7 Things Survivor Leaders Want You To Know

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Today on the blog, we have the pleasure of hearing from Anna Ptak. Anna is an Overcomer of trafficking in the United States. She is an international public speaker who uses her voice to help create policy change in the trafficking realm. We admit that, while we try our best, we are not experts when it comes to telling stories of survivors. We're grateful to have Anna as an excellent resource for us to learn how we can communicate their stories and respect their humanity without re-exploiting them. We hope you'll lean in and listen as we are continuing to do in an effort to understand the complexity of this issue and honor those involved. 


I have been speaking publicly about human trafficking for over 6 years. When I first began speaking, I was constantly being asked to speak and share my story. At the time, I was very comfortable with these requests. I enjoyed the ability to speak and share my skills on a larger platform. What I realized later was that there is not much skill in sharing my story. My story is something that will always be apart of me. However, what I failed to realize was that "my story" was very quickly becoming my entire identity.  As I saw a pattern in the interactions and requests, I realized that I share part of the responsibility for changing the perspective of others to see survivors as leaders instead of victims. Here are seven helpful tips for ensuring that you are treating survivors as leaders. 

1) Don't pay survivors less than you pay other speakers 

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I have been asked many times to speak at an event only to realize later that I was paid less than other speakers because I was not seen as an expert but was told that I was a crucial part of their event. Once I spoke at an event that raised almost $100k, but they said they could not pay me. At that point I did not know how to advocate for myself. Now, I have a speakers’ contract that I have the hosts fill out ahead of time with my payment guidelines. If you can afford to pay other speakers, you can afford to pay survivors! I know that some organizations truly cannot afford to pay survivors because they are a new business or trying to get funding. I ask you to consider offering a gift card. If there is absolutely no way that you can pay a survivor speaking, explain the reason why in a way that makes sense to them given their stage in recovery. Paying survivors less than other speakers can be a form of re-exploitation.

"I failed to realize that "my story" was very quickly becoming my entire identity.  As I saw a pattern in the interactions and requests, I realized that I share part of the responsibility for changing the perspective of others to see survivors as leaders instead of victims."

2) Use caution with questions that you ask!

On my contract I have a list of questions that you are not allowed to ask me in any form, period. A few questions that I will not answer are “What does it feel like to get trafficked?”, “How many men were involved?”, “What did it feel like to get raped?” Some of you may know immediately these are inappropriate questions and wonder why someone would feel comfortable asking such invasive questions. The unfortunate truth is that I was asked these questions quite often before I changed my contract.

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3) Recognize that survivors are more than their story

It can be frustrating to only be viewed or appreciated for your story. When I started networking, I would mention my professional skills in law and policy. After hearing their excitement about my professional skills I would look forward to how I could help their organizations. To my disappointment, many were only interested in hearing my story and telling me how powerful it was. If you have survivors only sharing what happened to them you are inadvertently treating like a pimp. Dressember has a done a great job with treating me as an expert, so if you ever have questions ask myself or them! 

4) If you work in the Anti-Trafficking world, consider adding a survivor to your board.

Although many survivors I know love speaking publicly about various topics, there are some who prefer to serve in the background. Throughout my career, I have sat on several advisory boards and am excited that I will be added to two more this year! I truly believe that board members should consist of both survivors and non-survivors because both perspectives are invaluable. In my pre-law classes, my professor said one of the most important skills is being able to see the value in all opinions. She was right. 

5) Acknowledge that there is value in every story

I can’t tell you how many times people have expressed disappointment after hearing my story because they didn’t feel it was dramatic enough. I have noticed that several events want someone to speak who was kidnapped or kept against their will to please their audiences. Failure to communicate human trafficking in a realistic way prevents us from recognizing survivors and understanding what it actually looks like. I also see a lot of emphasis on the topic of sex trafficking, but very little discussion about labor trafficking. In case you are unaware, the transatlantic slave trade was a form of labor trafficking, making labor trafficking just as significant as sex trafficking. At the end of the day, enslaving and exploiting anyone is unacceptable and needs to be talked about.

"Failure to communicate human trafficking in a realistic way prevents us from recognizing survivors and understanding what it actually looks like."

6) Don’t only focus on the survivor’s past experience.

I am asked often to share what happened to me. I am often never asked to talk about my recovery. It took a lot of hard work to get me to where I am now. I have participated in years of counseling, went through a restoration program and still continue self-care to this day. These experiences can help someone in your audience that may wonder how they can progress in their own healing. 

7) Do everything you can not to use pictures and stories without consent.

It is inevitable that our stories will be used in presentations and in the media without our consent. However, it can easily be viewed as re-exploitation. I was attending a conference a few years ago, where I was in the front row observing a panel about human trafficking. In a presentation, the speaker switched to a slide with my face from a publication they were openly criticizing. I sat in shock, as a panelist that I knew quickly made the speaker skip to the next slide. I was shattered and felt so betrayed. Another time a video of my story was used at a conference without my permission that was ironically about preventing re-exploitation. I had no idea my story was used until a colleague told me about it, nor was I paid for my story. Nowadays if this happens it doesn’t affect me as much since I am further along in my healing, however, it does not make it acceptable. Just like people avoid plagiarism, you need to make sure you either have permission to use our photos and story, or are speaking about it positively. This situation can be re-traumatizing to a survivor that is early on in their recovery. 

I hope this blog post helps you see where you could strengthen your ability to help survivors thrive as leaders. No organization or person is perfect, but if you have a heart for change, these suggestions are easily obtainable. 


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About the Author

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Anna Ptak is currently an international public speaker as well as an Overcomer and policy consultant in the movement to end Human Trafficking. In her spare time, Anna loves spending time with her husband, and their adorable puppy, Liam Alexander.