Anti-human trafficking advocacy engagement: What motivates activism?

Full report can be found here.


Advocacy for human rights, such as the anti-human trafficking movement, has relied on volunteerism and the good will of experts providing pro bono work. There is a lack of evidence-based research to examine factors that could increase political engagement dedicated to combating human trafficking and exploitation or similar forms of human rights violation. What helps community organizers enhance engagement and learning on human trafficking in the communities?

To answer this question, we utilized the concept of political efficacy – a belief that your actions can produce a political or social change and performing such duties is worthwhile. Using data from a survey conducted by the Human Trafficking Collaborative Network (HTCN) we sought to examine how political efficacy is linked with other political activities and advocates’ personal characteristics. Using a statistical technique called path analyses, our study found that the number of organizations a participant is involved in has significant effects on both their internal political efficacy and the number of human trafficking-related resources the participant is familiar with. The analysis also indicated that internal political efficacy “influences” the number of human trafficking-related events attended as well as the number of organizations the participant is a part of. We did not find an association of external political efficacy, or the belief that the government will respond to one’s demand, with any other measure. This may be due to the data having been collected during the Covid-19 pandemic, which coincided with the political turmoil in the US at the time. The results show that human trafficking educational events would increase advocates’ sense of empowerment, which in turn improves community engagement.


Advocacy for the anti-human trafficking movement has generally relied on volunteerism and the good will of others, but in order to have a more comprehensive and lasting impact approach, policymaking and implementation strategies need to be addressed. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of evidence-based research examining factors that could increase involvement in political acts that combat human trafficking.

Previous research measures the desire to engage in political acts and bring about change through the concept of political efficacy, which is defined as the feeling or belief that one’s actions can produce a desired political or social outcome.1 Craig and Maggiotto (1982) describe it as determining the worth of performing one’s civic duties, and it can generally be divided into an internal and external branch. Internal efficacy is defined as the individual’s self-perception that they are capable and willing to participate in political acts, and external efficacy measures a person’s beliefs about the capabilities of political institutions to respond to people’s needs.2

Our study extends the previous knowledge of community voluntarism to investigate the association of political efficacy with other factors within the specific context of advocacy against human trafficking. We further investigate any associations between specific information sources and political efficacy. We also include several demographic measures, including gender, age, race, and employment status, as any of them were thought to influence political efficacy and are also associated with risk of human trafficking.5

Who Took the Web-based Survey?

We utilized the listserv maintained by the Human Trafficking Collaborative Network (HTCN). At the time of data collection, 446 persons were subscribing the HTCN listserv, who voluntarily expressed their interest in the email list. Most of them reside in and around the St. Louis Metropolitan region. The survey was conducted over a period of 4-weeks during the summer of 2020. Although a total of 54 filled the survey, we analyzed 48 cases with valid data on most questions. 87.5% were females, and age groups were diverse from those in their 20’s to those 61 years or older. Over 70% identified themselves as “Caucasian” or “white” and over 70% were fully employed. So, first we need to acknowledge that our anti-trafficking activists lack diversity!

Measures of political internal and external efficacy were gauged through a set of statements on the 7-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” and each statement corresponded to either branch of political efficacy. Statements included, “Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on,” “I don’t think public officials care much what people like me think,” and “There are plenty of ways for people like me to have a say in what our government does.” Items were adapted from Craig and Maggiotto (1982) and included 9 external efficacy items and 5 internal efficacy items.2 Political expectancy, which measured one’s belief in how much responsibility individuals, organizations, and the government had in ensuring an adequate response to COVID-19 and if such responses were sufficient, was also determined through Likert scale questions. Other questions included respondents’ engagement with political activities and community groups as well as one’s familiarity with and participation in human trafficking-related resources and events.

Age group:
21-30 years21.3
31-40 years19.1
41-50 years25.5
51-60 years12.8
61 years or older21.3
African American/Black12.5
Other races/Ethnicities16.7
Current employment status:
Employed – full-time70.8
Employed – part-time2.1
Other (unemployed, student, retired, other)27.1
Table I. Demographic characteristics of study participants (n = 48)

Participants were also asked about their group membership, such as belonging to a humanitarian or human trafficking advocacy, educational, political, labor, immigration, or religious organization. We also asked about anti-human trafficking activities and events HTCN sponsored or known to us locally as well as collected relatively detailed social media information.

What Did We Find?

Internal political efficacy was found to be associated with the number of political activities the participant took part in within the past 12 months, number of human trafficking-related events, number of organizations respondent was involved in, and number of social media platforms used. The external political efficacy was poorly associated with the examined measures. We don’t know whether external political efficacy was important or not because summer 2021 was abnormal due to US political hostility and the Covid-19 pandemic.

We did not find significant associations of demographic characteristics with political and human trafficking related activities. This may be because our membership was too homogenous except for age groups.

Using a path analytic techniques, we found that internal political efficacy was associated most significantly with organizational belonging, HT resource familiarity and HT event attendance. As shown in two figures, internal political efficacy and involvement in HT events and knowledge appear to be a two-way street – the higher efficacy and the sense of empowerment people feel, the more political activities, including anti-trafficking activism, they engage in; and on the other hand, more of those activities enhanced people’s sense of efficacy and empowerment. For those of you who can read statistics, those associations were highly significant, given the small analytical sample size.

Figure 1. Path analysis, internal political efficacy as dependent variable

Numbers signify the standardized beta coefficient of the path. The larger the coefficient, the stronger the effect. The significance level is indicated by *, p-value < 0. 05; **, p-value ≤ 0.01. The lower the p-value, the higher the significance of the relationship.

Figure 2. Path analysis, number of human trafficking-related events as dependent variable

Numbers signify the standardized beta coefficient of the path. The larger the coefficient, the stronger the effect. The significance level is indicated by *, p-value < 0. 05; **, p-value ≤ 0.01. The lower the p-value, the higher the significance of the relationship.


Even though this was a small local study, the study provides some useful information.

  • The HTCN membership may need to conduct more aggressive outreach to diversify its subscribership. Despite popular and sensational images of human trafficking and exploitation victimization, we know those exploited are over-represented in racial and sexual minority populations and they tend to come from impoverished and dysfunctional families. Without participation from a diverse segment of the population, our community engagement will be limited. In Missouri, this lack of diversity may also extend to other anti-trafficking advocacy groups, although exceptions obviously are acknowledged.
  • Engagement in anti-human trafficking advocacy work is part of larger political empowerment as well as a reflection of our overall political awareness, knowledge and activities. In this regard, anti-human trafficking activists would benefit from wider participation in local and regional progressive political activism.

Written by: Amanda Sy (Washington University in St. Louis, College of Arts & Sciences) & Heidi Tastet MD (Washington University School of Medicine; Washington University Brown School)
Edited by: Rumi Kato Price, PhD, MPE (Co-founder HTCN)


1. “Political Efficacy.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Retrieved July 14, 2020 from

2. Craig SC, Maggiotto MA. Measuring Political Efficacy. Political Methodology 1982; 8: 85-109.

3. Zhou Y, Pinkleton, BE. Modeling the Effects of Political Information Source Use and Online Expression on Young Adults’ Political Efficacy. Mass Communication & Society 2012; 15: 813-830.

4. Hui L, Zhang J. How do Civic Associations Foster Political Participation? The Role of Scope and Intensity of Organizational Movement. Nonprofit Policy Forum 2017; 8: 3-24.

5. Lawless JL, Fox RL. Political Participation of the Urban Poor. Social Problems 2001; 48: 362-385.

Human Trafficking Collaborative Network (HTCN) is an informal network of researchers, students, and community partners and advocates who share a common interest in improving, understanding, and reducing incidents of human trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable populations. HTCN is part of Washington University’s Institute of Public Health initiatives.