A letter to trafficking survivors interested in speaking

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times


WASHINGTON, DC, July 19, 2012 – Dear Survivor,

As awareness of human trafficking spreads across America, the interest in hearing personal stories of survival is rising.  Before you agree to share your story, however, I encourage you to consider why you feel compelled to speak out.

Are you feeling nervous or confused about sharing details about your life before an audience?  Are you feeling pressured by an organization or activist to share your story at an upcoming event?  Are you interested in speaking because you think it is the only way for survivors to contribute to the cause?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I strongly encourage you to connect with a reputable service provider or survivor network for advice and support before speaking.  There are many ways for survivors to be involved in the movement, and it doesn’t have to include sharing your personal story.  Also, keep in mind that speaking on the topic of human trafficking does not have to include sharing your personal story!

No survivor should feel pressured to share their story, and no survivor should speak in front of an audience unless they have received the specialized counseling and care needed to process and heal from their trauma.  A successful survivor speaker is one who speaks from a positive mental space with a solid system of support.  It took nearly twenty years before I knew I was ready to speak about my experience.

If you believe you are ready, and that it is necessary for you to share your story, then I commend you on your courage.  Your voice will raise awareness to the general public, train other experts in the field, offer a warning to those at risk, and provide strength and hope to other survivors.  I must again encourage you to be connected with a reputable organization or network of survivors so that you can seek guidance and support before, during, and after your speaking event.

The act of sharing your testimony can be tremendously healing and empowering when done under a professional atmosphere of care and respect.  However, without proper guidance, you run the risk of walking away feeling exploited.  If you choose to tell your story, then please consider the following guidelines.

Survivor Speaker Guidelines

Ask the organization or event coordinator to fill out a Survivor Speaker Request Form.  This will give the organization an opportunity to consider their needs, as well as yours.  If you choose not to use the form, I encourage you to ask the following questions:

Event Information

What organizations are involved with the event?  Who is hosting, who is helping, and who is receiving any funds raised?

What is the date, time, location, and expected length of the event?

What is the purpose of the event (e.g. raising community awareness, raising funds, prayer vigil, law enforcement training, etc.)?

What is the focus of the event (e.g. forced labor, forced prostitution, domestic minor sex trafficking, international trafficking, etc.)?

Ask what they hope to achieve from your presence and speech?

Who else will be speaking? Ask for an itinerary or event brochure for more details.

What is the expected size, age, and class of the audience (e.g. young adult churchgoers, middle school teens, youth group members, upper class dinner event attendees)?

Is there a dress code?

Accommodations Information

Ask if accommodations will be provided (e.g. food, travel, parking, and lodging).  If the organization is unable to provide these accommodations, then request to have these expenses reimbursed.

If the event is a fundraiser, ask if they are willing to donate a percentage of raised funds to an anti-human trafficking charity of your choice.  This enables you to walk away from a speaking engagement knowing that your story will help a reputable organization.

Request a signed agreement outlining the proposed accommodations and / or reimbursement payments, including any honorarium fees you require.

If needed, request to have a chaperone meet you upon arrival, remain by your side throughout the event, and walk you to your car or to the bus stop / train terminal after the event.  The chaperone should have only this task on the day of the event so that he / she can concentrate on you and your needs.  Contact the chaperone before the event (or ask for the chaperone to contact you) for an introduction.  Take this time to voice any and all concerns or special needs.

If you are uncomfortable with making these requests, then ask the organization / event coordinator to fill out a Survivor Speaker Request Form.  Ask a trusted advocate to review the form and to contact the coordinator regarding your specific needs and requests.

Media Information

Ask if the event is to be videotaped, audio-taped, and / or photographed.

Make it clear that you do not want to be filmed in any manner and that you do not want your story to be duplicated in any manner.  No organization has the right to take your story without your permission.

Ask the coordinator to announce to the audience, including any and all news media present, to turn off all video and sound equipment before you are introduced and to advise the audience not to take any pictures during your speech.

The Survivor Speaker Request Form asks the coordinator to sign an understanding that your story cannot be duplicated without your permission.  If an organization or news reporter wants to film your story, then have them complete a Survivor Speaker Request Form for News Media.  This form asks the reporter to outline in writing why they want your story and how it will be used.  They should give you time to agree to and prepare for their questions.  Should you agree, inform them of any required honorarium fees.

I do not recommend that any new speakers agree to any spontaneous requests from the media.  I encourage you to gain experience speaking in closed sessions before speaking to news reporters.

As survivors, we must take good care of ourselves in order to heal and grow.  Listen to your emotions.  If something doesn’t feel right, then don’t be afraid to say no.  You have every right to decline to answer any question from anyone.

You have every right to ask these questions about any event at which you are being invited to speak.

Once all of your questions are answered, you can start working on your speech- tips on speech writing to follow.

Good luck!

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