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Opening the World’s Eyes: Katherine Chon

While scanning an article detailing the plight of a group of South Korean girls who had been forced into prostitution at a massage parlor near her hometown, Katherine Chon couldn’t help but be struck by a sobering realization.

She could have been one of those girls.

Born in South Korea, Chon knew that had circumstances been different, she may have well been part of the third largest criminal industry in the world: the selling of people into human slavery. Determined to do something about a nefarious practice that ranks in size behind only arms and drug dealing among criminal practices worldwide, Chon formed the non-profit Polaris Project during her senior year at Brown University in 2002.

The organization provides emergency shelter and comprehensive case management to victims of trafficking, which is when people are forcibly coerced into performing labor or commercial sexual activity. The Polaris Project has helped over 60 clients in the past two years and operates a 24-hour hotline in English, Spanish, Korean and Thai that has processed over 1,500 calls.

Chon, 25, and fellow student and co-founder Derek Ellerman, who are based in Washington, D.C., began with a start-up budget of $50,000, raised from family and friends. The projected budget for 2006 is $600,000, due in large part to grants from such outlets as the U.S. Department of State, the Fund for Nonviolence, and private donors.

Polaris is the northern star that guided the slaves to freedom during the time of the American Underground Railroad, and the Polaris Project, which fights a form of modern slavery, has since become a beacon in several cities, with volunteers populating chapters in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and Denver, as well as an office in Japan. The group provides training and technical assistance about combating trafficking to over 75 federal and local law enforcement agencies across the country. Its office in Tokyo operates the first 24-hour toll-free hotline in Japan where citizens can report instances of trafficking.

“How we do what we do is so important,” says Chon, noting that it starts by pushing the envelope, and not being afraid to adapt and revise. “Very often people have difficulty letting go of things that don’t work. Yet we see ourselves as a social change laboratory, where we can scrap something and start again.”

The Polaris Project recently served as a consulting organization to Lifetime Television’s mini-series Human Trafficking, and works diligently with Congress on anti-trafficking legislation.

“I was very compelled to raise awareness first and foremost because I was passionate,” says Chon. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Among other honors, she was awarded the prestigious BRICK Award for social entrepreneurship by former President Bill Clinton.

“I believe that individuals can make a difference,” says Chon. “Follow whatever you are passionate about, embrace it, and don’t be afraid to accept the challenge. You can be scared of it, but do it anyway.”

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