Bright Spot: Minneapolis, MN | Survivor Advisory Committee

September 25, 2019

Engage youth in advocacy and policy-making at the project, local, state and national levels.

Check out this Bright Spot if…

  • You serve youth survivors of human or sex trafficking/exploitation
  • Your street outreach team wants to identify more youth survivors of trafficking
  • You want to meaningfully include the experiences of youth survivors of trafficking in plans to end youth homelessness
  • You want to try it!

Strategies for Working with youth survivors of sex trafficking

  • Even more so than with the general population, providers wishing to service youth survivors of human trafficking must adopt harm-reduction principles. Other recommended models include: trauma-informed care, positive youth development, and Victim, Survivor, Leader models.
  • When considering adult staffing, hire a mix of adults with lived experience and adults without lived experienced.
  • The value of mentorship of youth from adult survivors is powerful, and can influence how youth make plans to sustain their well-being and housing after exit from trafficking.
  • Most importantly, establish an action board or advisory committee of youth survivors/victims of sex trafficking to inform every decision that is made. The Link calls their group a Survivor Advisory Board.


The Link’s Safe Harbor Programs are in partnership with the state of Minnesota Safe Harbor/No Wrong Door Response. All are grounded in the best practices for working with sexually exploited youth, including trauma-informed care, harm reduction, positive youth development, Victim, Survivor, Leader model, and culturally inclusive services.

The Link’s work with youth survivors of human trafficking started small. Shelter staff noticed that many youth in the shelter were involved in sex trafficking and that “Johns” and pimps would pick youth up directly from the shelter. The staff knew they had to do something to address it, but didn’t have the funding, licensure, or time to develop another shelter or specialized program. So in 2004, they started with a response they could manage with the resources they had: a street outreach team dedicated to serving youth involved in sex trafficking. The team assembled a Survivor Advisory Committee to inform their outreach strategy and set to work. 

As the outreach team demonstrated more and more success in engaging youth, funding for an emergency shelter for trafficked youth followed. The Link shelter provides beds for youth ages 13 to 17 and housing for youth ages 16 to 24 who have been victims of sex trafficking. The shelter is inclusive of all gender identities and has the capacity to serve parenting youth. 

The Link’s ability to provide services to youth experiencing sex trafficking and homelessness has grown as a result of their bias toward action and willingness to start with the resources they had. Their efforts led to the passage of state law in 2011 and 2014: Safe Harbor and No Wrong Door. The law ensures that youth who engage in prostitution are viewed as victims and survivors, not criminals. The law further provides resources and services for sexually exploited youth including regional navigators, housing and shelter, comprehensive services, and training and protocol development.

Key Action: Recruit youth for a survivor advisory committee

The Link’s strategy for recruiting young people to the Survivor Advisory Committee was simple. The Link staff developed a job description for paid, part-time positions to serve on the Survivor Advisory Committee and circulated it among youth in shelters, on the streets, in homeless programs, and through the street outreach team. Youth then circulated the opportunity among their network of peers. Interested youth went through a low-barrier application process before being invited to join the advisory committee.

Key action: support the survivor advisory committee

Survivor Advisory Committee members are paid part-time staff of The Link. The Committee currently comprises 8-16 youth members, an adult division director, and The Link’s executive director. The group meets twice a month, and the adult members hand out a calendar of meetings and other community events youth would be paid for attending. 

The Survivor Advisory Committee designs and implements programs for youth victims and survivors of sex trafficking, hire and interview project staff, evaluate program performance, and works on national social justice and anti-oppression work.

The Survivor Advisory Committee provided invaluable input into project design, especially when The Link was just getting started with their street outreach program. When the outreach team was having difficulty locating trafficked youth, the Committee advised them to change their hours of operation to times when youth were most likely to be streetwalking. The Committee also advised the outreach team of what supplies they should carry with them to distribute to victimized youth. The Committee’s feedback was crucial for the success of the project and for positively engaging young people experiencing exploitation.

In order to provide payment to youth for their time and expertise and to provide transportation assistance to Committee meetings, The Link writes in budget line items for youth staff members into several existing state, county, and private foundation grants they receive.

Fail Forward Moments

  • When finding partners for additional services, such as healthcare, it is important that the partner organization has been “vetted,” i.e. that the provider is accustomed and/or well-trained to treat victims of sex trafficking. The Link found, for example, that when they partnered with some medical providers, they asked invasive and judgmental questions that made the youth uncomfortable. To remedy this, The Link contracted for onsite services with a nurse from the local children’s hospital who had experience working with survivors of sex trafficking. The nurse also helped locate other medical professionals with a similar skill set.
  • The Link has learned to trust youth, especially when it comes to project design. When developing a shelter model, The Link’s adult staff did not want to part youth from their cell phones. By allowing youth their phones, the adult staff thought they were removing barriers to entry and showing trust in their shelter guests. The Link’s youth staff, however, were adamant that no cell phones should be allowed in the shelter because cell phones are often how youth find their clients, and serve as the connection between the youth and their pimp. To best facilitate an environment of peace and recovery, the youth staff developed policy banning the use of cell phones in the facility. 
  • Youth survivors of sex trafficking do not respond well to punitive measures and rules in projects designed to serve them. The Link uses incentive programming to foster positive behaviors and engagement in the program, rather than rejecting youth from the program for communicating with their pimp or for continuing drug use.
  • The youth sex trafficking landscape is constantly changing. It is not enough to conduct one focus group and use that as the basis for program design. Projects need to have an ongoing consultation process with youth survivors, especially with those youth currently or very recently involved in trafficking.