Against Their Will

By Will Bunch '81 and Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / January / February 2006
April 18th, 2007

On a muggy, ninety-seven-degree afternoon in July, Derek Ellerman ’00 stands on a simmering sidewalk in Washington, D.C., just a few doors down from Ford’s Theatre, the infamous spot where John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln five days after the end of the Civil War. More than a dozen tourists are gathered across from the theater, but Ellerman is watching something else: two middle-aged men stumbling through a nondescript door plastered with Fraternal Order of Police stickers. Both men wear upscale polo shirts and sunglasses, and emerging into the sunshine, the older of the two checks his pants and tugs at his belt.

“There are the johns,” Ellerman says in the soft, urgent tone of a bird-watcher.

It’s doubtful that the tourists or the busloads of schoolchildren on field trips would ever suspect they’re outside a notorious brothel that’s repeatedly raided by the D.C. metro police. But to Ellerman, a slight twenty-seven-year-old with neatly parted black hair and wire-rimmed glasses, the signs are obvious: the video camera next to the entrance buzzer, the boarded-up second-floor windows, and those seemingly incongruous FOP stickers. “For some reason, they all have them,” he observes.

In the three years since he graduated from Brown, Ellerman has come to know a side of the nation’s capital you won’t find in any Frommer’s or Fodor’s guidebook. The signs of the district’s sex trade are so obvious to him that he can’t imagine how others miss them. Later that day, while driving down K Street—the daytime hub of the U.S. lobbying industry and the nighttime locus of “the Loop,” where drivers cruise for prostitutes—he describes a young girl he’d spotted there several nights earlier. “She was just this tall,” he says, holding a hand to his shoulder. “And her hips went straight down. Hundreds of people drive by here, and they don’t notice a twelve-year-old girl?” the normally soft-spoken Ellerman asks sharply.

To him, that child’s presence on K Street is the face of modern-day slavery. Despite U.S. and international laws prohibiting them, indentured servitude and other forms of forced labor persist, hidden from most of us. Their victims keep silent, fearing both their oppressors and the authorities who would prosecute them as illegal aliens or prostitutes. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to counteract this fear of government prosecution. The law defines human trafficking as encompassing a range of crimes that involve forcing, tricking, or otherwise coercing people into labor or the sex trade, a definition that differentiates trafficking from smuggling, which simply involves moving people across national borders. (See “What Is Trafficking?” page 30). The law is particularly tough on any commercial sexual activity involving a child, from pornography to prostitution, all of which are considered serious forms of trafficking, as is coercing an adult into sex for money.

Human trafficking is a significant and profitable business, though how significant and profitable is difficult to assess. Ellerman says it’s the third-largest criminal industry on earth—after drugs and arms—and the fastest growing. Of course, traffickers don’t exactly announce that they’re hiring kids out as prostitutes or forcing recent immigrants to pay off ever-increasing debts as nannies, tomato pickers, or sweatshop workers. The most widely used estimate is the annual report on human trafficking that the U.S. Department of State has compiled every year since 2001. Last year the agency estimated that the number of people (mostly women and girls) trafficked in the world each year is between 600,000 and 800,000. About 15,000 of these are brought into the United States and held against their will. Even those numbers are disputed, though, as was dramatized two years ago, when a New York Times Magazine article’s contention that as many as 10,000 new sex slaves arrive in the United States each year triggered a fierce debate in journalism circles.

Whatever the exact numbers, no one doubts that human trafficking remains a serious problem worldwide, and Ellerman and his fellow alum Katherine Chon ’02 are two of its most prominent foes. Together they founded and run the D.C.–based advocacy group the Polaris Project. After three years, Chon and Ellerman have built up a paid staff of nine and an army of volunteers who together contribute about 16,000 hours of labor a year. Polaris has trained 123 “leadership fellows” from a dozen countries to help victims and raise public awareness. With State Department funding, former fellows run a satellite office in Tokyo. The group has also established a staffed office in New Jersey, as well as grass-roots chapters in Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, and Boston. The project operates three informational Web sites (,, and, and runs twenty-four-hour hot lines in several languages in Washington, D.C., and Tokyo. Staff and volunteers work closely with the D.C. metropolitan police, training officers and providing such help as shelter, clothing, and legal and immigration advice, mostly to women trafficked through the city’s brothels.

Advocating for legal reforms, Polaris staff members have testified before Congress, and they are helping states draft legislation to criminalize trafficking at the local level. A dozen states have done so, and another fifteen have legislation pending. To the victims of human trafficking, the Polaris Project is an important stop on a twenty-first-century Underground Railroad.

The Polaris Project arose out of one the many what-if bull sessions that you can find in progress every day in the dorms and dining halls around the Brown campus. Most of these speculative discussions end up nowhere, but not the one that took place in Ellerman’s off-campus apartment one night not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Ellerman had just returned to Brown after taking time off, and he’d met Chon when she moved into the apartment upstairs a few weeks earlier. He’d helped her move in some things, and they’d struck up a promising friendship. An education concentrator, Chon had been planning to teach school after graduation and eventually to apply to graduate programs in counseling, but something about the events of 9/11 made her turn outward, she says. One night she and Ellerman were talking with friends about slavery and the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, when the subject turned to modern-day human rights activism. Someone brought up the subject of human trafficking, which Chon knew nothing about. “I began asking my professors and friends, ‘What do you know about human trafficking?’ ” she says. “No one knew anything.” When she and Ellerman researched the problem online, they came across a 1998 Providence Journal article describing a police raid on one of the city’s brothels, which was operating under the cover of being a health club. The Journal reported that police had discovered six South Korean women being held captive and forced to have sex with customers. The women were working sixteen- to twenty-hour days and receiving no pay—only tips, with which they were struggling to pay off the $10,000 debt each owed the club’s owner for transportation and housing. One woman had what looked like cigarette burns on her forearm. All six were charged with prostitution; the victim-protection laws were two years away.

“These women were my age,” says Chon, who was born in South Korea. As she read more, she learned that Providence is home to a network of Korean massage parlors that operate similarly. “It was mind-blowing that this could be happening just a few miles away from Brown,” she says. “I felt pulled to this issue. And I wanted to find a way to make a difference.”

Ellerman proved a perfect partner. He’d had previous experience using the Brown curriculum to investigate controversial social issues, and he was a seasoned activist. During his sophomore year, when the Providence police were accused of unjustly pepper-spraying and assaulting Brown students on campus, Ellerman had created a Group Independent Study Project to look into the issue. Then, at twenty-one, he’d taken time off from his courses to serve as executive director of the Providence Center for Police and Community, which successfully pushed for reforms, including the creation of an independent civilian police-review board. Now back in school, with a final year of courses to complete, Ellerman turned his attention to human trafficking. The students researched human trafficking through a senior seminar and several independent studies; their findings would become the foundation of Polaris’s research and training Web site,

Studying the problem wasn’t enough for Ellerman and Chon, however. They wanted to help solve it, and they figured the first thing they needed was a business plan. “We thought having a deadline would help,” Chon says. So they took advantage of Brown’s annual student entrepreneurship competition, which had sprung up during the high-tech boom of the late 1990s. They incorporated themselves as the Polaris Project in February 2002 and entered their business plan in the competition.

Unusual as it was for a nonprofit to enter, Chon and Ellerman won second prize—and $12,500. The day after graduation, the two packed up a U-Haul truck, and with their prize money they set up shop in Washington, D.C. They had no friends or family there, but they knew the city was home to a flourishing network of brothels, as well as to the federal agencies that were beginning to pursue human trafficking in earnest.

Last July, in Foggy Bottom, home to the now heavily barricaded State Department headquarters, about twenty foreign-service trainees—men with tousled hair and women in gray pinstriped business suits—sat around a small first-floor meeting room. In about a week, they would be assigned to U.S. embassies and consulates around the globe.

“My hunch is you all know the statistics,” Chon told the group, noting the rise in federal awareness since the Polaris Project started working with nonprofits and lobbying the government. So instead of rattling off numbers, she described the ways U.S. diplomats abroad were able to help when a Polaris Project hot line received a call on behalf of an Eastern European woman who was being held against her will and forced to work as a prostitute in the Middle East.

Although the twenty-five-year-old Chon, in her black suit jacket and silky white blouse, was younger than many of her listeners, they paid close attention and peppered her with questions. The high level of awareness at Foggy Bottom that afternoon was a tribute to what Polaris has accomplished in such a short time, but another, more concrete accolade came last year, when the Do Something Foundation, which promotes volunteerism and activism among young people, awarded Chon one of its Brick Awards and a $10,000 prize.

From the start, Chon and Ellerman wanted to fight all forms of human trafficking—not to carve out a niche such as sweatshops or farmwork or the sex trade. They also wanted Polaris organized as much as possible as a grassroots organization, one that would respond to local needs rather than operate as a top-down lobbying group. “In Washington our client base is mostly involved in sex trafficking,” Chon says; consequently, much of their work in the district has focused on the sex trade.

Polaris has continued to evolve in response to local needs. Although neither Chon nor Ellerman ever intended to run a social services agency, for example, their collaboration with the metro police led them to create the Greater D.C. Trafficking Intervention Program. The D.C. hot lines have processed more than 15,000 calls to date. And Ellerman says police frequently call after late-night brothel raids, asking Polaris to help out in ways the officers can’t—offering a few nights of emergency shelter or some clothing, for example.

Their experience has made Chon and Ellerman challenge the traditional libertarian view of prostitution as little more than a public nuisance or even a victimless crime. “We see women who’ve been locked in closets, beaten, pistol-whipped—covered with hundreds of bruises,” Chon says. “This violence is so real.” The average age at which kids enter prostitution is thirteen, Ellerman emphasizes, adding, “We’re trying to help people understand what goes on in the sex industry.”

The link that Ellerman and Chon see between sexual slavery and prostitution has also led them to question the conventional wisdom that human trafficking affects only recent immigrants. They argue that many domestic sex workers should also be considered trafficking victims, since they are forced to work the streets or in brothels against their will.

In making that argument, Ellerman and Chon have an invaluable asset in Tina Frundt, Polaris’s street outreach coordinator. A college-educated single mother with an easy smile, Frundt saw an ad for the Polaris Project one day and immediately felt that she had found her calling. Like Chon, Ellerman, and the others who work in the agency’s staid-looking yellow brownstone on a residential street on Capitol Hill, Frundt is often in the office until 1 or 2 a.m., answering the hot line.

It wasn’t until she became involved with Polaris that Frundt began to talk about her own past. Growing up in Chicago, she says, at age ten she was forced into prostitution by a foster mother’s abusive boyfriend. At fourteen she met an older boyfriend, who seemed like “a wonderful guy” and told her of the money they would make together. He turned out to be a pimp. He took her to Cleveland and forced her to work the street every night with three other girls. To keep her from fleeing, he’d vacillate between empathy and violence. He broke her arm with a baseball bat, leaving a finger permanently mangled, she says, and he frequently locked her in a closet as punishment.

Last April, Frundt agreed to tell her story to Congress. “I want you to think about the women and children that you have seen late at night, when you may be coming home from work or a social event,” she told a House Financial Services subcommittee. “Maybe you have seen women in the streets in short dresses. You turn your heads to look away. We don’t look at the faces of these young women and girls who are forced to be out in the street. Maybe we think this is what they want to do or they wouldn’t be out there.” 

Chon both welcomes the media spotlight on Polaris’s work and fears it. The problem, she says, is that sex trafficking is so easy to sensationalize that coverage can end up creating more misunderstandings than clarity. To highlight its January 2004 article on prostitution in the suburbs, for example, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover photograph of a schoolgirl sitting on her bed; the cover line read “Sex Slaves on Main Street.”

Chon fears that sensationalized images and breathless reporting can undermine Polaris’s efforts, drawing attention to exceptional cases and away from less sexy but larger problems, such as the widespread trafficking of agricultural laborers and factory workers—many of them children—in places like India and China. Even in the United States, she points out, smuggled immigrants are forced to labor for little or no wages in sweatshops, in domestic situations, and on farms. Most are kept there by violence and the threat of violence, or by the fear of being reported to immigration officials. Many are enslaved by debt they will never be able to repay. In southwest Florida, which one U.S. Department of Justice official has called the “ground zero of modern slavery,” Greg Asbed ’85 and Laura Germino ’84 have founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to advocate for and protect such desperate farmworkers.

Chon and Ellerman are also focusing on a public-awareness campaign to publicize the role multinational corporations play in silently condoning slave labor around the world. It’s a problem in which many U.S. consumers are unwittingly complicit, they say. “A lot of the goods we buy every day are produced by people in slave-like conditions,” Ellerman says. For example, children manufacture bricks and handmade rugs in India, he says, and Egyptian children pick cotton that is sent to China, to be woven by workers confined in locked factory compounds. “Those victims have not gotten enough attention,” he says.

Within the United States, Polaris is lobbying most intensely at the state level. Only a dozen states have criminalized trafficking, which is why so much of the onus for stemming it falls on federal prosecutors. Even though prosecutions for trafficking have increased tenfold since 2000, the number remains woefully low. In 2004, for instance, the United States prosecuted only fifty-nine trafficking defendants (all but seven for sex trafficking), and convicted only forty-three. While federal law has provided the framework for going after traffickers, “the resources are limited,” Ellerman says. “The state courts are the real workhorse of the criminal justice system.” Once the states get on board, he notes, the number of law enforcement officers available to pursue traffickers will increase exponentially.

The problem of human trafficking can seem overwhelming to Chon and Ellerman. In July, 2004, Ellerman addressed the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and Wellness: “The standard I use to evaluate how well the U.S. is doing against trafficking is ‘Have the traffickers noticed yet?’ and particularly, ‘Have the majority of victims noticed yet?’ ” The answer, overwhelmingly, even almost half a decade after the passage of the TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act], is no.”

Not much has changed since then, but Ellerman seems unfazed. On that muggy day last summer, the heat was beginning to ease as he headed back to the Polaris office for a 4 p.m. conference call, after which he and Chon were taking a group of graduating fellows out to dinner. Then they’d return to the office for a long night of administrative work, or a hot line call.

Do they worry about burnout? “Personally?” Ellerman asks, laughing at the question. “Kat and I work ninety to a hundred hours a week,” he says, “from nine in the morning until midnight or so. But you have to understand: if we had free time, this is what we’d be doing.”


Contributing Editor Will Bunch is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News. His blog, Attytood, is at dnblog/attytood. Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor


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