Public Scholarship: Kirsten Foot fosters collaboration against human trafficking

Kirsten Foot_headshotResearch that Professor Kirsten Foot began in the fall of 2007 has culminated in a new book titled Collaborating against Human Trafficking: Cross-Sector Challenges and Practices. This is her fourth book, but the first that is written primarily for audiences outside of academia.

“I wrote this book for people who work on human trafficking in every profession, whether as a businessperson, social worker, pastor, cop, FBI agent, or emergency room forensic nurse,” Foot said. “These are some of the kinds of people that I’ve interviewed and have had weigh in on the book in its draft form, and I’m happy to say that they are really excited about it.”

Human trafficking is defined in U.S. law as the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into any form of work or service against their will, and it occurs in many industries here in Washington State and around the world. Through fieldwork-based research, Foot discovered that in the fight against human trafficking, cross-sector collaboration is vital – but often, systemic tensions undermine the effectiveness of these alliances. She offers insights and tools that leaders in every sector can use to re-think the power dynamics of partnering.

“My goal here is to offer something to the anti-trafficking movement that is useful for them. This book can help reframe and restart conversations that have gotten snarled or stagnated from people getting too frustrated and just giving up,” Foot said.

Through hundreds of hours of listening to people discuss what they’re doing about human trafficking – often talking past each other or arguing – Foot gained insights about where the breakdowns happen and what problems emerge as organizations try to work together across sectors, as well as the signs of hope. In the book, she discusses leadership and communication practices, ways of acknowledging power dynamics, the necessity of paying attention to differences in status, race, gender, and education, and how all that affects organizations’ interactions with each other.

Essentially putting her money where her mouth is, Foot is donating all the royalties from the book to a nonprofit anti-trafficking organization that is doing excellent work in building cooperation across sectors. That organization redistributes some of the royalty funds to similar organizations in several cities across the country, all for the purpose of catalyzing collaboration against trafficking.

A diverse set of leaders within and beyond academia have endorsed the book. Dr. Greg Goodale, Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Media & Design at Northeastern University described it as “the kind of book that every academic should write, but that very few do.” Local entrepreneur and human rights activist Alex Sum, co-founder of Seattle Against Slavery and founder of Human Rights Society, said that Dr. Foot “has given the anti-trafficking community a monumental gift with this book. It is a powerful tool to guide more effective collaboration as well as catalyzing more coalitions and networks locally, regionally, and globally.” Based on her experience managing several multisector partnerships for Microsoft, Rane Johnson-Stempson, director of Microsoft Research Outreach, observed, “Dr. Foot’s suggestions for improving collaborations are spot on. Since every business has a role to play in ending human trafficking, everyone in the private sector—and especially technology companies engaged with this issue—should read this book.” The book has received similarly enthusiastic endorsements from survivor-activists and leaders of anti-trafficking efforts in many other sectors, including law enforcement, social services, and philanthropy.

“The Department of Communication and our Chair, David Domke, have been immensely supportive of my writing a publicly-oriented book and I am very grateful for that,” Foot said. “This is a department that encourages faculty to engage the public in our scholarship. It has given me the opportunity – and financial support during the research process – to envision and create an innovative kind of book, and to leverage my academic expertise in ways that benefit the anti-trafficking movement.”

With extensive knowledge in inter-organizational relations and multimethod research, Foot has brought her recent findings to the classroom as well. She developed a multi-disciplinary UW honors course on “Understanding and Combating Human Trafficking,” and includes units in her “Dark Sides of Digital Media” class about forced labor in the production of digital technologies, and the use of digital media in commercial sexual exploitation.

Kirsten Foot_book cover“I’m not a lawyer, a criminologist, a law enforcement expert, nor a social worker, but I do know something about what it looks like for networks to form and sustain themselves and the kind of communication practices and leadership strategies and decisions that make organizational relationships across sectors possible and sustainable over time,” Foot said. “And that’s what it takes to come together to counter a really complex social, economic, legal, and cultural problem like human trafficking.”

The work doesn’t only inform and help students and community members. Foot said she is personally inspired by many of the professionals she has gotten acquainted with in the process of writing the book.

“I’ve met cops who volunteer for nongovernmental organizations at night and on weekends; I’ve met social workers who go back to school to get a law degree so that they can also do legal advocacy for survivors,” she said. “I’ve met pastors who are saying we need to wake up to ways that our faith communities are complicit in forced labor and that it’s not okay to just go for the cheapest coffee or T-shirts if the people who produced them are not getting paid. There are lots of really engaged thinkers outside of academia that are inspiring, and I hope this book is a good tool for them and helps multiply their efforts.”

Foot’s interest in this topic was sparked almost 10 years ago while working on a collaborative research project with Professor Lance Bennett comparing the fair trade networks in the United States and the United Kingdom. She then launched a 4-year study of the evolution in global anti-trafficking efforts, in which a dozen Communication students participated as research assistants. Her efforts to understand and improve collaboration against trafficking have evolved over time, and will continue beyond the book’s publication. This fall Foot will give talks about the book in several cities, and she has also been asked to consult for victim service providers and law enforcement groups on working in this problem-space together.

Foot’s next big-picture idea is to learn how cross-sector actions against trafficking take place around the world and figure out if it would be fruitful to do a deeper study in comparing anti-trafficking efforts in Central Europe and Southeast Asia.

“For example, the empowerment of victims and the prosecution of perpetrators are two important aims that may be fundamentally in tension with each other wherever you are in the world,” she said. “I bring a variety of lenses to see how such tensions manifest in other countries, and what can be done to work through them.”

By continuing her participatory action research, Foot advances understanding the multifaceted crime of human trafficking, and develops resources to help leaders in every sector collaborate better to counter it effectively.