My Brief Time Fighting Human Trafficking

At Y Combinator Alumni Demo Day, I had a chance to talk to the co-founders of Rescue Forensics (who have a fascinating backstory). I learned a lot about their analytics tools for law enforcement while we talked at length about our shared backgrounds in fighting human trafficking. They are doing a lot more work on the topic now, obviously, and much better work than I ever did.

It got me thinking about my work against trafficking in college, which also came to mind twice in recent weeks: once when I had a discussion with SF Supervisor Katy Tang about her work against it in the city and the recent breakdown in the US Senate over the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVTP). I thought I would briefly share my work with Polaris Project as well as both the British and US governments, and what I learned from these experiences. 

Starting with the Polaris Project

When I was a child, I had a brief interaction with the child welfare system. While I was at Brown, in Rhode Island, I began to think more about that experience. At the same time, I was becoming engaged with the Swearer Center, which puts forward a model of service based on sustained commitment and engagement. 

I started doing research for a professor I was close with in late 2005, who does a lot of work study responses to child abuse. He was asked to write an encyclopedia article on how child abuse laws differ across countries. Helping with that research, I find it pretty difficult to figure out the laws in other countries but learned a lot about the 2000 Protocol To Prevent, Suppress And Punish Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women And Children. I became fascinated by the problem, if confused by the terminology. Trafficking doesn't involve movement, just any situation of exploitation through, what the TVPA would later call, force, fraud, or coercion. 

Right around that time, Polaris Project and its founding story were featured on the cover of the Brown Alumni Magazine. Polaris was built by two Brown graduates and now stands as one of the preeminent anti-trafficking organizations in the country, with a strong focus on domestic trafficking. They now even run the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the national 24-hour hotline. 

But back then, it was really just ten people who were fighting the good fight and getting a lot of recognition for it. I reached out wondering if I could come work for them in the summer of 2006. They thought that sounded like a great idea but they had an alternative: how about I help organize Polaris Project Rhode Island. 

This sounded like an amazing opportunity, so I went down to DC for a week, got trained by the two co-founders on everything I had to know, and then tried to work on the problem in Rhode Island. Derek, one of the co-founders, told me that I had to be prepared for the fact that with just the week of training, I might be one of the expert on the topic in Rhode Island. I didn't believe him, but it ended up be more true than I could have possible imagined. 

Working for Polaris Project

When I became the co-coordinator of Polaris Project Rhode Island, I believed that getting legislation passed would be easy. On the one hand, I learned how naive I was, while on the other, Rhode Island proved to be a manageable microcosm for policy and politics. It's a world where it's pretty straightforward to meet all the interested parties. I wanted a meeting with the Governor's office, I just called them up. Things don't quite work that way in bigger states. 

We gave lectures to community groups all over RI and built an email list numbering in the thousands. We created a working group with the Providence Police, the International Institute of Rhode Island (for language interpretation), and the Sexual Assault & Trauma Resource Center to raid illegal brothels and provide services to the sex trafficking victims. We helped organized twelve non-profits to band together and form the Rhode Island Coalition against Human Trafficking with over forty community members, and I was honored to be elected a co-chair. Reaching out to coalition volunteers, we organized the group into three committees — public education, legislation and service provision — and began work on raising awareness.[1]  

Ultimately, our greatest victory was getting a state law passed providing provisions on prosecution of human trafficking and victim protections. For over a year, fellow volunteers and we lobbied most state legislators directly and secured the endorsement of the Governor, the Attorney General, and a number of mayors. Despite all that I thought there would be little resistance; no one is “for” trafficking. I drew up a lengthy bill with the Polaris Project Attorney. Yet, other anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution bills[2] were introduced, confusing the issue. There was also strong resistance from the RI ACLU and other organizations about the bill's creating new felonies. Ultimately, a compromise was reached and a shorter version of the bill I helped author was passed. Making trafficking a statewide issue by getting a short bill passed was a satisfying effort that, I think but am not sure about, led to the much bigger fight in 2009 around these issues, which I played no part in. 

Internships around international human trafficking

My focus at Polaris Project has been on state and national policy issues, but human trafficking is a global problem, so I extended that experience by spending two summers interning at government agencies that work against human trafficking on more international scales. 

The first summer, I had a Liman Undergraduate Public Interest Fellowship to work at the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre. While working there I learned about operations, legal practices and cross-agency cooperation within the British Government and its work with European allies. I got to travel all over Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, to see how the British were trying to prevent the sourcing of trafficking victims before they ever reached the UK. I also got to work on building a number of academic networks across the UK. 

The second summer, I worked at the US Department of State's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons. I got to work on addressing the widespread use of forced labor in the Thai and Bangladeshi shrimp processing industries and the use of child labor in West Africa cocoa farming, staffing a cabinet-level task force on human trafficking, and conducting a bunch of research related to various reports and fact sheets. 
What I learned from my work against human trafficking

By the end of my time at Brown, I felt burned out by working against human trafficking. It’s a hard topic to talk about day in, day out. It’s draining. I think that human trafficking is some of the worst suffering that exists in this world, which is exactly why I saw it as the natural extension and logical end to my interest in child welfare. 

A lot of my anti-human trafficking work in Rhode Island felt like it was helping particular people (in a local, personal way), but working for two governments taught me that there was an opportunity to help even more people — if I could figure out how to make governments function better. Good, on a larger scale, was possible. I started to think about how one could make more policy changes, even small ones, that effected many people's lives. From that idea, I went on to work for Bennett Midland — but that's a different blog post — where I worked on several policies and programs at NYC's Administration of Children's Services, effecting the services provided to tens of thousands of children and families in the City. 


[1] One nice thing about this experience was that PPRI basically became my college job. Through winning things like J.W. Saxe Prize, and some other Brown fellowships, it was the greatest work-study job I could have hoped for in retrospect.  
[2] At the time, and I obviously am not an official spokesman of Polaris Project, I basically avoided any position on prostitution. It's a topic that elicits strong responses. Prostitution, sex workers, freedom, victimization, etc, are often polarizing flash points, especially so between the various factions of the anti-trafficking community. To square that circle, Polaris had an exclusive focus on exploitation: I don't know whether prostitution should or should not be illegal, but I know that a lot of prostitution is forced and that certainly should be illegal.