Anti-human TraffickingIn 2019, I did not think twice to begin working with a non-profit group, #NotInMyCity, leading anti-human trafficking movement in Alberta, Canada. I felt my 20+ years’ experience heading organizational culture and change initiatives had prepared me to engage in this complex and wicked problem. Although I had never participated directly in the non-profit sector, a colleague employed with #NotInMyCity felt my project and change management skills would benefit their program.  I did not know that the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (WAPA) would grant me the 2023 Praxis award on the basis of my contribution, which I accepted  in March 2024 at the Society for Applied Anthroplogy (SfAA) annual meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In Canada, official statistics of human trafficking rely on police-reported incidents that Statistics Canada collect. This official data cannot provide accurate estimates or the context of human trafficking. Data are quantitative and exclude many victims and survivors who do not report to police for several reasons: they fear their trafficker’s retaliation; distrust authorities like police; and hide themselves as victims, making it difficult to connect them to social services. In 2021, #NotInMyCity  proposed the Alberta Human Trafficking Data Portal project, aiming to bring together community-based data on human trafficking in a secure and useable way. They received a two-year provincial grant for this work.

As the project lead, I organized the data project into four phases which involved two iterations of academic and grey-literature reviews and community consultation, using survey tools, semi-structured interviews, and workshops.

Coincidentally, I had recently entered the applied anthropology master’s program at the University of North Texas and the design research on human trafficking became my thesis project. I completed my thesis under the advisement of Dr. Christina Wasson.

Together with a local data partner organization, #NotInMyCity conducted 21 interviews with law enforcement and non-profit agencies supporting victims and survivors of human trafficking. The interviews were designed to understand:

  • the current state of data sharing practices,
  • the culture of the community to enable cross-sector collaboration, and
  • the barriers to sharing data.

The project produced a prototype that, for the first time, brought together non-profit agency quantitative and qualitative human trafficking related data.

The biennial WAPA Praxis award recognizes projects demonstrating the application and value of an anthropological approach that includes methods and theory applied to challenges in the private and public sectors. Using an anthropological approach enabled me to analyze the data to create a new system to comprehend the trafficking challenge.

First, I prioritized the emic perspective. We needed to identify the many stakeholders in the anti-human trafficking ecosystem—and understand their perspectives—either through existing research or ethnography. Not all stakeholders were engaged in the project due to the funding timeline. Others might never reveal their involvement—like those purchasing services knowingly or unknowingly from trafficking victims. My thesis research revealed perspectives from various disciplines and anti-trafficking communities, including views on sex work, and the intersection with issues such as addictions and homelessness. By understanding this ecosystem, we were able to design a prototype that amplified voices equally. We also created a roadmap for future iterations of the prototype to address other parts of the ecosystem.

Second, anthropology’s ethical standards of “do no harm” but also “do some good” guided me in engaging Survivor Leaders in the design. I decided to engage Survivors when we had a concept to show them; the first to see the prototype. We would do more harm than good if we engaged Survivors in abstract and theoretical discussions about data and could not show them how we would represent them. The Survivor Leaders I spoke to agreed. Survivor Leaders provided critical feedback on the prototype and their feelings about the project, telling their story in a new way. For instance, instead of reporting clients as case numbers alone, for the first time, agencies shared the types of services they provided.

Lastly, an anthropological approach revealed underlying cultural logics among anti-human trafficking stakeholders—including the need for reciprocity to share data. The culture of the anti-human trafficking non-profit community is inherently competitive due to limited resources (i.e., the provincial government funded many of these stakeholders). A scarcity mindset and a lack of trust influenced their past adverse data sharing. I mapped out the current culture and defined the cultural attributes required to develop a collaborative data sharing community. This project initiated a move along that culture continuum.

I believe an anthropological perspective grounded in holism guided the success of this project. Prioritizing the emic perspectives; applying a human-centred design approach; identifying the ecosystem of stakeholders; and understanding the cultural logics helped to surface the many voices, concerns, and needs of the stakeholder community. This project introduced new data to law enforcement, non-profit groups, and government agencies supporting human trafficking victims and survivors. The data portal potential is still unfolding, but gives a new voice to victims and survivors about their needs and the funding most helpful to them.

About the Author: Natalie Muyres

Natalie Muyres
Natalie Muyres is an applied organizational and design anthropologist, consultant, project manager, and organizational change management professional in Calgary, Alberta. She works in the private and public sectors leading organizational culture and change initiatives including digital transformation and employee/customer experience. Natalie approaches her work with a human centred and systems lens, engaging all stakeholders in change. Passionate about the value of anthropology, Natalie aims to improve the familiarity of anthropology to organizations and business —and build an active professional anthropology community in Canada.