Student Fights International Human Trafficking, Slavery

December 8, 2009
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

Across the globe, experts estimate that 27 million people are trapped in slavery. Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the United States alone. An estimated 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the country every year on top the Americans already trafficked from within the country’s borders. One Harvard Kennedy School student set out to end human trafficking by forming Polaris Project in 2002. The project’s mission is to create a world without slavery.

Katherine Chon, MC/MPA2010, tells of a catalyst that hit so close to home that she decided she had to do something about the epidemic of human trafficking: “I came across a local newspaper article detailing a police raid on a brothel disguised as a massage parlor. Investigators found six women from South Korea who had been recruited with legitimate job offers, but forced into prostitution. I was shocked that slavery could still exist and that it was occurring less than two miles from my protected college walls. The women were around my age and I felt that had my own life circumstances been different, it could have happened to me.”

Chon was born in South Korea when the country was under martial law after the assassination of President Park Chung-Hee; 200 people from her hometown, Kwangju, lost their lives in student-led, pro-democracy uprisings. When she was still an infant, Chon’s parents came to the United States, eventually settling in New Hampshire.

“I think it's my family's deeply rooted values of freedom that affected my own decisions later in life,” said Chon of the effect of her family background on what she is doing today.

Chon partnered with her friend Derek Ellerman while they were in their senior year at Brown University to start the nonprofit Polaris Project and their efforts received positive reactions and responses almost immediately.

“We wrote up a business plan, which won a second-place award at the University's annual entrepreneurship competition, and recruited fellow students to conduct research on the scope of human trafficking in the United States. The day after graduation, we packed our lives into a U-Haul truck and moved to Washington, D.C., because we wanted to create change through policy.”

Chon said she decided to attend Harvard Kennedy School to take a sabbatical from the day-to-day operations of Polaris Project and reflect on the direction of the anti-trafficking moveent in the future, though she remains president of the organization. While at HKS, Chon continues to discuss and spread the message of anti-trafficking through meetings with other graduate students where they examine innovative solutions for slavery issues at the Carr Center for Human Rights Initiative to Stop Human Trafficking.

“The fight against human trafficking requires a multi-disciplinary, all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Chon. “During my time at HKS, I have developed a greater understanding of cross-cultural and political perspectives that are important to understand to help develop a more globally-networked anti-trafficking movement. The anti-trafficking movement must out-network the criminal traffickers.”

Katherine Chon

Katherine Chon (above) co-founded Polaris Project in 2002. As part of her job, Chon was often in the field fighting human trafficking and slavery. In the picture below, Chon and another member of staff wait in a car on a project to combat an instance of prostitution. Photos provided.

Home page photo by Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department.

Katherine Chon

Chon answering a call on the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Photo provided.


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