Empowerment and Employment for Survivors of Human Trafficking

What’s the first thing that comes to mind if I say “human trafficking?” Is it equity, employee engagement, or workforce development? Probably not. 

You’re more likely to think about the estimated 24.9 million people being trafficked around the world. Or the myths about how most trafficking victims are lured—that they are usually kidnapped by strangers and are waiting to be “rescued.”

Most individuals who are sold, coerced, or tricked into trafficking situations are women of color, born into poverty, and have had less access to education, training, or the resources or connections that family members might bring. These are all equity issues, and traffickers exploit these vulnerabilities to ensnare their victims. How we tackle these issues to end human trafficking as a whole requires us to listen to survivors. 

Michael Tubbs, founder of End Poverty in California, has said that, when it comes to change, the “people closest to the problems and the stories are also closest to the solutions.” The US Department of Justice said the same, in its Human Trafficking Awareness Month statement. Time and again, people exiting trafficking situations tell me that they need skills and opportunities to find and keep family-sustaining employment. But how willing and prepared are we to provide it?

Since 2011, I have worked to answer this question through Love Never Fails, a national anti-human-trafficking organization I founded when one of my 15-year-old dance students was sold into human trafficking in the Bay Area. Love Never Fails engages with vulnerable populations, including trafficking survivors, with mentoring, education, housing, job training, and workforce development. We call our services “wraparound” because they address not only a survivor’s need for family-sustaining employment, but also the full range of resources and supports that people exiting trafficking need.

To learn more about their unique needs and how to meet them, we surveyed students in our ITBiz Tech Academy—a Cisco Networking Academy and California certified CyberSecurity and Networking Pre-Apprenticeship program. Students identified an astounding 114 specific internal and external barriers that they may face when trying to enter the workforce. 

These barriers range from family dynamics—like divorce, foster care, and child custody—to trauma—like fear of people, fear of success, or being trauma-bonded to an abuser. There were also obstacles like hygiene, having a car but no gas money or insurance, experiencing homelessness, gaps in work history, food scarcity, or justice system involvement. 

In most cases, students were experiencing multiple barriers at once. Both seen and unseen, these barriers are debilitating if left unaddressed and make it exponentially more difficult to obtain stability and sustainable employment.

Each Love Never Fails program was developed with these barriers in mind. Our approach recognizes the unique experience of each survivor and holistically addresses their needs on their journey to safety and wholeness. For example, our ITBiz Tech Academy, launched only four years ago, has already educated 500+ students from underserved communities and helped them obtain family-sustaining careers throughout the nation.  Many of our ITBiz graduates receive paid apprenticeships or placements, which have led to permanent positions. 

We attribute the program’s success to the fact that Love Never Fails doesn’t just train our students for a job. We provide education and training alongside a host of other resources like housing, clothing, and emotional support, so that people can have a safe and stable environment in which to transform their lives—inside and out. 

But we cannot provide this essential breadth of services without the support of funders who understand that a job alone does not change a life. Funders must acknowledge and be prepared to commit long-term financial resources to organizations like Love Never Fails and other nonprofits, who provide comprehensive, holistic, and individualized support for survivors. All of which is critical to ensuring that when businesses create opportunities for training and family-sustaining employment, survivors are empowered to seize them.

“Our partnerships with non-profit organizations like Love Never Fails and the OneTen Coalition,” says Aleta Howell, Director DEI - Business & People Growth Strategy, “allow Cisco to play an active role in supporting hands-on training and creating paths to family-sustaining wage careers for under-served communities.”

With critical support from donors, Love Never Fails is able to partner with entities including OneTen, Cisco Systems and Google. OneTen, which aims to hire, promote and advance one million Black individuals who do not have a four-year degree into family-sustaining careers, has given our graduates an employment platform, and a pathway to employers across sectors.

Our technology employment partners are building a diverse digital workforce – and many of our graduates have landed positions as Cisco Certified Technicians, Google Project Managers, and AGILE Scrum Masters. "Talent is equally distributed but opportunity is not. Together, we can change that," Laura Quintana, vice president and general manager of Cisco Networking Academy says. 

Working to address the barriers to employment for vulnerable communities is an opportunity to confront our own assumptions and biases, and begin reconstructing how we think about family-sustaining employment, and the workplace. For example, our most successful job training program is focused on tech and cybersecurity because survivors of human trafficking are well-suited for the tech industry.

The mindset of a survivor—someone who has been constantly confronted with danger and yet managed to navigate her way through endless scenarios to survive—has the kind of thinking required to strategize solutions to, and prepare for, potential cyberattacks long before they occur. Viewed this way, the barriers can be a guide to building adaptive work plans and developing resources that support any employees who may be experiencing them. 

We must be intentional in our efforts to support survivors and their communities. We must realize the connection between equity, opportunity, and a person’s ability to find and keep family-sustaining work. We must be willing to make the financial and structural investments required to transform our workplaces in ways that can accommodate all workers in sustaining ways. We must listen when survivors tell us what they need, and step up to the challenge of providing it. 

Empowerment and employment is where the rubber meets the road.

Vanessa Russell is the Founding Executive Director of Love Never Fails (www.loveneverfailsus.com), a national anti-trafficking organization that provides housing, workforce development, and prevention education for and with survivors of human trafficking.  Love Never Fails is a California certified Cybersecurity and Networking Pre-apprenticeship program, Cisco Networking Academy and Department of Rehabilitation program.

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This content was paid for by The James Irvine Foundation and created by Love Never Fails. The editorial staff at The Chronicle had no role in its preparation. Find out more about paid content.