Understanding Human Trafficking

The stories of trafficking survivors provide deep personal expressions that, along with scholarly research, foster an engaged understanding of the causes and issues in human trafficking.

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We are collecting the narratives of sex-trafficking survivors to build a multitier web site that integrates these powerful personal experiences with scholarly research to foster an engaged understanding of the causes and issues in human trafficking. As a form of interactive documentary, our project is committed to answering the question: how do multimedia artistic narratives intersect with information resources to build empathy that promotes the power to change the cultural landscape? Narratives and databases are most often created without considering how the two might augment and assist each other in creating a more effective form of communication.

Currently, we have forty narratives of sex-trafficking survivors, six of which were edited, filmed, and presented as part of an art and performance installation called Stories in Blue: A Pilgrimage to Heal Human Trafficking that premiered in the Fall of 2016.

These six narratives form the basis of our continued research into sex trafficking in the United States. Originally performed both live and on film, these stories are incredibly true narrative testimonies that deserve broad dissemination.

The majority of web-based material on human trafficking is presented as text and data. The humanizing aspect, the power of stories, is missing. Jonathan Gottschall in his seminal book The Storytelling Animal discovers stories to be flight simulators for the human mind or places where we can practice being human so that we might better understand and intermingle with our world, even in its most terrible atrocities such as human trafficking. “Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end.” (p. 122) We must learn methods for tapping into this power of story in order to create the empathy and education necessary to empower real and lasting change in our reality.

If you would like to see the current site that was created for the project, you may find it at Stories in Blue.

Kevin Bales wrote in his book Understanding Global Slavery:

“It is my hope that this book will be used as a toolbox. If we want to end slavery, we have to understand it, and that will take thousands of us thinking, imagining, collecting information, analyzing it, and building answers.” (p. 23)

The same is true for Stories in Blue. We are creating a toolbox for contributions of stories, issues, and resources so that we can truly build answers.

A difficult and baffling aspect of human trafficking is its evolutionary adaptation to changes in the law. Pushing back against this nebulous marketplace requires many hands on deck to study its many variations and to communicate effectively about those changes. For example, during our research on backpage.com, the government had shut down the adult ads section that, in reality, was a form of a human trafficking marketplace. Yet, just days later the entirety of that section had morphed and moved to the full legal "women seeking men" and "men seeking women" portion of the site. Even more disturbing is that a self-published trafficking textbook titled How to Be a Pimp advises, “always gotta change your tactics, always gotta be changing”.

This continual change makes developing an engaging and sustainable website on human trafficking incredibly difficult. Our site will lead people on a journey through human trafficking via thematic pathways rooted in the stories of survivors. Along those paths will exist branches that integrate curated scholarship surrounding that specific theme. Among the themes are addictions, poverty (including psychological poverty), childhood trauma, and more.

Ancillary to the site will be an idea board where users can browse research topics for further exploration and pose new possibilities; the idea board also serves as a placeholder for the project team to park ideas for future versions of the site. We will promote the idea board as a resource for other faculty and students to pursue different avenues of investigation in human trafficking. A third layer to the site will provide an interactive database of governmental and non-governmental resources available across the United States.

The outcome of Stories in Blue will have wide reach through the emotional impact of storytelling and the delivery of educational resources and tools. As we weave this material together we seek to uncover approaches that blend narrative, documentary, scholarship, and reference materials into an intentionally new form of digital text. Our collaborative model where multiple professors and students are working on the project as scholarship present an opportunity where we all simultaneously learn new skills from each other. As the project creator, I have the opportunity to teach and learn through the building of this project. And finally, in the end, we will have a beautifully communicative and sustainable site that will continue to be developed by scholars and storytellers across the spectrum, resulting in an excellent tool for understanding and fighting human trafficking.—Stephanie Sandberg

Verbatim Theatre

Sometimes called ethnographic or documentary theatre, verbatim theatre is a form of script and performance that is rooted in the actual words spoken by people. A playwright interviews a series of individuals, based on either an issue or an event, transcribes the interviews with great detail, and then weaves those interviews into a script. With Stories in Blue, the issue focused on is sex trafficking so I interviewed forty-four survivors who were willing to tell their stories and answer questions. These interviews generated more than three-hundred pages of transcripts that were carefully coded for content. From that point, I chose six of the stories to focus on, representing the diversity of the narratives collected. In working directly with each survivor, I then edited her story into a performance text that rendered a complete representation of the survivor that was approved by her. In this case, I was creating an artistic rendering of the stories, using each survivor’s language as a map of her reality.—Stephanie Sandberg

Our Team

Understanding Human Trafficking is developed by facutly, students, and staff at Washington and Lee University.

Stephanie Sandberg, PhD, (Project Director) Assistant Professor of Theater and Film Studies

Jeff Barry, Associate Professor and Associate Univeristy Librarian

Mackenzie Brooks, Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian

Brandon Bucy, Senior Academic Technologist

David Pfaff, IQ Center Academic Technologist

Catherine (Cat) Spencer, Research Assistant, Washington and Lee, Class of 2020

Elizabeth Teaff, Assistant Professor and Head of Access Services

More soon!

We will be updating this site throughout the summer of 2017. Join our mailing list to get a monthly update on the project.