Alumni Spotlight: Catherine R. Chen, MPH '04

Catherine R. Chen, MPH ‘04 is Director of Investments for Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation where she leads the organization’s efforts to address human trafficking and exploitation in South Asia and the Middle East. She also heads the Partnership for Freedom, a public-private partnership announced by President Barack Obama and led by Humanity United, which aims to spur innovation in approaches used to combat human trafficking. During more than a decade of work developing and implementing anti-trafficking programs, Catherine led a U.S. Department of Justice program to train anti-trafficking task forces across the U.S. and served as the anti-trafficking and child protection advisor for Save the Children. She holds an MPH from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health with a focus on forced migration and a bachelor’s degree in human biology from Stanford University.

For people who are not familiar with the human trafficking, how do you define this term and what is the scope of this problem worldwide?

Human trafficking is modern slavery. It is situations where individuals are forced, defrauded, or coerced into conditions of exploitation. This could take the form of forced labor or debt bondage in industries like agriculture, construction, domestic work, or sex trafficking in situations like prostitution or sexual servitude of fighting forces. Because of the hidden nature of trafficking, data and figures are very hard to come by, but worldwide, the ILO [International Labour Organization] estimates that 20.9 million adults and children are trapped in forced labor.

What is Humanity United’s Partnership for Freedom, announced by President Barack Obama?

Humanity United is a private grantmaking foundation focused on building peace and advancing human freedom. We support a wide variety of initiatives and efforts to address conflict and human trafficking around the world. The Partnership for Freedom is a $6 million public-private partnership led by HU and several federal agencies. The goal is to inspire new ideas and approaches, engage new organizations and donors on this issue, and generate new data that will help us collectively become smarter about how to end trafficking.

Are the anti-trafficking programs out there that are not working?

The U.S. is a global leader in the fight against trafficking but our approach to addressing the problem has traditionally been a criminal justice one, with a focus on identifying and rescuing victims and arresting perpetrators. Only in the last two to three years has the anti-trafficking field begun to focus more on the root causes and overall systems that lead to exploitation. The public is finally becoming aware of human trafficking, too. Our hope is that the Partnership for Freedom encourages new people to get involved, with more systemic approaches beginning to take hold.

Tell me about the specific challenges that the Partnership for Freedom has created.

There are three different challenges. The first was called “Reimagine: Opportunity” and it was directed at client service providers in the U.S. to spur innovation in how services are provided. One of the winners was a team consisting of a technology company, an anti-trafficking organization, and a state government agency. They are now building a digital tool to help anti-trafficking organizations match trafficking survivors with emergency shelter in a way that has never been done before. Traditionally, service providers have had to build their own offline networks of shelters and tap into them every time they need to place someone. [As a result] finding a shelter placement for a survivor…is a time consuming and sometimes traumatizing experience for survivors. The challenge winner is creating a digital platform that allows organizations to put out a single call for a shelter bed to their entire network at once.

What will the other funding challenges focus on?

The second challenge is launching in October and focuses on the use of technology to address labor trafficking in global supply chains. I think most people aren’t aware that trafficking goes on in many industries. For example, there is a lot of talk these days about fish—whether we’re overfishing or whether there is mercury in what we eat—but little knowledge or action about the fact that many fishing vessels in Asia are manned by trafficking victims who were sold on to boats and that this fish is sold in American supermarkets and restaurants. Because trafficking often happens within a global supply chain, there are a lot of opportunities to engage businesses and consumers on these issues. We are hoping to spur new technology ideas and companies to get engaged in this area. The third challenge will launch next year and it will work to promote greater understanding that trafficking victims are survivors, not criminals.

Do you see a special role for technology in this work?

There are a lot of revolutionary ideas in the technology space that we can learn from. The reality is that most people in trafficking situations come into contact with digital technology…[T]he question is not whether technology has a role, but what tech approaches are the most meaningful. When you are talking about 21 million people, the sheer scope [of the problem] means that technology has to play a role.

You began your career as a management consultant. How did you come to pursue career in public health?

I went to do some volunteer work in southern China and while I was in a very remote village I saw a woman pull an apple out of her bag and wash it in the sewage stream that flowed out of her village. I thought this is wholly preventable and it is so unfair that she does not have the right information [to avoid this practice]. I came home and applied to public health school. After doing my research, I chose Columbia University for its Program on Forced Migration and Health.

What inspired your interest in trafficking per se?

I think a lot of it is driven by a personal mission around justice for people who are marginalized, but also that the trafficking world is fundamentally about the failure of formal systems to protect people, which strikes me as something that can be fixed. During my time [at Mailman], I did a study on the reintegration of trafficking survivors for my master’s practicum in Nepal with Save the Children and never really looked back. I find that this work provides the opportunity to do a thousand different things because there are a thousand different points of leverage. I have had the opportunity to work on a lot of issues in both labor and sex trafficking, and with many different communities internationally and in the U.S. These days my interests are trending toward the use of technology to combat trafficking, and how tech can augment what we know from the grassroots, so I’m learning new things everyday.

What do you use most in your work from your training at Mailman and PopFam’s Program on Forced Migration and Health?

I received a very strong foundation in program design, how it relates to the problems you are trying to fix, how to think about the activities that people are proposing, and the importance of monitoring and evaluation. It’s a foundation that I certainly used in my years of program implementation and which informs my work every day as a funder.