As I mentioned in my previous post, there were several broad themes that emerged out of the panel discussions at the conference I attended last week. Of these, the most interesting and engaging one was the topic of storytelling and specifically, the importance of former slaves to be able to tell their own stories in their own voices.
One of the historians on the panel, David Blight, focused on Frederick Douglass’s narrative and the meaning of a former slave having not only the opportunity to tell his story, but also to write it himself. Those of us who take the ability to read and write for granted will likely take some time to grasp the magnitude of such an accomplishment. With the written words, Douglass’s voice materialized and was able to reach a bigger audience. In his case, learning how to read and write set him on the path to freedom.
The significance of storytelling in the context of human trafficking cannot be overstated; however, I think there definitely needs to be a warning against sensationalistic attitudes. Since human trafficking seems to be the issue of the day, I continue to see many celebrities become involved and perform songs or direct movies around what they imagine the issue to be. Their intentions might be good, but are they truly able to represent the challenges and transformation that a survivor of the practice has to face? As Alicia Peters, an academic, pointed out, the overemphasis in the media on sex trafficking of young girls shifts the discussion of the issue in one very specific direction and many survivors in different trafficking circumstances become overlooked. Ultimately, the story told in the media is not inclusive of the variety of human trafficking situations and many will not be able to see themselves in the story and perhaps assume that their situation is not as bad. Peters further stressed that every trafficking survivor’s experience is unique and the prominence of one particular narrative renders many others invisible on the background of an already hidden crime. She eventually concluded that the type of trafficking should not be the main focus of discussions; rather, it is the condition of exploitation, complete lack of choice, and utter misery that should be regarded. I completely agree. Suffering in any form is unacceptable and no one situation of exploitation is worse than another.
It is interesting that the topic of storytelling came up in a workshop I attended right before driving to the conference. The focus of the seminar was documentary storytelling, or how to tell the story of your organization through videos. Two major points made were that it is important to allow the actual people you work with to tell their stories and that the story must be representative of the actual transformation the population goes through. These points definitely resonate with the conclusions made by many panelists at the conference. Zoe Todd, for example, elaborated on the power of an image and narratives as vital tools in the protest against injustice.
In conclusion, storytelling is important not because it allows the media to sensationalize a horrendous crime, but because it allows survivors to define the crime in their own words and to ultimately set themselves on the path to freedom. Therefore, it is crucial that we, as advocates, do not end up abusing the narrative to obtain some goal we have deemed worthy. Telling the story for survivors further keeps them in a situation of dependency. Allowing them to share their experiences in their own way, at their own pace, leads to empowerment and to a future of no exploitation for them.