Sparked by a local case of human trafficking involving the enslavement of six Asian women in a Providence, RI brothel disguised as a massage parlor, Katherine Chon and Derek Ellerman founded Polaris Project to combat modern-day slavery in the spirit of a 21st century Underground Railroad.
The trade in humans is the third largest criminal industry in the world, growing faster than the trade in arms and drugs. The United Nations projects that human trafficking will only worsen with the state of the global economy. The UN’s most recent research estimates that there are 2.5 million victims at any given time. As overwhelming and as foreign as this may sound, the face of human trafficking was personal and local when we started Polaris Project. It was six women, enslaved two miles from the Brown University campus.
When we started Polaris Project during our senior year, our mission was simple: find the victims, shape policy, and build a movement. Seven years later, we have directly served more than 250 victims through our local programs in Washington, DC, New Jersey, and Tokyo and created one of a small number of shelter programs for victims of trafficking in the U.S. Our labor slavery clients have ranged from domestic servants of diplomats locked in closets for failing to work around the clock to victims of peddling rings physically beaten and starved if they did not meet their magazine sale quotas. Sex trafficking survivors have ranged from Asian, Latina, and Eastern European women forced into prostitution in residential brothels and strip clubs to American children advertised online and tortured by pimps preventing their escape.
Our direct work with survivors have helped to pass landmark legislation at the federal and state levels. Polaris Project has testified before Congress four times and worked in coalition with other organizations to successfully pass two major bills at the federal level and anti-trafficking legislation In more than 20 states. Over the last year, Polaris Project has partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to run the national 24-hour hotline and information center on human trafficking. Calls have increased by 200%, identifying 2,300 potential victims across the country.
While Polaris Project has grown from 2 to 35 staff since its founding, what continues to fuel us is the movement that is broader than just one organization – and that movement has very much been shaped by our experiences at Brown. Brown’s values for freedom, innovation, and social justice may have given us the courage to create Polaris Project, but the continued support from the Brown community has helped to sustain our efforts. Professors continue to advise with thoughts and feedback on our strategies and alum from every decade dating back to the 1960’s have supported our work over the years. Recent graduates such as Elizabeth Rhodes ’06, CJ Adams ’07, and Sarah Grenzeback ’07 have joined our staff to help keep the founding spirit alive.
We invite our friends and classmates to join us in the growing movement against modern-day slavery. To learn more and take action, please visit us at www.PolarisProject.org.