GOING INTO HER SENIOR YEAR at Brown University, Katherine Chon MC/MPA 2010 was an introspective, self-described “science nerd” seeing a neatly planned path ahead: a PhD program in clinical psychology, followed by private practice. Then two things happened. The 9/11 attacks awakened Chon to new levels of violence that can affect communities. And newly appointed Brown University President Ruth Simmons challenged the campus to examine the school’s founding history and early ties to the slave trade.
“As these conversations were happening, I remember wondering where I would have stood on the issue of slavery if I had lived in that time,” Chon recalls. “I remember saying, very passionately, that I would have taken a firm stand for abolition.” But Chon could say next to nothing when the subject shifted to present-day slavery—human trafficking. She simply didn’t know much about it.
She threw herself into research. She learned of a police raid on a nearby brothel masquerading as a massage parlor where six young women from South Korea had been forced into prostitution. With victim-protection laws still years away, the women were criminally charged, despite clear signs of physical abuse. “I was born in South Korea, and the women were right around my age, so that story really hit home,” says Chon. The moment was a turning point. Slavery wasn’t just a historical fact: It was here and now. The firm stand Chon had talked about taking wasn’t hypothetical anymore. After graduating, in 2002, she moved to Washington, DC, and started a nonprofit to help victims of trafficking. Today she is a federal government point person on the issue.
According to International Labor Organization statistics, human trafficking is a $150 billion industry that affects 21 million people around the world, including 5.5 million children; 55 percent are women and girls. Trafficking is often equated with the sex trade, but many more people—an estimated 14.2 million—are trapped in forced labor in industries that include agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing. Uncertainty about the term “trafficking” is common, with many conflating it with smuggling. But in fact, moving people across borders illegally, although it may be a factor, is not a prerequisite for trafficking, which is the enslavement of one person for another’s profit.
And the problem is not a distant or foreign one. A national hotline that Chon set up as part of her nonprofit received reports of 23,000 domestic cases of human trafficking in the past eight years. Unlikely as it may sound, young, vulnerable people have even been trafficked to sell magazine subscriptions door to door.
Victims are targeted in any number of ways. A young woman looking for opportunities beyond her home country might respond to an ad promising a job as a model, a waitress, or a nanny in exchange for a travel fee. Once relocated—with no local contacts or support—she discovers the job was a myth. Her passport confiscated, she is physically abused and forced to work in a brothel, a factory, or a private home with no pay.
In other instances, traffickers lure victims by pretending to be a friend or a lover before turning someone over to their network. (Traffickers may be one-off solo operators or part of an organized international ring.) Or a family that has fallen on hard times might unknowingly turn their child over to a trafficker in the belief that the child will be well taken care of and educated in a new country with better prospects. Instead, he or she is forced to work long hours in a factory, beaten, and given no schooling. Sometimes the victim is simply abducted.
When she graduated in 2002, Chon headed to Washington with her classmate Derek Ellerman, another convert to the cause. In their last few months as college students, the pair had envisioned a sort of organization that didn’t exist when they began to research human trafficking—one that would not only educate the public but also offer an easy, immediate way to report potential trafficking situations. They launched the nonprofit Polaris Project, named for the North Star that had guided American slaves to freedom. Polaris began providing services to survivors of human trafficking, advocating for stronger state and federal anti-trafficking legislation, and supporting grassroots efforts to combat trafficking at the community level. It also set up the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which operates a toll-free 24-hour national hotline.
Chon and Ellerman chose Washington because it was home to the federal agencies that were beginning to seriously address the issue of trafficking. Their research also showed that the city had a well-established network of brothels operating in close proximity to millions of tourists and government workers, a fact that captures the everyday reality of trafficking and the public’s tendency to look the other way.
“When I talk to survivors who have been on the DC streets, they often say they wish people had looked at them and asked if they were okay or if they needed a safe place to go,” says Chon. “When that didn’t happen, it reinforced the trafficker’s message that no one cared about them.” To complicate matters, people often assume that victims will seek out and accept help. “Similar to other forms of violent crime, like domestic violence and child abuse, often victims don’t realize they’re victims,” she adds. “I regularly go back to Harriet Tubman’s quote: ‘I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.’”
After years of working in the field, Chon gained perspective on trafficking’s systemic patterns and challenges during her time at the Kennedy School. HKS also gave her an appreciation for the various governmental systems of care accessible to victims.
Chon started working for the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in October 2012, as the United States commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her first task was to help develop a five-year strategic action plan to strengthen the nation’s services for victims and survivors of human trafficking. Anti-trafficking responses from more than 12 departments and agencies were included in the plan, which was co-chaired by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security along with HHS.
The voices and empowerment of victims and survivors of human trafficking is a central theme of the plan, as is strengthening the government’s coordinated victim assistance response. Improving the collection and use of data across agencies is another key component.
“We’ve been able to see some trends emerging from past years,” Chon says. “Ultimately, that is what will better inform our policies and programs to positively impact the people targeted by traffickers.”
Last June, Chon was named director of the newly established Office on Trafficking in Persons, within HHS. The start-up seeks to create a more cohesive service delivery system for victims, open up and use data to inform anti-trafficking strategies, and form community partnerships to change the social norms that drive human trafficking.
Dark and violent as that world can be, Chon says, she is inspired by survivors who somehow manage to move on and build a new life. She cites the case of Evelyn Chumbow, who was trafficked from Cameroon into domestic servitude at the age of nine and forced to cook, clean, and care for her trafficker’s two small children without pay or schooling. Cut off from her family and the outside world, physically abused, and sometimes denied food and a bed for days at a time, she managed to escape at the age of 17. Now a college student with a family of her own, Chumbow aspires to work in the Department of Homeland Security, helping people like herself.
“The hope she expressed through how she’s living her life is an inspiration,” says Chon, who also cites the momentum and strong bipartisan support for anti-trafficking measures as a source of optimism. “Stories like Evelyn’s are a big motivation for people working in the trenches on this issue.”
Chon is also heartened by the shift in attitudes she’s seen in the 15 years since immersing herself in the issue as a college student. “The response back then was ‘Who are you to do this work?’ or ‘This isn’t really a problem’ or ‘This is too big a problem to solve.’ Today I think we can say there’s been a fundamental change in mind-set, from the growth of grassroots efforts to joint task forces between law enforcement and community organizations to faith-based efforts. It’s not due to any one agency—in the field overall, there’s been a great deal of progress.” As much as she’s been a part of that progress, Chon recognizes there is still much to do—but now the work is much less lonely.