years. The communal effort is what makes this growth and learning, as well as adaptation to continually changing circumstances possible. Trafficking is an ever-changing beast, and we are committed to meeting the challenges however they show up.