I believe in learning lessons that are daily reminders of something that either one has not contemplated or a lesson that has been ignored and needs to be re-framed, re-examined and put to use. At a presentation a few days ago I was speaking to a group of people, men, women, and even children, who actually came out on a Saturday evening to discuss what trafficking would mean in their world.  As I spoke about vulnerabilities, I observed a woman and her adolescent daughter sitting next to each other.  They simultaneously reached out to one another, raised their hands ever so slightly, and then held on …ever so comfortably. This happened three other times and the message was strong. Safety.

My thoughts almost instantly were about how safety is a fundamental and persistent need for re-assurance that victims have both a physical and psychological need to continually be shown, talked to about, and be reassured of this for a long time.

As I watched the mother and daughter, I knew right away that there was another lesson to be learned. 

I immediately started to think about those working in anti- trafficking.  A field where human trafficking is ill defined and thought to exist only in a third World County, where support systems are often non-existent and unavailable, and where public attitudes confuse the victim with the offender.  

I thought of the workers and volunteers who inwardly share an extraordinary compassionate point of view.  Yet, their depth of compassion makes them more vulnerable to emotional exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and even isolation from those around you not in this particular field.   I was reminded again that those of us working in this field also need a safety net.  We need access to a strong support system and need to be reminded about such things as vicarious trauma and the importance of taking time for ourselves.

Vicarious trauma means that there needs to be attention to the trauma triggers that each of us share from situations and stories that even those closest to us will never know or maybe even hear. We know that the vivid stories we hear are recessed somewhere in our subconscious brain.  Yet, we usually don’t take time to think about how they may be affecting our lives and the self-care practices we should be doing.

We need to revisit those self-care practices that we probably have neglected and discarded.  I call those “I USED TO…” practices, probably borrowed from a police counselor who would ask the questions, “What do you like to do, outside of work?”  It is easy enough to list activities such as exercise, read, meditate, self-reflection, journal, golf, fish, etc.   The problem occurs when asked when was the last time you actually did these on a regular basis?  Most of our responses would be “I used to….” Those activities, which had such meaning at one time maybe, are parked in the back place. No longer in the ballpark, you know, the place where we used to love to go and pay attention to a GAME.
As organizations we need to ask ourselves if we are providing a support system for anti-trafficking workers and volunteers.  Are we offering continuing education?  Are we initiating opportunities for collaboration, because we are more powerful when we work together as a team?   Are we documenting best practices and putting them into writing?  Do we have strategies in place that focus on the well being of our workers and volunteers? Including free counseling, because “no one gets to take a vacation from the reality of working in the human trafficking field.”  Sometimes we just need someone to listen to help convince us that the whole world is not one of really horrible things happening everywhere.  

For myself, this learning lesson caught this time around.  I want to keep it alive on the agenda of the Task Force and find ways to seek out relief and support for those in the movement for the “long haul”. I will remember the visualization of the hands joining together and the unspoken words implying safety.  

Jane P. White is the Director and Founder of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University.