Beyond the Breakthrough: The Necessity of Survivor Leadership

The theme of the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference—Beyond the Breakthrough—sought to inspire the collective movement to end sexual violence and build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. Ms. was the media sponsor for the conference—and expanded the discussions happening on-site with this dedicated series. Click here to read more posts. You can also watch interviews and conference sessions from #NSAC2019 on the Ms. Facebook!

What happens when the people most impacted by an injustice are not involved in the movement to address it? Nothing good.

We don’t have to look far to see examples of ineffective action or harm—from policy based on an oversimplified understanding to organizations that claim to  “rescue” and “save” those they are helping. To create a thriving movement for social change, those with lived experience need to be leading at every level.

The movement to end human trafficking is no different. Yet survivors of human trafficking face barrier after barrier when trying to have a voice in the anti-trafficking movement. In response, survivors all over the country are coming together and resisting this lack of inclusion. Survivors have organized to create change in anti-trafficking movement, both in policy and in our communities.  

I am a part of the CSEC Action Team Advisory Board a group of 12 survivors of commercial sexual exploitation who advise the California Department of Social Services and other agencies throughout California. We are working to help the state implement policy impacting youth who have been commercially sexually exploited.

All of us have chosen to be publicly identified as survivor leaders in order to help our communities aid young survivors and prevent the type of abuse that happened to us from having to other teens and children. One of the gaps our Advisory Board identified is the lack of survivor leadership in many organizations that serve commercially sexually exploited children.

We surveyed organizations serving foster youth—such as child welfare agencies, mental health clinics and rape crisis centers—and 52 organizations responded sharing their perceptions and history of hiring survivors. A whopping 92 percent of organizations reported that they felt that having survivors as part of their staff led to higher quality services, yet only 39 percent had ever knowingly hired a human trafficking survivor and only 27 percent had identified survivors currently on staff. Barriers to hiring survivor staff included issues with license related to criminalization and a perceived insufficient hiring pool.

Some of these barriers require a legislative fix, such as ending the over criminalization of human trafficking victims. Others are perceived barriers, such as an assumption that human trafficking survivors lack education or are too traumatized to be successful. The existence of an advisory board of survivors of a specific form of human trafficking helped identify the gap in offering effective services and is leading to solutions to filling these gaps.

Survivors are organizing at the national level as well. The National Survivor Network is a collaboration of over 300 human trafficking survivors from throughout the U.S. Membership includes survivors for 24 countries, including the United States, who come together to work on policy change. An early victory for the National Survivor Network was the creating of the Human Trafficking Advisory Council, a group of human trafficking survivor who are available to advise the federal government on human trafficking policy.

Survivor leadership is necessary to create effective change and to build communities that are resilient to human trafficking.

Thank you to the members of the CSEC Action Team Advisory Board, especially Oree Freeman, Annika Mack and Chelsey Rouse who all shared in conducting this research. Thank you to the Children’s Law Center and National Center for Youth Law for assisting the Advisory Board’s work.

The National Survivor Network is open to any human trafficking survivor and has a network of certified consultants. To learn more visit


Deborah Pembrook is Human Trafficking Outreach Manager for the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center and chairs the regional human trafficking coalition. Deborah serves on the California CSEC Action Team Advisory Board and previously was Consultant Chair for the National Survivor Network. She received the 2016 YWCA Silicon Valley Empowerment Award.