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I’ve worked with human trafficking survivors since 2014, and the one thing I can tell you is that, against all odds, they still hold on to their dreams.  Trauma survivors still believe that they were created for more, and that there is a place and purpose for them in the world.  I believe that too.

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We believe that the stories of trauma survivors are sacred, and should only be told by them, with their permission.  When we share survivor stories here, we will use pseudonyms and change elements of the story to protect their identities.

bob's Story

Image by Benjamin Faust

Bob was a military reservist and after 9/11, he was called up to go to Iraq. He spent several tours of duty there as a reservist, and predictably witnessed the loss of some of his platoon buddies in IED explosions. Upon returning home from his tours, Bob felt displaced and alone. He went from having a sense of responsibility, pride and direction in life, to nothing. While he had tasks and goals to meet in the workplace, his mind would often stray and his body would jump when a co-worker would accidentally drop something heavy to the floor flooding him with flashbacks of IED explosions and gunfire. He became no longer engaged and seemed to be completely disinterested in the work being assigned to him. When his supervisor finally intervened, he was completely honest in saying that he couldn’t find meaning in his job anymore.


Bob had a great workplace record and the only thing that had changed was that Bob had unhealed trauma.  As a business owner, we can just require that Bob “man up”, or, we can have the internal support structures in place to help Bob as he works through his experiences and loss. When employees have to hold in their secrets of trauma and pain, the real estate of their brain that is most creative and innovative is taxed with the burden of hiding.   


Something changes in our workplaces when we stop seeing people as instruments to gain profits or accomplish work, and start seeing our businesses as places where our employees can bring their best selves and their ideas to the table without fear of ridicule, gossip, shaming or fear based management tactics.  We can all benefit when we can leverage the collective brilliance and creativity of our entire workforce, but that is only possible when we are willing to become trauma informed.

Sarah's Story

Sarah was very excited about going to her first meeting with a job placement counselor.  Trafficked at age 16 by her own mother, addicted to substances just to survive the daily trauma, she had finally made it out. At age 35, someone had finally told her that she was a victim.  For so long she had believed it was all her fault, that her poor choices had caused the downward spiral of her life. 


Now she had an opportunity to do something different. She wanted to look her best for the meeting, so she went to get her a fresh cut and style for her hair, and carefully manicured her nails. She had gotten some donated job interview clothing, and everything seemed like it was moving forward until that old familiar fear of doing something new came rushing in along with the voice of her trafficker.. “Who do you think you are trying to get a job? Nobody is going to hire someone like you. You didn’t even graduate high school. What kind of job are you going to get? You are only good for one thing.”


The faster the thoughts came, the faster she could feel her heart beating,  her blood pumping as if she was running a marathon. She tried to stop the thoughts, tried to slow the panic welling up inside her.  She felt the pain of a migraine begin to creep increasing the panic because she knew how debilitating her migraines could be.  How would she ever make it to this meeting? “Maybe he was right. Maybe I am only good for one thing" she thought.


This sort of experience is common with people who experience high levels of trauma, and particularly human trafficking survivors.  Their body’s trauma response is on overdrive, and new experiences or facing the unknown can set off the body’s alarm system. Even experiences that seem commonplace to most of us, like a job interview, can overwhelm the central nervous system of a survivor, bringing about a host of health problems to include migraines, sleep disorders, and even seizures.  


We can relegate people like Sarah to social services systems and disability safety nets, or we can create safe, supportive workplaces that leverage their gifts and talents while at the same time bringing a sense of balance and normalcy to their lives. Sarah and others like her are just looking for a chance at a better life for themselves. 

Image by Darya Ogurtsova

Maddie's Story

Image by Dev Asangbam

Maddie was trafficked as a young child by a family member. As an adult she had been working on her emotional healing, and was working with an agency that placed her in a job in a career field of her interest. It was a helping profession and unfortunately her supervisor seemed to be suffering from burn out.  He would publically yell at her and the other staff members which made it hard for her to continue working there. She didn’t feel safe enough to ask for help with her work, and she was definitely not going to step out and try to take on new projects. Despite all of the healing she had experienced, the fear of being yelled at and diminished by her supervisor kept her from being the best employee possible. 


Maddie had lots of great ideas but she felt devalued and felt like no one would recognize her contribution.  The risk of self advocating and telling her supervisor how his conduct impacted her was more than she could take. When she reached out to her agency to share how the workplace was affecting her, the placement agent said “are you sure that’s not your trauma talking?” 


Maddie experienced a toxic workplace culture that was unsafe for a trauma survivor. But she was also blamed by her agency for being “too sensitive.” Unfortunately, all of the creativity and innovation Maddie had to offer her workplace remained locked inside because of the atmosphere of fear created by one of its managers.  On one hand, we can dismiss Maddie’s story and agree that she just needs to stop being so sensitive, or, we can actually recognize that Maddie’s story is not uncommon in our workplaces today.  


What if the way we manage our staff actually doesn’t yield the best work product? What if we could commit to building a workplace culture that valued belonging, creativity and innovation over obedience and perfectionism?  Workplaces that value people over performance lead to greater loyalty, reduced employee turnover, and increased commitment to the organization. 

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