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Learning from the Experts: An Update on the National Survivor Study

Survivors of sex and labor trafficking are the real experts in the anti-trafficking movement. That’s why Polaris’s National Survivor Study (NSS) intentionally flips the traditional dynamics of research projects done on a community and instead aims to work with survivors as true partners.

Polaris is already seeing the benefits. Although the NSS is still underway, survivors have taught us invaluable lessons about what it means to center their voices and expertise in this project and in anti-trafficking work more broadly. As data collection and analysis continue, Polaris is eager to pass what we have learned along the way on to others who are interested.

Putting Principles into Practice

Polaris has long believed in the importance of centering survivors. With survivors as research team members and participants in the NSS, we had the chance to make good on this commitment, adapting the study in response to their input. At the broadest level, we learned that listening to the community requires flexibility and often demands more time, effort, and resources than typical research studies allow. For example, we expanded our original plan for Community Advisory Group meetings of survivor consultants to include one-on-one meetings with a survivor who only speaks Mandarin and offers an important and rarely represented perspective.

Polaris has also learned more about how to meaningfully engage survivors. Beyond asking for review of project materials, we must include them in leadership roles in strategy, outreach, and research for better results. In the NSS, for instance, our Community Advisory Group rewrote our initial outreach video script from a survivor perspective, making for a more effective recruitment tool and a better testament to survivor partnership. And in response to survivor feedback, we changed focus group facilitators from ally research team members to survivors themselves, creating a better environment of trust and empathy.

Finally, being survivor centered also means being willing to have our good intentions corrected. Conscious of safety issues and potential triggers, Polaris built in confidentiality provisions, considered what questions were appropriate, and took other protective measures. Although these are important, survivors taught us not to assume what they want or need but to give them the respect and autonomy to make their own choices about how they want to participate. For the sake of survivors and the research they’re supporting, it’s important to them to share their truths, even if it means asking and answering hard questions.

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Celebrating Early Impact 

As we learned these lessons, Polaris also saw some unexpected outcomes. Notably, the NSS has enabled Polaris to build trust with multiple communities. First and foremost, we have built trust with survivors and their communities – instead of an impersonal and sometimes even harmful research process, survivors have shared about how different the NSS feels and how excited they are to participate. At the same time, we haven’t compromised on scientific rigor – the NSS has also built trust with academics and researchers, proving Polaris’s ability to run such a project and confirming the necessity of community engagement in high-quality research. 

Moreover, although the NSS was not designed as a direct-service project, it has provided vital support to survivors. Participants have told us that they value the personal connections they’ve built, whether meeting other survivors in focus groups, receiving peer support, or talking to our research team. Some have experienced healing within the safe group spaces that survivors created. And many are taking paid opportunities for gaining research and consulting experience with Polaris, which not only improves the study but also helps their professional development.

Finally, Polaris has started to apply NSS learnings to our other programs, including improving outreach for the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and deepening survivor engagement in our advocacy and communications. And we hope that other anti-trafficking efforts will benefit from our learnings in similar ways.

Read the full brief to learn more about how we have adapted the NSS in partnership with survivors. You can also review some preliminary findings from survivors about meaningful engagement in research and service access challenges

In the 20 years since Polaris’s founding, survivors have taught us so much. And we’ll continue to learn from them through the NSS and beyond in the years to come.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.