Online platform as bridges
Today, I had a long conversation with Stella Marr, a survivor of sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation about a project we have called Freedom Connect. Freedom Connect is a project we started a couple years ago, as an experiment in creating a small social networking space specific to activists and survivors against human trafficking. It slowed down due to lack of capacity on our end, however Stella Marr is the reason for its revival and now thriving e-community of survivors. Stella calls this platform a “virtual club house and safe house where survivors can be themselves…it’s something we all had been wanting for years, but it didn’t exist until Survivors Connect provided us the platform to find each other and speak out.” Stella also explains that this is a leaderless network, not guided by any particular political agenda beyond being a space to connect with other survivors.
Before a survivor can join, Stella is sent a membership request, and she initiates a Skype or phone conversation with the individual to learn more about them, their background (to ensure it is not a pimp or other untrustworthy individual wanting access) and learn about her individual goals, after which she is made a member. Survivors from the Philippines, Ireland, UK, Canada and others have signed up to join and they are Skyping, blogging, commenting on each other’s blogs, tweeting are engaging in really interesting and unique ways.
From this online community-building project, I have learned a lot of key lessons in organizing:
1. A community is a group of people that have something in common, which brings them together. I know this sounds obvious, the point is, you cannot necessarily force a community to assemble where there isn’t one. We originally conceptualized Freedom Connect to be a space where people could come together to connect with other activists, regardless of organizational affiliation, but that did not happen. One of the problems here is that anti-trafficking organizations often are not so great at collaborating, and like to retain activists (and survivors for that matter) as “their” people and be a main point of contact for them for information and resources for activism. Survivors like Stella, as well as several others have told me time and again that they have had immense difficulty in getting connected to survivors. A need was born, and so was a community. Freedom Connect is exactly what it needs to be – a networking space for survivors.
2. Keeping a Community together means respecting member’s opinions, emotions, and experiences. All current members have come from various walks of life and experiences. Some survivors have been supported by other larger anti-trafficking organizations, where they received rescue/rehabilitation services, while others escaped or became survivors “on their own.” Whatever the experience is, opinions should respected, and in an online community, people will respect and continue to utilize the space if that value is evidently practiced.
3. Empower your members: I’ve noticed over the years that cause-specific organizing in anti-trafficking is sometimes organizationally centered as opposed to issue centered. Meaning that specific non-profits will take the lead in launching campaigns which revolve around the organization’s brand, and activists often follow (and survivors’ stories embedded to fit the script). This is about brand-building, and the brand builders have an easier time with fundraising than those who don’t. With campaign and organizing tools readily available, the economy of “content generation” had democratized and we can find really compelling interesting perspectives told without organizations, campaigns or brands. This is what all the members at Survivors Connect are doing. I think that in the future, the survivors of this network may come together to create a clear call to action without having a formal 501c3 organization behind it. This online tool may help in leveling the playing field between non-profits and individual survivors creating the discourse of the anti-trafficking movement.