Katherine Chon and Kimberly Casey

Recorded May 14, 2021 Archived May 13, 2021 41:04 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddv000759


Colleagues Katherine Chon [no age given] and Kimberly Casey [no age given] talk about their work in human trafficking, reflecting on important lessons they have learned along the way, proud moments in the work, and hopes for the future.

Subject Log / Time Code

Kimberly talks about how her career began working in the anti-trafficking realm. She remembers an important shift in her understanding of children who are trafficked that influenced her work.
Kimberly talks about the 6 years she spent developing a research and prevention program, and then moving to the Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) after.
Katherine reflects on her awareness of trafficking in college and how it influenced her career path.
Katherine talks about working in government and what she thought it would be like compared to the reality. She talks about proud moments of her work, like the connections between government and the public as well as the ability to gather statistics on human trafficking to create better policies.
Kimberly shares her appreciation for Katherine's creation of a culture of learning at OTIP.
Katherine reflects on lessons she has learned from her work. She talks about the difficulties of influencing social change and speaks to the power of individual advocacy. She shares her hope for the future that fewer and fewer people will remain neutral on the issue of human trafficking.
Katherine remembers a dream she had once while she was pregnant that became a metaphor for her about human trafficking.
Katherine talks about the science behind the concept of "mattering" and her hope that one day, every child will matter to at least one other person.


  • Katherine Chon
  • Kimberly Casey

Recording Location

Virtual Recording


Partnership Type

Fee for Service



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00:02 My name is Katherine Chon. And today is Friday, May 14th, 2021. I'm in Washington DC and I'm here with my collie Kimberly Casey.

00:16 My name is Kimberly Casey. Today is Friday, May 14th, 2021. I am recording in Alexandria, Virginia. My recording partner Catherine. I will be having this conversation with me today.

00:35 Alright, I can really have Katherine. So Kimberly one of the we work together at the office on trafficking in persons in the US Department of Health and Human Services and you have been a critical part of this collaboration with storycorps and our goal to bring more oral histories and more voices into a collective reflection on how much the United States has come to address human trafficking in our understanding in protecting victims and survivors and prevention, work and other efforts. So we do a lot of work in the US government, but we also had a life prior to our federal Public Service in the non-government sector.

01:35 Do you like what was it like for you? I'm just curious of when people think of creating change. I remember for me. I had started my work on this issue. In the non-government sector. I'm starting up a nonprofit and running it for more than about 10 years and the challenges and opportunities and the

02:11 Idealistic vision of how, change happens at the Grassroots level and, and then seeing what that was like behind the store inside the federal government's in my more recent years, but I given that you also have experienced both sectors of of Public Service. Any, any Reflections you would want to share. Why did you come into the federal government's? What was it? Like with that transition? Why, how did you start getting involved in this issue?

02:50 Great questions. So I'm not sure if you actually know this. I started my career in federal government. My first job out of college was working at the Department of Education in. What was then the office of safe and drug-free. Schools, is now the office of safe and healthy students. And I remember being so excited about the idea of being able to work at the macro level and effects change for kids, which is always been something that I have wanted to do. And so

03:25 I have all of these memories of those first moments working in government where the first time, I went to the hill and prepared briefings for people to we're going to be testifying and effecting change through legislation and recommendations and how that felt like something that a twenty-two-year-old just out of undergrad, should probably not be doing, but felt like a really powerful experience. And in that was actually where I first started working on the issue of trafficking and it's something that happened really by happenstance. There was a somewhat newly-developed senior policy operating Group, which we all now continue to work with. And all of the number departments, were tasked, with, developing something related, to human trafficking. And so the secretary Kim,

04:25 Back to our office and said you need to do something on human trafficking in schools figure out what you want to do. And I was the newest hire and the youngest member of the team in that moment and no one else actually wanted to work on the issue. And so it got put on my desk as a task to really take the lead on and was one of the first projects that I had the opportunity to take the lead on. And we actually met with Polaris to discuss the issue of human trafficking and learn from them because I had studied and undergrad human trafficking at the international level. But still had so many misconceptions about what it was in the United States. And so I remember sitting in this conference room across the table from people at Polaris, and I believe you were actually still at Polaris at the time and they were telling us

05:25 About how schools could become engaged with this issue? And I remember them specifically saying that teachers could help identify children, who are being exploited and still going to school. And I remember literally sitting back in my chair and thinking, wait a minute, kids were being trafficked or still going to school. Like it didn't match with any of my understanding of what actually happened because I think at that time, I still believe that children who were being trafficked were isolated, right? They weren't allowed to engage with the rest of society. And so that was a real shifting point for me in my understanding of the issue. And it became something that I knew that I wanted to work on. The reason I had wanted to do a lot of Child Protection work was, because within my family, there are a lot of people who had experienced abuse and it was never

06:25 Gentefied. And then once it was identified, it wasn't responded to in a way that was restorative for them. And so, the idea that children were experiencing the best type of atomization and we're still falling through the cracks of systems. That was something that didn't sit well with me. And so it became an issue that I started really trying to learn more about and dive into. And then I actually realized that I didn't have enough practical experience in the issue to be able to affect policy. So people wear then starting to come and say what what do we need to do? And I really felt like I don't have enough micro experience to actually help with the macro Keys here. I need to learn more and so that was why I left Federal service and actually started working on a non-profit where the job that I was given was to figure out how to implement prevention programming with in a school-based.

07:25 So, I spent six years actually, working on developing a research-based prevention program that we were able to utilize in schools as well. For settings, Juvenile Justice settings, and

07:42 We're able to see some really significant and exciting transformation happen with the students that we were working with. And so I did that like I said for about 6 years and then as I was thinking about what was next for my career, I reflected back on some of the questions that had been in my mind when I worked for the Department of Ed and works alongside or followed. A lot of the work that we took was doing and I felt like this would be a good space to start taking the lessons that I had learned within my time at nonprofit to be able to bring that and apply it to Federal service. Because as you know, there are fewer resources for this type of prevention, work, and I instead of continually

08:37 Pestering, the federal government to develop more resources as you probably recall. From all of the meetings, we scheduled with you wanted to be part of the work that you were doing and to be able to really show and demonstrates that prevention can work. That it is something that is valuable to invest in and hopes that I would be able to use the experience that I had previously to come alongside. What were some of the early movements that you all were making chicks and the prevention work.

09:12 Long answer, but hopefully that answers your butt. Yes. You reminded me. You're right. You, what you started your work on this issue in the federal government, kind of and are coming full circle. Now. What year do you remember, what year that was? When you're probably having those conversations with Polaris and other organizations.

09:37 So it would have been somewhere between July 2006 and August 2007. Yes. I definitely would have been there.

09:51 Yeah, we learned so much and I just I've used that story a few times to really normalize the idea that we all need someone to come into our space to teach us about what we don't know. And for a lot of teachers are a lot of the people that I feel like we work with now. Almost feel a level of guilt or shame for not knowing. And so normalizing, the idea that there are so many misconceptions about human trafficking and it is okay that someone has to come into our space and help us to learn about new things that are not commonly taught within academic settings. And so it's one of the reasons why I do love approaching this issue from a training, technical assistance education framework because I've also needed that in my own life, and I've seen how it's been able to transform my work.

10:51 So, turning the question back on you, you started a non-profit. You sounded, what is one of the leading anti-trafficking organizations? And certainly one that has significantly impacted the way that nonprofits and the federal government interest tax and you founded the office on trafficking in persons and have been the director here since it was established almost six years ago. Now, tell me about that transition and how was it for you?

11:24 It was, you know, when I graduate I first learned about human trafficking as a college students. And when I thought about social change and what it would take

11:40 To do something meaningful on an issue. That seems so entrenched. You know, I don't know what to do, dance believe these days. But when I was a student, there was like, oh, I'm just a student. But in starting Polaris project, the initial goal was

12:07 I have tied to my own personal understanding of how of human trafficking at that point, where there were six, women from Asia, who are forced into commercial sex in a massage parlor in downtown Providence. A couple miles away from our college campus and I was shocked at how little a Tech Community attention. It got and I felt like the people, the women were invisible. No one was paying attention. And and I wondered how

12:47 How much is is happening outside and we were in Providence Rhode Island, which is a pretty small City. And so I so the journey was also very much based in education cuz I students that's our frame of reference in our world and the importance of Education as an empowering to land. So the initial goal was all right, the next time anything happens where someone is forced into some type of bondage or forced to work or forced to do something else against their will. There has to be some degree of community raised around it. And so our goal was to like fundamentally change the way communities responded. So when a case happen and other government response, but then also communities would rally around and say that this is wrong and I was very idealistic at that time.

13:45 And but I had a butt was amazed to see overtime. How, you know, all those clothes. It takes just a group of very passionate people to be able to make change. And one of the benefits of I'm having attempted and succeeded in starting a nonprofit organization with social impact, is the people power and the lessons around that along the way. And particularly in working with survivors of trafficking and the importance of elevating, the voices of people with lived experience. And that's that's one of the biggest lessons I brought into Federal service.

14:41 And at the time, I remember saying to myself as a college student, like there's no way I'm ever going to work in government. That's where like, ideas go to die. There's no innovation that can happen in federal government. So that's the role of the private sector of the non-government organizations. And then I left Polaris cuz I, I needed a change. I was really burned out after a decade of working on, pretty traumatic issues. As we all know at our office and there was an opportunity at the Department of Health and Human Services. They were looking for someone with subject matter expertise to come in as I go. I never thought of working government, but public service is really important to me, and I can contribute in some ways and then long story short. Once I got here.

15:41 I was just amazed at how few people with outside experience were actually serving in public in in federal government. And that's why I was soaked. Like our office is, made up of so many people with experience and that's been really helpful in helping are in growing. The impact that we've been able to have in the Partnerships, but it's, it was really I opening for me.

16:16 Coming into government dispels, a lot of myths of yes, some ideas may come here to die. But there is so much more opportunity to create change at massive scale with the right Partnerships and

16:34 I am people at the table from diverse, stakeholder groups and and there were certain challenges that we had in the nonprofit sector that we continue to have, in, in government. We're now, although we don't fundraise in the federal government budget is still really important in all those operational details on Partnerships are still important. While there are

17:07 Opportunities or things that the government can do that non-government organizations cannot and they're also a lot of limitations and

17:19 It's been.

17:21 A good journey to be on. And I think the the proof for me at the whenever I think about.

17:31 Impact is had our organization, not existed. How would the world be different? And I think even five or six years into the office on trafficking in persons. There would be some meaningful answers to that question. Not only to ourselves being part of the office by 2 to the public.

17:59 You've made me think of so many questions and I'm going to try to remember them all. So starting with that piece right there that you think that, you know, the world is a better place because of the work that has happened. Over the last few years with Otep. What are one or two of the things that you are most proud of that have come out of the office?

18:22 When I think of government, or when I thought of government as a young person, I really saw it as like, this is a distance and Tootsie has nothing really to do with my day-to-day life. And it's something like it was really hard to feel connected as an, immigrant's, as a young person. And, and so, one aspect of what, I felt our responsibility was what I was to truly reflect the communities. We Serve by having those communities at the table. So survivors people with lived experience that families and communities impacted by human trafficking, broadening the table, so it's not just a law enforcement and

19:22 Researchers but Public Health, officials and Healthcare Providers, and I think it's the table setting and the table widening so that people could feel connected that what we do really does make an impact and that they have a voice at influencing what that impact is. Cuz I don't want people. It's easy for people to feel disconnected from something. Just that you use a term macro. That's may not be parted. Seemingly part of their day-to-day lives or seemingly on influenceable to the average person. So I saw that as part of my contributions to

20:13 Strengthening that connection of the government isn't a foreign entity but is integrated into public life to serve the public and represent the public. And so that's I think from a process perspective. That's one of the aspects of our impact that I'm I'm proud that we were able to accomplish because it also represents the importance of those Partnerships and then and then I think the second part, you know, there are many parts of the federal government that work on human trafficking.

20:53 And what one of the many things that we bring to it is helping to strengthen the science and understanding of the violence of human trafficking and there is whenever we can measure something, count, something know something, then there is some degree of public accountability to do something about it. And I think for a long time in the anti-trafficking field, there were anecdotes and stories of how this impacted individuals and that's really important. But then the story of how entrenched this issue is and how diverse and widespread it is was really hard for people to under the stands at the time. And we've invested so much more in research and data collection and

21:52 For policy-making purposes, those questions and those Investments are important because it creates more transparency and accountability and then we can actually measure how we're able to move forward in tangible ways.

22:11 That's gray. One of the things that Drew me to the office are from what you just talked about. So, the public health approach of, really widening that table and making sure that

22:27 There is some level of integration on the response as someone who approaches the issue from a prevention lens, that is something that I have appreciated. And so it's critical. If we actually want to be able to effect long-term change and then the date of peace. I, I, I am not a researcher or someone who loves to actually do the data side, but I am the one who very much relies on that for knowing whether or not what we're doing is working. And those are the people that I want at the table with us because I think for so long like you said as the as the movement was beginning to grow into a ball.

23:11 We were doing anything that we thought might work, and there was a lot of opinion about what works and we're at the stage now where we can start testing those Solutions and see where we want to further our investment and further our work. And I think as a work that would have his doing on the data and research piece is so critical to that.

23:37 One of the things I would also say that I appreciate about you and Drew me to this particular office and work is the fact that you have created this culture of learning within our office. And that is something that I think is so important for our continued growth. You mentioned that one of the things you thought you brought from. The private sector to public, was your learning of how important it is to have other people with lived experience of people with little experience survivors at the table. What would you say over the course of your career are some of your biggest Lessons Learned? And how has your thinking about the issue of olives?

24:34 Well, one is social change. And then I don't know what what was in my mind as a 20 year old.

24:49 When I chose this path will, I don't even know what I was choosing but I think in terms of lessons learned by Amber. One of the first things I told myself about this issue is like

25:04 This is at the time. I didn't see directly how much contemporary forms of human trafficking was directly tied to the legacies of slavery in historical forms of Oppression. But there is there a lot of overlaps of control and coercion and manipulation and how people are profiting off of it and how it was like, in feel like part of our Market systems. And, and I said, given what we know, like, where things might be different now, but at the time, I like given where we stand as a country in terms of categorical,

25:50 Like rejection of slavery and bad.

25:57 Near Universal understanding that it should not exist. It should not have existed. Historically, certainly in contemporary times. I thought who would disagree with a contemporary form of this type of Oppression. This is going to be easy. Let's just convince people that it exists and it's kind of like that. If you build it, they will come Field of Dreams saying, like, that's what it is. Like, we just have to let people know. And then people will be so outraged because I'm outraged and then it'll go away. So, one of the biggest lessons was awareness in and of itself, won't create social change, especially for an issue. That's just so integrated into

26:47 Incentives and market and social norms. And the normalization is a certain forms of violence and it takes many more sophisticated strategies to translate awareness of an issue until like Behavior or other like changes. And so that's one big early lesson that not everyone can this is he really cares about Universal human rights when confronted directly with the issue and then, secondly, on the more empowering side is. Now the, the self-concept I had at the time of I'm just a student or other people saying, I'm just a nurse or I'm just a researcher. Who am I to do XYZ to create this change?

27:47 Some will it some would even say it's up to the government to?

27:52 Address, these large social issues. And in the the lesson I learned there was actually as an individual themselves could have tremendous Ripple effects of change, especially seeing how much survivors of human trafficking and have taken leadership roles in the anti-trafficking field, how much they've been able to influence even what the federal government is doing and advise and strengthen the strategy. So it's not just awareness and it has translated into action. So individual difference are individual actions matter.

28:37 And yes, I think it's it's those two things that like not everyone cares awareness isn't enough. But taking some action is actually more powerful than people with pink. And and the, my hopes is my hope, like biggest. Hope is when I reflect back on the Abolitionist Movement during chattel slavery, or any other historical time of Oppression, where you had a group of people that were passionately, fighting for some type of change, a group of people passionately fighting to maintain the status quo and then like the vast majority of the middle. Mostly neutral kit may have cared but not that much to take action. What I hope to see through our work and then work in the field is like shrink that new

29:37 For middle and see how.

29:41 Fisher human trafficking or the issue of any other form of. Oppression does impact our lives and does impact our communities and feel compelled to take some type of action.

29:59 That's great. I would say similarly to your first response again, is someone who works at this issue or comes to this issue from a prevention space. I too thought that perhaps things would be a little more simple because of course, people don't people don't want children to be abused or people to be abused in general. So once we raise awareness of this issue, everybody's going to get on board and then we tell people what's happening and then they know to avoid certain situations and then they're going to be safe. And then having to understand the complexity of the intersectionality of the issue has been something that has been a real growth space for me. I

30:47 Raquel having a conversation as I was working on, developing a curriculum for children to help them be aware. And then also have the skills. They need to avoid certain situations. I was having a conversation with a researcher who had done a lot of evaluation on prevention programs and he reminded me that I had to tell her know that drugs are bad. They know that gangs are dangerous, but they still do drugs, and they still drink gangs. Why? And so that really started a Learning Journey from me of delving into what were the causal factors. What were the push and pull factors, recognizing that it is not as simple as putting up a poster and saying don't meet the man that you meet online in person. We really need to start delving into. Why is it that the kid is going online and seek?

31:47 Attention from someone that they don't know. How do you address that core cause in. So recognizing the complexity felt a little overwhelming like you said, social change does not happen easily, but it also in some ways gave me encouragement because it felt like okay. I can put a science to this. Now we can we can put this into a logic model and start addressing those issues. And again, it's it's going to take so much time and so much social change and we need to be in this for the Long Haul perserverence. She's is going to be really important. So it was both of discouragement and encouragement for me. Okay. We need to knock this out. And once we map it out, we can start figuring out the problem rather than kind of focusing on what I thought was, we just need to have conversations with people. And as soon as we have those conversations, things are going to change.

32:48 Yeah, I I I remember there is a slight Vivid dream. I had a few years ago, but I woke up in a cold sweat is one of those dreams. Like, I still remember to this day and it stays with me as like a metaphor on this issue where I was pregnant at the time and so maybe that was part of it and in the dream I lived in a huge house with it. So many rooms somewhere occupied somewhere not and someone rang the doorbell I opened it and there was like infants on the doorstep with no one else around so that I don't really like taking the infant. It's like every single like room and in that huge mansion of a house and say there's an infant who is like alone and someone needs to take care of this baby who can take care of this baby. Like I can't but I will like,

33:48 Door to door and then people like open the door and said, oh, well my work schedules, too busy. I can't fit it in Orono. I don't have the skills. I can't feel like every single door as I can go for some reason and then I got it. There's another ring at the door and this guy shows up and says I heard that there was a baby here and someone needed to take care of the baby. I will take care of the baby. I'm like, I don't know you. But sure, I spend like all this time trying to find someone to take care of this baby. If you're willing to take the baby go ahead. And then the the the hardest part of the dream was like in the dream a Time, fast, forwarded, 18 years and I still lived in that house. I got it. There is a ring at the door. I opened it and it was at baby, 18 years later and maybe this is kind of a nightmare, but it still made me so sad.

34:48 That in that dream, she opened the door and said, hi. I'm that baby, that you gave away to that man. And did, you know, such and such things happened. And part of her story was that she experienced trafficking, and a lot of abuse at the hands of this person because no one else in the house, could take care of the baby of her when she was a baby. And I just remember, like, I know I'm getting emotional now, but at the time and again, like it was, I was going to hear a lot of emotions as like a new mom at 10, but I think of like all the children metaphorically thinking of History, metaphorically of the children that you mentioned in your family.

35:38 The children that we've come across in our work and it's like, you know, we live in this world and like, people are living in these homes and have resources in the government's. I'm as resources and faith-based organizations, have resources in there. So many children who have need and if we don't step up, it's kind of like, you are saying we are, do the children go and what who will come in to influence their lives or manipulate them and use them for their own purposes or for-profit. And so I think of that dream slash nightmare a lot as a reminder that again,

36:25 Individual actions matter and there's so much need and there's something that each government agency each organization. Each family can do to contribute, even in the smallest ways through mentoring through

36:45 Volunteering donating food or clothes or adopting fostering?

36:53 Teaching educating connecting to each other and I don't know why that dream popped up, but when I was hearing Kimberly of

37:05 The children are at the family members who were once children, who experienced this at image popped up. So thank you for sharing that.

37:21 It definitely is. So I've never had a dream that Vivid about the issue but that is very much my motivation. And what I hope we can bring to this work through a lot of our education and awareness public awareness issues because we know the number one. Protective factor for children is having a healthy adult Who's involved in their lives. And that does not mean that a child is 100% in oculate against abuse, but it is a defining peace for so many kids.

38:02 And one of the things that was heartbreaking to me, in a lot of the prevention work that I've done, previously is,

38:12 There were times. We would ask kids to write down, who's your safe person and we'd have kids. Tell us, they don't have one. And so how can we create systems and programs that do wrap around children to give them those protections because it is possible. And we have seen it happen and a lot of the projects and work that have happened within the anti-trafficking field. And so we're learning a lot. I think that can help us to safeguard kids, but it does take that whole country whole industry solution.

38:49 Because there's so much need and I'm cognizant that if we don't sell those doubt someone else. Well and they will likely do it and take advantage. It takes everyone. But one of the most powerful lessons I learned in the violence, prevention research. I did in college, and I think there is a lot of literature around this is that there's a whole science around this concept of mattering and it's not necessarily

39:25 Who matters to me, but a notion of do I matter to someone else and as a protective Factor, as you mentioned, and the amazing thing is it's really one person. You only need to matter to one person to be a protective Factor against violence against gangs against any number of exploited issues. And yes, it takes like systems and wholeness and all of that. But really it's like does this child's matter to one person. And I am just hoping, you know, through our work, the work in the field of work and all the related fields that take one day, there will be a time when every single child will matter have at least one person in their lives where they feel that type of

40:24 Human connection and mattering in non-explosive and helping and loving ways. And

40:34 Kimberly thank you for the conversation today. It had it was a very unexpected morning, a lot surface that I had not realized. I would surface, and thank you for our conversation. Thank you. I enjoyed it as well and I am excited to continue this journey and work with you.