Katherine Chon

Polaris Project

President and Co-Founder

In 2001, soon after the towers fell on 9/11, Katherine Chon was at a dinner party discussing international affairs and ethics with fellow Brown University students.  Over the course of the conversation, Katherine learned that slavery still existed the United States and across the globe. In fact, human trafficking, or selling people into modern day slavery, is one of the fastest growing criminal industries on the planet.

Soon after the dinner her friend Derek Ellerman sent her a newspaper article and Katherine knew she had to do something. The story described the situation of Korean women brought to the United States and forced to live in slave-like conditions. They were horribly abused and unable to leave the brothel where they stayed, located near Katherine’s college apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. The small news piece greatly affected Katherine, whose native country is Korea.

During her senior year, with the help of Derek, she set out to start a nonprofit, fashioned in the spirit of Underground Railroad.  Together they won an entrepreneurship contest for a plan to build a website that provided resources on human trafficking. The day after graduation, in 2002, they drove down to Washington, D.C., to launch their first office.

They called it Polaris Project, named after the North Star, which guided slaves toward freedom centuries ago. It has since become one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the United States and Japan, with programs operating at international, national and local levels in Washington, D.C.; Newark, New Jersey; and Tokyo, Japan.

Polaris Project, with its staff of forty, dozens of volunteers and fellows, and 15,000 people in its national grassroots network, is a leading organization in the United States combating all forms of human trafficking and serving both U.S. citizens and foreign national victims, including men, women, and children.

Polaris Project’s holistic strategy to combat human trafficking includes reaching out to victims and providing social services and transitional housing.  It’s helped hundreds of women and children escape modern-day slavery. It also operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, serving as the country’s 24-hour national hotline (888.3737.888).

Katherine says that the on-the-ground work is important, as well as looking at systemic change and turning real-life experiences into stronger policies to protect everyone. Polaris Project has testified before Congress four times and has worked with more than thirty states to create stronger laws.

The U.S. government estimates that each year as many as 800,000 foreign nationals around the world are trafficked across international borders —17,500 of them into the United States alone.  There are additional estimates of American children, in the hundreds of thousands, who are at high risk for sex trafficking in the U.S. 

Katherine wants Polaris Project to work with the international community to implement coordinated strategies to stop human trafficking of children too young to understand why their parents are sending them away, young women who become trapped in brothels and are afraid to leave, and migrant workers forced to toil for nothing. With so much more to accomplish, Katherine hopes to take the mission to combat modern day slavery to a new level.