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Why Voluntad? Because Words Matter

Updated: May 13, 2021


/bolunˈtad/ feminine noun

Human ability to freely decide what is desired and what is not; 

Desire or intention, or thing that is desired: “they want everything done according to their will; they presented themself there by their own will; we must respect their will.”

Voluntad, What does this word mean? How is this word connected to the work we do?  How is this word connected to our thinking about human trafficking?  

If you have followed us or other anti-trafficking organizations over time, you might wonder why people with lived experience are sometimes referred to as “victims” and sometimes as “survivors.” In fact, the organizational evolution of Voluntad (formerly Street’s Hope) can be traced through some of the language used to describe our clients and our services. 

Here are definitions of words that describe aspects of the experience of human trafficking: 

VICTIM /ˈviktəm/ noun 

a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.

synonyms: sufferer, injured party, casualty, injured person, wounded person, loser

DIGNITY /ˈdiɡnədē/ noun

the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.

SAVE /sāv/ verb

keep safe or rescue (someone or something) from harm or danger.synonyms:

rescue, free, liberate, deliver, extricate, salvage, retrieve, reclaim

RES·CUE /ˈreskyo͞o/ verb

save (someone) from a dangerous or distressing situation. synonyms:save, save from danger, save the life of, come to the aid of, set free,free, release, liberate, extricate,, deliver, redeem, emancipate

RE·STORE /rəˈstôr/ verb

bring back; synonyms: reinstate, put back, replace, bring back, rehabilitate

ESCAPE /əˈskāp/ verb

break free from confinement or control.

A Journey of Transformation

Previously we professed to “restore women to a place of dignity,” implying that the state of being worthy had somehow been lost. To some, this language seemed to imply that clients were victims who needed the intervention of others to make them worthy of honor or respect; that they needed to be saved, perhaps from themselves, through a rehabilitative process.

Notice that the words rescue, save and restore are all verbs used to describe acts that someone does on behalf of another. How do you feel about this idea that our clients are people who have been saved or rescued from a state of unworthiness? 

For many years our mission statement said we served “adult women escaping the commercial sex industry.” The ideas above seem contrary to the idea of escape, which implies an act of breaking free from confinement or control. 

Surely the act of “escaping” requires will, strength and a belief in one’s own dignity that drives one to seek a different condition. Surely the act of escape is an act of survival. Is escape enough to guarantee survival? And what comes after?  

In the use of the words, concepts, and values connected to restore and escape, it seems as though Street’s Hope was unclear about whether clients were passive recipients of needed services, or individuals with agency, active determiners of a future free from trafficking.  Could they be both? 

SURVIVOR /sərˈvīvər/noun: survivor plural noun: survivors

a person who survives.

SUR·VI·VOR·SHIP /sərˈvīvərˌSHip/

the state or condition of being a survivor; survival.

Early Steps

In 2017, we recognized that using these words reflected a conflict and therefore a mixed message about our values. As a first step to clarity, we stopped using the word “escaping.”  This marked a recognition that the concept of escape did not adequately or wholly describe how a person is freed from exploitation and human trafficking. 

With these changes, we sought the input and voices of survivors as we made decisions about the organization’s mission and our program. We recognize the obligation to serve all people who have experienced any form of human trafficking, with the understanding that this organization should not go forward without the direct involvement of survivors, in capacities they choose. 

Early in 2018 we made a change to our mission statement, choosing to simply name who we served – people experiencing the effects of exploitation and human trafficking.  This change in words and values caused a change in the services offered and how they are delivered. We shifted to practices based on harm reduction, an evidence-based approach that supports client choice, while increasing safety and accountability. 

Moving Forward with Voluntad

In leaving behind some words and concepts, we focus on others. We focus on safety, survivorship, choice, agency, resilience, empowerment and inherent dignity. How do we connect these words and ideas to the services we provide to empower survivors? How can we stay present with them, always learning from them, as they experience their survivorship? And is it enough to survive, to be still standing, to exist in the state or condition of survival? Or does there need to be more? 

If you read the definition of voluntad closely, you see that it describes an ability. This ability is what we are focused on, going forward. 

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