To blog

AnnJanette Alejano-Steele, Ph. D.
Research Director, The Colorado Project
LCHT Co-Founder and Board Chairperson
Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking

To blog. A foray into my brain and the spaces it is privileged to navigate. Cue: Chasing Pirates, Norah Jones:

My assignment this week is to reflect upon the start of my recent travels in relation to my work with the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. However, as I began this current journey, I realized that I needed some kind of “anchor” blog. Something eloquent and witty to set off a series of blogs; a starting point of some kind.

And it felt a little overwhelming. I must have started a handful of times. And true to the social scientist that I am, I did my due diligence and did some research.

Word length. Tone. Level of seriousness. What are these bloggers trying to convey? With the guidance of our communications expert, I read…many…many blogs.

And the anxiety increased ever so slightly.

Reading through the blogs, I got insight into the different ways in which people shared what was happening in their heads. Thoughts. Observations. Irritations. Passions. To consider this was to really think hard about the thoughts in my own brain and whether it was blog-worthy. Of course I overthought this.

I came to the realization that it’s rare that I think with one “hat.” And I’m fortunate to never really have to be in a position to think “alone.” The nature of the Laboratory is to mix ideas and perspectives; the work and thinking of my incredible colleagues informs one another. We’re fortunate to be able to think intentionally and critically about nuances of the anti-trafficking movement. So for me, to blog is not only to share what’s going on in my own head, but to honor and feature the influence of family, friends and countless colleagues on my thinking. I’ve been extremely lucky to engage in some poetically simple and fantastically complicated conversations related to human trafficking.

And then there’s the added challenge of the hats that my brain occupies.

Psychologist. Co-Founder. Academic. Victim Advocate. Feminist. Daughter. Partner. First-generation U.S. born Pacific Islander-American. Musician. Board Chair. Dog owner. Research and Training Director. Runner. Wanna-be oenophilist. Nerd.

To have the privilege of knowledge from these various hats also means that I get to reside in what we refer to as “spaces in between.” Each of us at LCHT not only see these spaces in ourselves personally, but we get to help translate and make those connections to encourage shared learning. So for me, it’s concretely navigating my two academic departments, psychology and women’s studies. Navigating music and dance worlds. Navigating U.S. and Filipino cultures. Navigating law enforcement and service providers. Navigating academe and nonprofit cultures.

Admittedly, there are times where those spaces are vast, the kind where I need to use my “outside voice.” And sometimes that feels lonely where I belong everywhere and nowhere. Residing in these spaces can be exhilarating, aggravating and downright humbling.


As I begin this formal foray into the blogosphere, I’ll share two consistent threads that will help to set my blog intentions: random observations and music cues. Maybe it’s my scientific training, my curious observant nature, but these two things usually happen all the time in my head. Not only am I always sensing, I’m usually noticing something out of the ordinary. Or annoying. Or inspirational or insightful.

And there’s usually some kind of music playing in there as well. A soundtrack to my brain, you might say; it’s always there in the background and sometimes I just have to focus to notice it. It’s usually rhythmic, or speaks to my mood or reflects the “metronome” of my brain activity. Like Norah Jones’ Chasing Pirates for this blog; it’s there rhythmically calm and yes, those pirates roll around in there everyday. Oh, every now and then there’s a distracting or intrusive earworm (thanks, Foster the People). My co-workers will tell you of my ever-present music distraction, however it also serves as an absolutely critical factor to my sustainability in this field.

But then that would be an entirely different blog.


First Research Steps: Formulating Questions and Refining Definitions

Authored by the Colorado Project Research Team

The Colorado Project to Comprehensively Combat Human Trafficking formally began with the hypothetical question:
“What would it take to end human trafficking?”

Over the years, the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) has spent time critically thinking about the complexity of this crime as it applies to our Rocky Mountain state. Because many of us in the Colorado anti-trafficking movement have reactively worked to fill the needs of survivors and first responders, we often did not have time to reflect upon the comprehensive nature of the crime, until Gayle Embrey posed this question in 2009.

For years, the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking has prided itself as a grassroots organization, grounded in community needs, history and voices. We are privileged with academic tools to help navigate challenging theoretical discussions; we have the collective experience of teaching the Human Trafficking course for eight semesters (at Metropolitan State College of Denver); and we have facilitated countless staff and intern discussions, encouraging critical thinking and awareness of privilege as we engage in this work. We draw upon our experiences of training approximately 12,000 first responders and community members, and we draw from our direct experiences with survivors as a member of the Human Trafficking Academic Response Team at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Over the last six years, we have occupied the “space in between” as we seek to bridge theory and practice; we are able to navigate and partner with many sectors, including: direct service providers, law enforcement, coalitions and academia.

Additionally, the Colorado Project to Comprehensively Combat Human Trafficking Project Team includes perspectives from: international studies, law, women’s studies, political science, sociology, psychology, social work, religion, communications and law enforcement. In this Project Brief, we openly share our experiences as a way to provide insight to the ways in which we very intentionally think about the anti-trafficking movement and undertake a project of this scope. We hope to take you through the first stages of research, starting with a refining of the original question, “What would it take to end human trafficking?” We honed down the question to focus on the communities we knew best—communities positioned along the front range of Colorado. Then, we posed this question:

How does Colorado address human trafficking through prevention, prosecution, protection, and partnerships?

The hardest part about designing a research project whose goal is to examine the preparedness of any particular state in the U.S. to deal with human trafficking, is figuring out how to comprehensively capture what human trafficking actually is. Because extreme labor exploitation occurs at the intersection of some of the most profound moral and ethical debates of our time (namely the regulation of sexuality and the regulation of migration), its very definition is rife with political, ideological and cultural meanings. The project’s name – the Colorado Project to Comprehensively Combat Human Trafficking (Colorado Project), implies that we must already know what “human trafficking” is. However, as
social science researchers trained in interdisciplinary feminist methodologies, our most important first steps involved questioning our assumptions and the assumptions of the anti-trafficking movement as a whole. For example, we have been mindful of historical framings of human trafficking as the unique experience of women and girls; the occurrence of non-commercial sex related labor trafficking relative to sex trafficking; and whether or not human trafficking should be approached as a crime or as a human rights abuse.

The United States government and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2008) have defined what human trafficking is, and they continue to address it as a social problem by creating initiatives and policy. Hence, this project started with these definitions and frameworks as guidelines from which to work, but we continue to question the motivations that drive the existing legal definitions and policy decisions. We have turned to the vast array of experts in the field whose experience as practitioners, academics, activists, persons who have been trafficked or are most vulnerable to trafficking, constituents and professionals in various affected industries, leads them to find weaknesses in the existing frameworks. Their collective wisdom has led the way toward a more comprehensive understanding of human trafficking.

In formulating our research statement, we knew we had to distinguish our project that gathers information about trafficking-related efforts in Colorado apart from an evaluation of these efforts. We chose our language to reflect this difference and crafted the following research statement: We are assessing the past and present anti-trafficking efforts in the state of Colorado because we want to know if and how the state addresses prevention, protection and prosecution of human trafficking in order to inform future anti-trafficking efforts. It has never been our goal to evaluate how well these efforts are working, which would be a near impossible undertaking given the overwhelming lack of data on this front, but rather what has been (or is being) done in comparison to “promising practices” throughout the country. Our goal is to highlight strengths and gaps (or areas that need attention) in Colorado. The hope is that this kind of comprehensive baseline overview will point the way for evaluative research in the future.

The research team agreed to approach this project using what is known as the “3P paradigm” of prevention, prosecution and protection (framed by the Palermo Protocol), as a starting place. We also agreed to build in contingencies in order to consider aspects outside that framework. As mentioned above, we are aware of the myriad complications and critiques that plague this movement, and while we did not want to blindly accept the 3P paradigm as the only way to see this issue, we also were cognizant of the fact that ten years of efforts on the part of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders around the globe could not be ignored. For example, in the United States, anti-trafficking funding streams are based upon the 3P paradigm and therefore it provides an excellent framework from which to begin our work. We turned to the following documents to inform our working definitions of “prevention”, “prosecution” and “protection”: the United Nations (2000) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Palermo Protocol); the 2000 U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA); the 2010
 U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report); the July 2006 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, “Human Trafficking: Better Data, Strategy, and Reporting Needed to Enhance U.S. Anti-trafficking Efforts Abroad” (2006 GAO Report); the 2008 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons” report (UNODC Toolkit); and the 2008 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report, “Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking” (OHCHR Report). The definitions we assembled for each of the “Ps” are directly informed by the way these entities understand these terms.

The final development at this definitional stage of the research process was the addition of a fourth “P” to the paradigm: “partnerships.” Although the 2010 TIP Report discusses the need for partnerships in these efforts, as an organization, we have long understood that all of the best and promising practices in the world will not provide positive outcomes without strong partnerships among a broad array of community members who share similar interests in addressing a social problem of this scope. For example, some of the most successful efforts to address trafficking in the U.S. have come from personal relationships between law enforcement and outreach workers, faith-based activists and refugee programs, victim service providers and policy advocates, sex workers and academics. In short, it is the lived experience of the people on the ground in this effort, and no study would be complete without accounting for these relationships.

In our continued efforts to honor history and the work of those who have come before us, we took intentional steps
to look towards parallel movements for inspiration and ideas. It was in the Sourcebook on Violence Against Women (2011) that we discovered “social ecology theory” in Graffunder, Cline and Lane’s chapter, “Primary Prevention” as it relates to violence against women and intimate partner abuse. Social ecology is an interdisciplinary approach to social science research on social problems, which has been particularly well received in the various fields of health, psychology, sociology, social work and environment. This approach is “the application of multiple levels and methods of analysis
and theoretical perspectives to social problems, recognizing the dynamic and active nature of human-environment interactions and the social, historical, cultural and institutional contexts of people’s lives” (Taylor cf Whiteley, 1999).

As mentioned in the introduction, we needed to find a way to amplify the less obvious aspects of human trafficking in order to accurately examine the efforts to combat it. Social ecology theory guides the researcher to look at various intersections of micro-, meso-, exo- and macro-level contexts of a problem, including contexts outside of the defined parameters of an issue, in order to better understand it in the social world. In other words, if we simply examined “anti- human trafficking efforts” in Colorado without looking at issues around interpersonal relationships, community resources and structural issues such as immigration, gender inequality, poverty, racism, youth homelessness, and how these various issues and identities intersect with individual lived experience, we would miss the full picture of what is being done to create change.

Although social ecology theory is most commonly used when conducting empirical research (as opposed to an assessment like the Colorado Project), we have found it a very useful heuristic tool in terms of helping us to keep this project truly comprehensive. We have incorporated social ecology into each of the four “P” templates by adhering to social ecology principles, such as viewing the problem from multiple levels and methods of analysis and applying diverse theoretical perspectives.

Additionally, we are utilizing social ecology as a methodological step in the process of examining the overall social climate of Colorado as it relates to trafficking vulnerability. One of our key goals is to understand a geographical area
in terms of causes and conditions that create vulnerability and drive trafficking as they relate to nationality, industry, displacement, and social marginalization within social, historical, cultural and institutional contexts. For example, what are the main labor-related issues happening now or in the past in a state or region? Has this created a potential vulnerability for workers? Promising practices in one geographical area may be working well because of various contexts that are perhaps different somewhere else...Learning how to recognize those differences could mean more successful efforts against trafficking in the future.

Considering the social, historical, cultural and institutional contexts of people-environment relations, another principle of social ecology, has become an integral part of the Colorado Project (Whiteley, 1999).

Our next brief will provide background and insight into how our research project defines “promising practices” as it fits into our research methodology and analysis. For additional information, please visit the “Research” section of the Colorado Project website or contact us.  To download this Project Brief, click here.

Whiteley, J. (1999). Conceptual Social Ecology. School of Social Ecology at the University of California at Irvine. Re- trieved May 2, 2011 (