Survivors of Trauma: You are more than your story

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


WASHINGTON, August 16, 2012 - This is a letter to trafficking survivors interested in speaking (continued from July 19th).

Dear Survivor,

It is very important that you realize you have more to offer audiences than just your “survivor story.”  You bring to the table a unique and vital perspective to the many issues and topics surrounding human trafficking.

You have the ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are vulnerable to falling victim to predators, those who have already been victimized, those who want to better protect and care for victims, and those who want to prosecute the predators.

Your story matters in so many more ways than just providing an example of human trafficking. You are the expert in topics like prevention strategies, victim aftercare needs, and prosecution pitfalls, as they relate to your life experience.

If you have made the decision to speak after reading the first article on this topic, then I’d like to pass on the following advice regarding speech writing.

Know your audience:  Tailor your speech according to the age, size, and make-up of your audience, as well as the focus of the event and the setting.

For example, as a survivor of child sex trafficking at the age of 14, I will tailor my speech as follows:

Teachers / Social Workers:  I describe my experiences with teachers and social workers before and after the trafficking incident.  I explain the warning signs that were missed prior to the incident, the ways teachers / social workers helped me after the incident, and how I think things could be improved, from a survivor’s perspective.

Middle School Students:  I describe myself as I was in middle school, and I explain the vulnerabilities which my traffickers looked to exploit in a teen.  I will share where and how a trafficker was able to deceive me.  I will touch briefly on the trafficking incident only to drive home to them the dangers of trusting a stranger.  Last, I will share with them how they can spread awareness, how they can encourage friends to seek help, and how they can support others in need.

College Students:  I share a similar speech with them as I do with middle school students.  Then, I encourage them to join in the fight against human trafficking by sharing my story with younger siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces, and any other younger kids with whom they interact.  I also encourage them to be role models for these younger boys and girls, to stay actively involved in their lives, and to ask them questions about school, friends, and personal goals.

Churchgoers / Fundraisers:  I will touch briefly on the trafficking incident, and then I will concentrate on all that I have accomplished since the incident.  I will encourage them to give to a cause that helps other survivors grow to their full potential.

Law Enforcement:  I will describe my interaction with the police before, during, and after the incident.  I will explain what helped me and what hurt me so that they can continue to better their system.

Keep it Short:  If you are inexperienced at speaking, then I recommend keeping your speech short.  You don’t know yet how well you will handle stage fright or how you will feel after speaking.  Lengthen your speech over time, as you gain experience.

Focus on Before and / or After the Incident: Do not tell the gruesome details of your abuse.  It’s nobody’s business, and you deserve to feel as comfortable as possible while speaking.

Write it Down:  Write your speech in a clear legible manner.  Reading your speech will help you stay focused.  Writing it down also enables someone to take over reading if you become overwhelmed.  As you gain confidence and experience, you can switch to listing bullet points to cover in your speech.

Relax and Breathe:  Take your time reading.  Stop to breathe if you are feeling anxious.  Pause as needed.  Make eye contact with the audience when you are comfortable and if there is a natural pause.

Have your speech ready well in advance so that you can prepare yourself emotionally.

In closing, I would like to encourage you to eat well and exercise the morning of the event.  Exercising can help to ease the jitters.  When it is over, I strongly recommend sharing your experience online or over the phone with other survivors for feedback and support.  If something just doesn’t feel right, talk to someone about it.  Working with other survivor speakers or advocates can help to improve your speaking experiences, or they can help you determine another way to express your story or use your talents in your journey.  You don’t have to publicly share your story in order to be involved in the anti-trafficking movement or to be an empowered survivor.  And, remember, you can change your mind about speaking at any time.

Good luck!


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