Lauren Hersh: Interview with a uniter

Posted by on June 6, 2017 in Spotlight

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Lauren Hersh is the national director of World Without Exploitation, a coalition to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation. WorldWE is coming together to create a world where no person is bought, sold, or exploited. Lauren is an internationally recognized lawyer, activist, educator, and writer working to combat violence against women and girls in schools, online, and in the legal arena. 

We asked Lauren why World Without Exploitation was founded and how she unites so many different organizations around one vision.

Q. What is the main thing that World Without Exploitation hopes to accomplish?

WorldWE was founded because we recognized that if we really wanted to create a world where no one was bought, sold, or exploited, we needed to come together. Around the country there is so much good work happening. But the reality is, if I were in Ohio, and you’re in Boston, I likely wouldn’t know that your work was happening, and you wouldn’t know that my work was happening. We were very often reinventing the wheel. We recognized that when we come together and join forces, we’re infinitely more powerful. So, we wanted to be able to leverage those partnerships to speak in a collective voice, in some respects, and then celebrate individuals’ voices on other fronts.

We want people to be marching in the same direction, but we want to celebrate that one group may march forward by providing opportunities for survivor leadership; one group may focus exclusively on demand; one group may be working on the intersection between labor and sexual exploitation. Everybody can and should be doing the thing they’re best at.

If we want to move the needle on culture around human trafficking and sexual exploitation, we can’t just have a messaging strategy, we can’t just shape policy, we can’t just deliver direct services. All those pieces have to work in tandem, exerting pressure on different pieces of the equation. We’re most powerful when we are a united front rather than working in silos.

Q. All these organizations in WorldWE have different mission statements, so how do you unite these groups around a common vision?

At times, this part can be complicated because different people and organizations have different priorities; and they are tackling this complex issue from many different perspectives. But what we are seeing is that we don’t all need to have the exact same methods of combatting exploitation to be incredibly effective. When our overarching priorities all point the same way, different strengths and different strategies can be a powerful thing. Specifically, when direct service providers, policy experts, and communications strategists are all listening to one another and working together, we are infinitely more impactful. We have brought together folks who work on labor trafficking and sexual exploitation because we understand that we need to be working together to eliminate the conditions of vulnerability that enable all exploitation to exist.

There are some areas of complete consensus. We know that if we want to be successful, we must have survivors at every level of leadership. We need to be listening not just to survivors’ important stories, but their keen insight into policy, direct services and messaging. We know that we won’t end sexual exploitation until we end the demand for prostitution. We recognize there can be no social justice without social services, so we’re working to ensure that all survivors of labor trafficking and the sex trade have the comprehensive support they need to exit exploitative systems and rebuild their lives. Adults and children who have been trafficked or sexually exploited should be treated as victims of a crime, not as criminals themselves.

Q. Tell me about some of the successes you’ve had at World Without Exploitation. What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the fact that we have this coalition at all! A relatively small number of people came together around a shared need and vision. We worked intensively, on top of our day jobs, to bring this movement into existence. We were determined to bring partners from across the political spectrum together, which in today’s politically polarized climate feels more necessary than ever. We launched in October, 2016 in Washington, DC, so we are early on.  But I think our greatest success has been bringing 75 organizations from around the country together to leverage partnerships, to learn from one another, and to collectively move the needle to end exploitation in the national and state arena. We are committed to listening to—and learning from—survivors, and we’re proud that we  have mechanisms in place to amplify survivor voices through our website, social media, and other communication vehicles.

Q. What is your personal journey? How did you get to where you are today?

It’s been a long and winding road. I started my legal career prosecuting gender violence, including domestic violence and sexual violence cases. Then, by accident, I stumbled on human trafficking cases at a time when people really weren’t talking about trafficking.

A domestic violence case came in and I couldn’t make any headway with the victim. She was totally traumatized, didn’t make eye contact, and every answer she gave me was one word. I was making all these assumptions about who she was and her situation, based on the police paperwork. I took a break from my interview with her because I couldn’t make any progress. When I stepped away and thought about her, I began to wonder if there was more to the story. I thought maybe the reason I wasn’t making headway with her is that I wasn’t asking the right questions and I was making assumptions about who her abuser was. When I went back to the interview room later and asked her more open-ended questions, it turned out that her abuser—who I had been calling her boyfriend—was also her trafficker.

I realized that, if I missed this situation that was right in front of me, I was pretty sure that I had missed these situations many times before while interviewing victims. I believed there were probably a lot of other trafficking victims out there who were going unidentified, and their exploiters unprosecuted. That’s when I went up to the organized crime unit at the district attorney’s office and asked them if I could try to work these cases. Eventually I created one of the country’s first trafficking units at a state prosecutor’s office. I learned a ton from listening to survivor narratives. The survivors I worked with really guided my thinking. From there, I left the DA’s office to work in the advocacy sphere.

Q. When people ask you how they can be involved, what do you say?

We’d love for people to become educated: learn about our work, share our work, read the survivor narrativessign the pledge on our website, follow us on social media, become involved in one of our member organizations, advocate locally for policies and services that support survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation—and also that end demand—as well as to invite us to come in and help educate your organizations.

We may have a policy issue that comes up that we’re asking people to get involved in, whether that means signing a petition, writing a letter, sending a tweet, or making a phone call. There are lots of legislative initiatives that are going on that WorldWE is very often asking our network to be a part of. We’re trying to exert pressure on the federal level and on the state level.

If we’re really going to move this needle, of course we need to do it on the policy front, but we also desperately need to change the culture that normalizes and accepts exploitation of human beings, particularly sexual exploitation. We’re in the process of doing a lot of messaging around the country. That piece is really important. If we’re going to make a dent, we’ll need to change hearts and minds on these issues.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Demand Abolition.

About the Spotlight Series
Across the world, people are doing powerful, innovative work to end prostitution and sex trafficking. Our Spotlight Series of blog posts features leaders in the anti-demand and abolitionist movements. We want to showcase these essential contributions to the fight against sexual abuse. The idea is simple: we’ll be asking people a few questions and publish their verbatim responses.

Read more in our Spotlight Series: Leaders in the Movement »

Do you know someone we should interview? Are there any questions you’d like us to ask? Please send your ideas to communications@demandabolition.org.