Center for Community Engagement

Engaging with complexity

July 2013—story by Jenny Morgan, photo courtesy Samuel A. Masinter '04.

Kate Berry ’12 has never been one to shy away from complex questions.

In fact, Berry’s willingness to engage with complexity is one of the most noticeable qualities of the 23 year old from Woodinville, Washington. In no small way, this willingness has led Berry to exactly where she is today—working full-time for the anti-human trafficking organization, Polaris Project. From a Civic Engagement Scholars internship with Polaris to an honors thesis, Berry has been grappling with the complexities of human trafficking for some time now.

During a semester abroad in Geneva, Switzerland in 2010, Berry was invited to a weekend conference on human trafficking in Luxor, Egypt. She’d been asked to speak to her experiences working with the Overlake School in Pailin, Cambodia—the sister school to Berry’s high school alma mater, the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington. Although her work with the rural Cambodian school wasn’t directly related to trafficking, the project had drawn considerable attention as a potential intervention.

Since beginning at Amherst, Berry had taken a real interest in understanding international human trafficking. The double major in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies was fascinated by the intersection of trafficking and political conflict. “I entered college interested in genocide and post-conflict states,” she says. “I [learned] that trafficking is likely to happen in these states. It’s a very complicated issue, and I think I was attracted to all of the debates in trafficking.” Through community-based learning courses at Amherst, Berry had begun to grapple with her own work in Cambodia. “I was challenged in some of my courses to [think] about how to do good in a respectful and sustainable way,” she says. “There’s no way that one school can actually combat trafficking in Cambodia.”

Berry in Luxor, Egypt in 2010

It is little wonder, then, that Berry arrived at the Luxor International Forum on Human Trafficking eager to delve into those complexities. Certainly, the forum included some of the world’s most influential players in the anti-trafficking movement: NGOs, scholars, and government and business leaders. It didn’t take long, however, for Berry to discover that getting people in the same room is just a tiny piece of the puzzle. “It felt like the audience being talked at as opposed to a place to really come together to create new initiatives,” she remembers. Yet in her disappointment, Berry found herself wrestling with a question that continues to animate her.

“What does it take for true international collaboration?”

Today, Berry is attempting to answer this question quite tangibly as the Global Hotlines Program Associate at Polaris Project—a Washington, D.C. based non-profit committed to ending human trafficking and modern-day slavery worldwide. For Berry, part of the answer lies in “starting small”—although when you’re working globally on human trafficking, “small” is an entirely relative term. Through Vision 2020, a project initiated in 2012, Berry is part of the inaugural team that’s launching Polaris onto the international anti-trafficking scene.

Founded in 2002 by Brown University alumni Katherine Chon and Derek Ellerman, Polaris Project combines direct service and advocacy for victims of human trafficking with systemic solutions to end trafficking. Berry was first introduced to the organization at the forum in Luxor, where she met Bradley Myles and Sarah Jakiel, the Project’s Executive and Deputy Directors, respectively. They encouraged her to apply to the internship program. She did, and in the summer of 2011, Berry spent eight weeks in a fellowship at Polaris Project with the support of the Civic Engagement Scholars program of the Center for Community Engagement. Having already landed on trafficking as her honors thesis topic, Berry approached her internship as a way “to really be immersed in my thesis topic.”

Immersed she was. Almost instantaneously, Berry was catapulted from thinking about trafficking from a more distant, academic perspective to answering phones for the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC). Even the preparation was intense: Berry underwent 80 hours of training on trafficking and the hotline before she could answer a single phone call. Berry’s fellowship brought her intimately close to the lived experiences of trafficking victims, and through this intimacy, Berry began to understand the full thrust of what is at stake with human trafficking. “At its core,” Berry explains, “I think trafficking is a human rights issue. It’s about the deprivation of freedom and basic liberty.”

Berry attributes her internship experience with bringing into focus the realities of trafficking in the United States. “I didn’t really understand that trafficking happened [here],” she admits. According to Berry, understanding trafficking in the United States centers on two crucial points: the first is that trafficking is just as much about labor as it is about sex. “The federal definition of trafficking,” she says, “is when individuals are induced into commercial sex or labor through force, fraud, or coercion.” Berry points to agriculture and domestic service as two of the United States’ biggest epicenters of labor trafficking. Equally salient, victims of trafficking don’t have to actually go anywhere to be trafficked. “The term makes us think of border crossing,” Berry explains. “But you could be trafficked in your hometown if you’re being forced into something.”

Berry at the State Department in Washington, D.C. in 2011. The Department's Trafficking in Persons division hosted D.C. area interns working on human trafficking during Berry's fellowship with Polaris Project.

Part of engaging with complexity, for Berry, has always meant traversing the worlds of scholarship and activism. Berry credits the CES internship with affording her a chance to “balance theory with what I was hearing on the hotline.” When she returned to Amherst to begin her thesis, she set out to do the opposite: Berry sought to contextualize her internship within the existing body of research on trafficking. “I wanted to be very true to what I had heard on the hotline,” she says. It was an immense challenge for Berry, and yet the struggle was instructive. “I left the summer with an activist charge, and I needed to separate myself a little bit from [that]. I was trying to have the answer and then find the question.”

Perhaps ironically, relinquishing the activist charge enabled Berry to craft a thesis that was, in fact, able to put scholarship in conversation with activist considerations. Berry chose to investigate the current political and social discourses on human trafficking in the United States, focusing on three specific concerns: prostitution and sex work, illegal migration, and criminal justice. “The debates about these issues have been written onto the issue of trafficking,” she says, “so that trafficking is not seen as an issue on its own.”

Berry’s research suggests that this “un-nuanced response” to human trafficking in the United States has “very real consequences for people in trafficking situations.” During the summer, Berry received a call from an undocumented worker who was being trafficked, and the only assistance she could offer was to contact law enforcement. While many in law enforcement have been trained in responding to trafficking—this is a large endeavor of Polaris Project—many victims “still have a well-founded fear of the police,” Berry explains. For Berry, this reality is a call to action, and exactly how she concluded her thesis. “We [need] to broaden our understanding of trafficking. Ending trafficking requires recognizing it as a human rights issue: not as a simple crime, and not as a question of the legality of prostitution or immigration. We are talking about men and women, about sex and labor.”

The thesis process affirmed for Berry the importance of understanding trafficking through scholarship. “The day-to-day work is so important, but the long-range perspective that theory gives us is just as vital to the fight against trafficking. Theory and practice need to work together.” In May of 2012, Berry graduated magna cum lade and accepted a full-time position at Polaris Project as a Call Specialist—jumping right back into the on the ground work. She returned to answering calls on the hotline and began working as the regional assistant for the northeast. Berry has thrived having the ability to regularly change the zoom. “I feel grounded as a scholar and an activist,” she reflects. “I’m now able to be both at the same time.”

In February 2013, Berry yet again changed her zoom—and this time, it has meant getting to puzzle over her lingering question from Luxor three years earlier. As the Global Hotlines Program Associate, Berry is part of a four-person team that’s bringing the Polaris Project’s anti-trafficking efforts onto the international scene. While Berry is quick to point out that the project is quite nascent, their ambitions aren’t small: the organization is seeking to facilitate international cooperation and sharing between anti-trafficking groups on an unprecedented scale.

To begin, Berry and her team are creating a global map. “We want to really understand what trafficking organizations exist, and in particular, where there are human trafficking hotlines,” she says. They’ll then use the information collected in the mapping project to develop a hotlines toolkit, both for organizations who already have a hotline and for those who want to start one. “The Polaris Project team will be providing direct training and technical assistance,” she says. “It will be based on our experiences with the national hotline here.” The culmination of this work, Berry explains, is the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. The hotline partners will share in a peer-to-peer exchange of information. The data won’t personally identify victims of trafficking, but it will offer crucial trend-level data that doesn’t currently exist. “It will be like, in the month of May, we received five calls referencing sex trafficking and ten calls referencing labor trafficking. It would be enough to identify trends: sex trafficking versus labor trafficking, and networks as well: is it a brothel? Is it agriculture?” So far, there are two other trafficking organizations in the network: La Strada International, based in the Netherlands, and Liberty Asia in Hong Kong. “On a very broad level, we are hoping that what comes out of this network is better prevention efforts,” Berry says. “Through this network, we believe we can also increase the opportunity for victims to get out of their situations.”

Returning to working on international trafficking feels to Berry like coming full circle. “[In Egypt], there were these high-level, interesting conversations about international cooperation, but it was really hard to see anything concrete come of out it,” she remembers. “[This work] feels like coming back to what brought me to the issue in the first place.” A few years down the road, Berry plans to study human rights at the graduate level. She’s considering continuing to focus on trafficking. Regardless of what Berry zooms in on next, it seems a sure bet that she’ll continue to grapple with complexity. “My political science professor, Andy Poe, uses the term ‘worry,’” Berry says. “You know, something that really consumes you, something you want to puzzle out. Having real-life experiences working with trafficking meant that it began to worry me in a much more meaningful way. It’s brought tremendous value to my work, and how I understand my work.”