Derek Ellerman

Ashoka Fellow
United States, North America
Fellow Since 2004
My work: building a citizen movement to put an end to human trafficking

Check out this video of Derek Ellerman's work

Related TopicsHuman trafficking, Human Rights & Equality, Social Entrepreneurship


This profile was prepared when Derek Ellerman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.
The New Idea
Derek Ellerman is creating a citizen movement to stop the annual trafficking of more than 20,000 foreign nationals and over 100,000 American children in the United States of America. Trafficking in persons, as defined by the United Nations and U.S. federal law, is a form of modern-day slavery, using violence and coercion to control and exploit its victims. Today trafficking is the third largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the world because the profits are high and the risk to the traffickers remains low.

Unlike typical anti-trafficking organizations which target poor, often South Asian nations and provide either legal services or social services for victims, Polaris Project engages normal community members, law enforcement and policymakers of wealthy countries such as the United States and Japan in a coordinated attack on the trafficker’s primary incentives—high profits and low risk of prosecution.

First, at the policy level, Polaris works to generate public support for state laws that are patterned after the new federal anti-trafficking legislation. The adoption of state laws across the nation will help institutionalize anti-trafficking measures in law enforcement at all levels, similar to the impact of domestic violence legislation decades ago. The model state legislation includes provisions for seizure and forfeiture of the traffickers’ assets. This creates a financial incentive for law enforcement agencies while simultaneously raising the risk to traffickers and providing additional revenues to support victims of sex trafficking.

Second, at the implementation level, Polaris Project supports local and federal law enforcement in the coastal trafficking hub cities such as Washington, DC, by dedicating staff to identifying brothels, massage parlors, and other businesses that are fronts for trafficking. Combining field research with information from women in the sex industry, Polaris Project has developed an extensive database of trafficking operations that it uses in victim outreach and enforcement against traffickers. This is a great resource to law enforcement who often lack the personnel, the diversity and trust of women in the industry, and the specialized knowledge to identify trafficking locations. No one else in the U.S. does this.

A tertiary benefit of Polaris’ model is that the fellows and volunteers who spend typically three to six months working at Polaris are from the same communities as the women in the trafficking networks, including the Korean, Chinese, Thai, and Latino communities. This multicultural model helps build trust with women in the sex industry, gives clients a feeling of family at Polaris Project, and also helps the fellows and volunteers become lifelong supporters in the anti-trafficking movement.

While there are dozens of anti-trafficking organizations around the world, the Polaris Project is the only multicultural grassroots agency that attacks the criminal industry in the destination countries, working both at the policy level and in the trenches.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

More For You