Nonprofit Sector

Credible Messengers

September 30, 2021

Where We Go From Here

Marion Kendall, Executive Director, LifeWay Network

Marion Kendall, Executive Director, LifeWay Network, walks us through how her life experiences have shaped the leader she is today. Learning, listening, and trusting people who share their stories about human trafficking is one of the first steps in fostering change and healing, Kendall says. Kendall believes in the power of empathy and reminds us that one of the greatest indicators of success for organizations like LifeWay Network is seeing the people they serve thrive in their own lives. Joining her in the conversation is Ashley Franks, Senior Associate at NFF.

In this video:

  • How Kendall has found motivation and purpose in her own life experiences. (1:20)
  • What it means to be a credible messenger. (2:57) 
  • What the public can do to help organizations like LifeWay Network eradicate human trafficking. (4:41)
  • How empathy is a power tool that has shaped Kendall as a leader. (10:16)
  • The importance of listening and trusting people who share their stories. (11:27) 

Learn how flexible funding strengthens LifeWay's tailored approach.


ASHLEY: Can you hear me okay, Marion?

MARION: I can hear you; I can hear you fine.

ASHLEY: Excellent. You look great.


ASHLEY: Could you actually just start by telling us more about yourself, introduce yourself, tell us more about your organization and the work that you all do?

MARION: My name is Marion Kendall and I am representing LifeWay Network as the Executive Director. LifeWay Network was founded 14 years ago by Sister Joan Dawber, who answered the call to provide services for survivors of human trafficking in the tri-state area. At one point in my life, I decided that there has to be more that I need to do in this world, and I was called in 2019 to do this work. And I truly do believe that my greatest way of worshiping is through the services that I will be providing and that I've provided throughout my life, and LifeWay affords me that platform to continue servicing others.

ASHLEY: Could you tell me what lights a fire in your belly each morning? What makes you get out of bed? Maybe sometimes it is calling, maybe sometimes it's purpose, and maybe sometimes it's not, so could you tell me more about that?

MARION: So I'm motivated by my life experiences. I'm motivated by my time and my tenure – I should say, I don't think it's the proper thing to say – in the foster care system, living in congregate settings throughout my childhood and my early adolescence. And so I've had enough years of experience to know what survivors of any kind of trauma and atrocity would need to have a decent pathway or a sustainable pathway to their recovery. And so I'm motivated and driven by that experience. I’m motivated and driven also by my mother's experience of exploitation and of violence and abuse. And though she's no longer here, I truly believe that I channel her energy and provide those services to women that I feel that maybe I had not been able to provide for her when she was alive. So, those are some of the motivating aspects of what keeps me doing the work that I do, and I’m very grounded in those things.

ASHLEY: You raise two really interesting points. One is about how your life experience and your relativity to the women that you serve really connects you to the work in a different way. And I want to stay there for a second. How often do we see service providers, leaders, CEOs, executive directors have the lived experience of the client populations they're serving? I would say it's pretty rare. And so I'd be interested to hear from you: How do you think having shared lived experience with clients changes the way you do work?

MARION: Lived experience makes me a credible messenger. I'm a credible messenger that could bring a message, support a message, be in community with the message of the consumer. And so I do not see that being a barrier; I see that being a strength to an organization. My proximity to the survivors of human trafficking, it's an intersectional proximity. It's a woman of color. I'm an immigrant. I am educated. I have children. I come from a marginalized community. They look at me and see a possibility for themselves. So, for the women that LifeWay provides services for, representation is so crucial to their sustainability – their emotional sustainability – and representation to staffing is also crucial to that space. And I want to emphasize, when I say credible messenger, we often think that the survivors of human trafficking or survivors of any kind of trauma are incapable of autonomy and incapable of self-determination or actualizing a future for themselves without us, the service providers, creating that framework for them. The survivors, the women, each of them are messengers. They understand their compelling trafficking situation. They are the experts in their lives. We are there to support, to accompany, to guide. But the woman knows what she needs to make her life better.

ASHLEY: Do you think that people really, truly understand the gravity of human trafficking, just how violent and dehumanizing it really is? And if not, how can we educate folks on the severity of human trafficking in the world?

MARION: Human trafficking is brutal. It is violent. It is savagery. It is heinous in so many ways, shape, and form. And human trafficking isn't only the sex part of it; it's labor. Labor is brutal – long hours of work. One person said to me, “Well, if a person's labor traffic, how can I tell? They're working. How do I tell if they're working?” See, it's so invisible. But that's why it requires an enormous amount of assessment tools, technical assistance, education. Consistently talking to people and raising awareness about trafficking. The education of human trafficking doesn't begin with the general public only; it begins at home, it begins in the school system, it begins in churches. It begins everywhere. There are so many signs of trafficking that happen right before our eyes. But without the education, you – the general public – will not be able to help an organization like LifeWay eradicate human trafficking. So education is power.

ASHLEY: I noticed that you make a very stark delineation between victim and victor, victim and survivor. And could you just tell us more about what you think is the difference? What really separates a victim from a victim or a victim from a survivor? I know that it's important for you that people really debunk this myth that survivors of sex trafficking are victims or not credible messengers. And so, I would just like to hear a little bit more about that.

MARION: Absolutely. As a clinician, I always believe that we come … while we are in or while the person is in their compelling situation – whatever that situation is – they're not only a victim of circumstance in that situation, but they’re also survivors. They're surviving in the victimhood of that space. But a survivor has four phases. A person in any kind of trauma has four different areas of growth. They come from that victim stage – they come from the victim stage to the survivor stage. They enter the thriver and become leader stage. And that's when – for instance, LifeWay, we have a community of people that supports the women from a non-institutional perspective. And so the woman is able to thrive, Ashley. She's not a survivor in the safe house. She's a thriver in the safe house. She's making a pathway for herself to becoming a leader of her own life. I think when I say so with this beaming smile is – when I get to see a woman come to the safe house at her lowest and see her exit the safe house at her highest, it means that our services are absolutely necessary, and it says what it's going to do, and it does what it says it's going to do. And that is powerful.

ASHLEY: You know, one thing I love about what you just said is you kind of listed seeing or just observing the women be different people as an indicator of organizational success. I think when we think of organizational success, we do think about those traditional indicators, like you listed a few of those too, like not returning to homelessness and not returning to human trafficking. But a really important one, and arguably one of the most important indicators is seeing the women, observing the women look like their higher selves, look like they're more empowered, look like they're happier. And I think that we need to tap into some of those indicators a little bit more in our sector, like: Is there community? Is there love? Does there appear to be more happiness? And I heard you describe that. So thank you for sharing that. To that point, tell me a little bit about your vision for LifeWay, where you see the organization in the future. I think you've talked a little bit about how the organization operates now in an effort to center and empower the women. What do you see the organization doing five years from now?

MARION: So, in the next five years with the influx of more women coming out of their compelling situation, I envision LifeWay having safe houses in all five boroughs. Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx are all hubs for trafficking. Trafficking is happening in our backyard. So there's going to be a greater need for housing resources, and LifeWay would love to become a stronger service provider in delivering safe housing to women and watch them grow in that space so that they can become independent occupants in their own apartments, their own room, their own shared space, their own whatever it is that suits them.

ASHLEY: Marion, if you could be remembered for one thing as a leader, what would that be?

MARION: I think because of my life experiences, because of the vulnerable environments that I came from, because of watching vulnerability in my own family, because of seeing my mother not having the tools to support herself – seeing her in medical environments not being treated with the level of care and respect that she should have gotten as an immigrant Indian woman, with the English language not as strong as possible – being overlooked in those kinds of areas, seeing that consistently and experiencing it for my own self has consistently strengthened my resolve, strengthened my ability to be empathetic. And so throughout my life, if I could say anything about myself in my leadership and in my own character, it would be that Marion Kendall, the Executive Director of LifeWay Network, leads with empathy. Empathy is never, ever an indication of weakness. It is a power tool.

ASHLEY: So, Marion, any final thoughts or words that you'd like to leave us with?

MARION: I know what it feels like not to be believed. And the women survivors of human trafficking, that I provide services for, and I, are able to connect because we know what it feels like not to be believed. And you would think that in recent months, women coming forward to talk about their story and being believed, that it would impact the women survivors of human trafficking in a safe house positively, but it hasn't. While some women are being believed, others are not. And when a survivor said to me, “Look at me. I don't look like those women. I'm never going to be believed,” the comfort that I was able to support them with in that moment is because we were identical in our life experiences and I could believe her. And I do believe her. And that was comfort for her. So I'm only one person. So imagine if society believe women that look like me when we say we have been hurt, when we say we have been sexualized, when we say we have been abused, if they could believe us so easily. That proximity, the representation, the lived experience, the thought leader, and the credible messaging from me to the survivors, and the survivors to me, is making this a very supportive and caring space for the women. Healing happens on both ends.


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