Community-Centered Work Requires Trust from Funders

Community-centered work requires trust to receive funding

LifeWay Network envisions a world in which human trafficking is abolished and every survivor is strong, connected, and free. Centering the unique needs of the women we serve is a core tenet of our work of changing the futures of survivors through our Safe Housing Program and increasing awareness through our Education Program. We’re now watching with interest as philanthropy seems to be warming to this idea—but in practice, we’re bumping up against familiar funding barriers.

As LifeWay’s CEO, a woman of color with lived experience of trauma, I still need to listen to individual survivors to know what they need to heal. Our model is highly effective but at odds with an inflexible funding system that often prescribes a single limited approach. In the interest of maintaining outstanding outcomes for the women who rely on us, we’ve had to forgo funding—particularly government funding—that would have hampered our ability to deliver what our clients need.

Centering survivors requires flexible support and long-term resources, which isn’t the way most giving happens. But when funders do honor the self-determination of survivors by providing flexible support, we can change lives together. The power of community-centeredness drives impact and holds lessons for any funder ready to operate with trust and honor the autonomy of the people they wish to support.

Here are a few of the things we know first-hand from our work:

Giving agency to survivors is critical to healing. In our field, we spend a lot of time unpacking power dynamics and what it means to regain control over one’s life. One way we support the women who come to us is by listening to their individual needs and respecting their agency. For example, a survivor came to us who had no high school diploma or GED. She had a job, but it didn’t pay much. From the outside, it’s easy to say that once she’s safe, educational attainment should be her first priority so she could secure a higher-paying job. But for this woman, work was a great source of self-esteem. Keeping her job and fitting education around that was important to her personal sense of autonomy and stability.

Some women stay with us for a year, while others determine after six months that they are ready to move on; we support and respect those decisions. Those decisions shouldn’t be made by a funder; we need to spend money differently to support women in each of these scenarios.

Change doesn’t happen in isolation. Community living is a key element of our approach. The benefits of living in a community are often disregarded or de-prioritized in New York’s emergency shelter system—the only alternative for many of the women who reach us. Nor is New York unique in this regard. So many social issues—health, education, racial equity, housing—can’t be reduced to a per-person, per-program cost, yet many funding sources prioritize an approach to service delivery that is as standardized as possible. The fact is that adaptability and flexibility and customization align much better with the real-world complexities of addressing interconnected social challenges.

Our safe houses are designed for women to practice building relationships and setting healthy boundaries in a setting that feels like a home. They eat together, hang out in the living room, and catch up with one another after a day of work or school or practicing a hobby, building or rebuilding communication skills over shared meals and in shared spaces.

One woman who stayed with us had struggled to make connections but found that she and her roommate were able to bond by both speaking about their work experiences—even though they didn’t speak a shared language. Over time and by reading each other’s expressions and intonations, they were able to connect. This required time, space, and trust building that many grants or government contracts don’t provide for.

The “impact” of making a friend after escaping a life of abuse and isolation is immeasurable—and vital for healing and leading a life with meaningful human connection.

Recognizing survivors as experts in their own lives benefits everyone. Human trafficking is pervasive around the world and in all 50 U.S. states. There’s a lot of work we and others in the field are doing to expand awareness and education, and our own group of survivors is among the important credible messengers that we need. Some people mistakenly think that survivors of human trafficking or any kind of trauma are incapable of self-determination or of actualizing a future for themselves without us, as service providers and funders, creating a framework for them. But I see it happening all around me. We are here to support, to accompany, to guide, and to follow their lead.

As someone who has lived through trauma, I see how the women who come to LifeWay are able to be open with me, to accept me. We need credible messengers to advocate, create change, and end human trafficking.

One of our community members has a degree in fine arts, and though her time at our safe house is coming to an end, she’s hoping to stay connected by volunteering at our art and healing workshops. Her presence and her talents and experiences help create a safe space for other women.

Adaptability is key to impact. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing human trafficking or any other entrenched social issue, so the better we are able to adapt to the real person standing in front of us, the more successful we will be. Survivors come to us with a range of trauma care, education, mentorship, housing, and other interrelated needs, and it is because we are able to adapt to their needs that we’ve seen such positive results.

We’ve found that this personalized, long-term, survivor-directed approach enables women who are part of our LifeWay family to maintain housing after leaving us and that they are not being trafficked again or jailed as is the case with many trafficking survivors.

Many funders say they value the voices of the community members we serve. But the inflexible, restriction-heavy funding they offer us doesn’t reflect that. Our community is telling us and showing us that they need us to respond rapidly and flexibly. To do that, we need deep, multiyear support that’s free of restrictions, from funders who want to support the transformation of the lives of the women we serve. The women who come to us are here to make their lives better, and they know what they need. Philanthropic funders need to live up to their commitment to centering their voices and lived experiences.

Marion Kendall, M.Ed., MSW, is CEO of LifeWay Network. This was originally published on November 30, 2022, in Philanthropy News Digest