The Empowered Approach

A Firm Beliefs conversation with Abby Fabiaschi

Abby Fabiaschi, Co-Founder and Director of Partnerships at Empower Her Network, recently joined Cortney Stapleton for an impactful conversation about her career in supporting survivors of human trafficking. Abby shared valuable insights from more than 10 years in the industry on what it means to be an effective leader and how to support people in meaningful ways throughout their individual journeys.

Below are highlights from their discussion. 

Abby: Empower Her Network was founded seven years ago by myself and Christine Norbert, a clinician who has spent a lot of time understanding the relationships between exploitation and poverty and fiscal independence. The organization is all about addressing societal barriers that stand in the way of trafficking survivors reaching their dreams, goals and potential. We’re working to ultimately break generational cycles of exploitation for their children, and their children’s children, by helping survivors pursue a career of their choice, access educational opportunities and find stable housing.

The organization has taken an innovative approach that taps into available services and fills in the gaps that are there, but very much focuses on the survivor and their vision while tackling the barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place. We see survivors as their own solution and that empowered approach has brought impact beyond what we could have imagined. Individuals who go through our 15- to 18-month program end up earning an average of $10,000 more than when they started and 98% find stable housing. Advocacy, guidance and tactical funding enable enormous lifestyle changes in a short period of time that allows survivors to create an exit ramp for themselves, while also closing on-ramps for their children.

Cortney: I too have a background in serving organizations focused on child trafficking. There are so many organizations providing critical care and support at each stage of the trafficking cycle but I think Empower Her Network is really special because it helps survivors get back on their feet after that moment of critical extraction has passed. There are fewer organizations who are focused on really helping those survivors to get stable housing and jobs, which are critical to keeping them safe in the future. So, given that background and your important role with Empower Her Network, we want to talk a little bit about firm beliefs. What are those beliefs that brought you to this work seven years ago?

Abby: I have always had enormous belief in human potential. And I’m particularly enamored by what is possible when we band together and use a strength-based lens to drive positive change for communities, family units and work culture. The belief stems from my grandmother through my father because he raised me to understand of the power of diverse viewpoints and the importance of new mistakes. My father’s go-to response for any problem was, “Try it, fix it, try it.”

In the early eighties, if you were at a table where everybody looked like you, you could feel like you had a quorum when really you just didn’t have all the ideas on the table because you all see things the same way. A deep belief in the possibility and potential for humanity has driven a lot of my decisions and career choices, specifically around Empower Her Network and leaving the high-tech industry behind.

Cortney: It sounds like leaving the tech industry and having those experiences baked into you from your family were pivotal moments for you. Can you talk a little bit about some of those pivotal moments in your career that really shaped who you are as a leader?

Abby: It probably took me a little too long to realize that being good at something doesn’t mean you should do it. And looking back, I really see that high-tech kind of brought out the worst in me. Stack ranking people, the hours, the grind, the competitiveness – so much of my self-worth got caught up in my title and the money. As a woman entering the workforce, I really wish I understood my worth and was taught how to negotiate pay from my very first position. I saw later in my career, when I had a team of 50 people, the exponential impact these entry level jobs have. Every subsequent raise is based on a percentage of what that first paycheck is – so, I think we need to do a better job of telling women that you don’t have to say, “Thank you so much, I’m so excited.” Instead, women should be encouraged to ask more questions and dig deeper.

I look back at the time in my career when I didn’t own my responsibilities as a parent without apologies. The high-tech environment was very much a male-dominated field and as an executive, I was the only female at the table in most cases. I saw building a family as something that was a flaw instead of what it was – something that was filling my cup. And ultimately, I was able to bring that back to the staff and build community around it and share experience around it. But for a while I hid that, and I wish I hadn’t.

Cortney: I think a lot of women share that experience. . Who I am as a leader completely changed when I had kids. It impacts everything. It’s impossible really to separate the two if you’re doing it right.

When we think about what’s next, what are the beliefs you think are really important to the future of Empower Her Network, or the industry at large, or nonprofits, or even care organizations? Are you forming any new beliefs at work or outside of work and do you have any advice that you would give to others?

Abby: The social sector is going through a lot of self-exploration and asking questions like, “Why do we call ourselves nonprofits and define ourselves like that?” That conversation came up when I was with the Jensen Project cohort and the Catalyst Community cohort  so I think it’s starting to be talked about a lot more.

I definitely agree with your earlier sentiments that these are complicated problems, and it takes a lot of layered solutions to get people out of systemic problems and situations to a place of empowerment. Empower Her Network could not exist without those very important immediate aftercare organizations that get people to a basic level of stability. You can’t have “beyond the crisis services” if you never get beyond the crisis. However, the prevailing paradigm in philanthropy tends to still be, “if your life is no longer on fire, then next.” It’s a band-aid approach. Care organizations addressing the trafficking population that we serve often fail to account for the root causes and the systemic barriers that people face after crisis, which are often the reason why they found themselves in that place of marginalization from the beginning. Racial disparities, financial disparities and other systemic problems mean that the same people end up cycling through the same immediate aftercare programs year after year.

What I see for the future with our partners at Empower Her Network looks really bright. We don’t want the same survivor cycling through the same programs – we want what’s next for them. We  believe that survivors are their own solution, so the program is really designed to walk alongside individuals as they remove barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place, empowering them to rewrite their narrative on their terms. I think the secret sauce for impactful direct services programs that are causing life-transforming, long-term change is that they’re taking a participant-centered approach. It’s not a one-size-fits-all service anymore. You have to be asking survivors, “What are your goals? What’s standing in the way of your goals?”

Cortney: Do you have a favorite quote or a personal mantra that you hold dear and as part of your beliefs?

Abby: I do, and it changed my life. A Spanish philosopher said, “Tell me to what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” That quotation completely unraveled my entire world because ultimately the answer wasn’t what I wanted it to be at that time.

Cortney: That’s so powerful, especially being somebody in communications where our whole world is centered around what audiences care about and trying to talk to them at a point of need. Thank you.

Listen to the full episode here:

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