By Ana Tessier, '18
Q. You studied law at NYU. Were you always interested in social justice, and did you know that you wanted to defend victims of human trafficking?
A. Social justice has always been important in my life. I actually held my first protest when I was seven years old to allow my hair to be cut, and in fourth grade I collected signatures so we wouldn't have to wear skirts on a team.
Who are some of the activists and policy workers who inspire you?
Honestly my clients are my biggest inspiration; they are so amazing. I know it sounds cheesy, but the people who I most admire are the people who are affected by these issues and who have such resilience.
Your organization (Atlas: DIY) helps empower immigrant youth. How does this connect to abolishing human trafficking?
Human trafficking isn't about the work or the conditions of the labor; it’s about taking away the humanity of an individual. It’s about not feeling free to leave and not having the power to say no, so for me empowerment is about instilling that humanity back into victims. Also, working with people who have been told they are worth nothing and teaching them to recognize their life is important is empowering.
Would you go as far as saying human trafficking is like modern-day slavery?
No. Slavery, historically, is so systematically race-based. I don't like using that term because it takes away from the very real very distinct issue that slavery was. It's like someone calling a new genocide the new Holocaust. The two share characteristics, but it’s not the same thing. Slavery was generally accepted in society, but most people today see human trafficking as an issue.
What is the benefit of helping and guiding specifically young people who come from other countries?
My background is with working with Chinese survivors. By creating a place that provides tools for safe spaces, we are helping stop further human trafficking and helping people be less vulnerable. It’s not just about legal services, it’s about giving people tools in education and self esteem.
You were profiled in Forbes’ 30 under 30 under the Law & Policy category (not to mention The New York Times and NPR). What is it like to be recognized for your work?
It’s great, I'm happy to make my parents proud and having that legitimacy certainly helps with fundraising. However, I feel bad when white people who haven't been trafficked get recognized, because we should recognize the voices of victims.
Starting your own non-profit with a few friends must have been really hard. Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs who might be interested in starting their own organization? How do you stay motivated?
Don’t listen to people who say you can’t do it. Always involve the constituents, and don't think you have to do things the way they've always been done. Speak out about it and work to change the system. If you know your startup is grounded in real needs, it's gonna work out.
What are some obstacles you have come across in your career, and how did you get past them?
The system is so stacked against innovation; it's really entrenched in the status quo. There are very hierarchal structures of non-profits, and a lot of them are not informed by the needs of the people, they're informed by the people, who have the most money to give. It has also been an obstacle to navigate how to be myself in these spaces, because sometimes it shuts down who I am at my core. I wasn't taken seriously as a young lawyer.
You also speak fluent Mandarin and are experienced in representing youth trafficked from China. Can you tell us more about the documentary, “Walking Merchandise”? How has this film influenced you?
My dating life has been more influential. My advice is to stay friends with all of your exes, because I dated this guy who actually said he wanted to make the film. The film is great because it’s really important for people's real stories to get out there, but you never want to make them [subjects in the film] feel exploited. We once had a photo shoot where a well-known photographer was photographing clients, and I called it off because he was making the girls uncomfortable.
Do you have a specific story of a victim of human trafficking, who you defended that you would like to share? And how did this case impact you?
Yes, a girl named Juliette, who is from China. She was trafficked when she was 13 to work in restaurants in Chicago, and we were able to get her out of there and sneakily bring her to New York. She was 17 at the time. We placed her in a refugee minor program, federal foster care, and she got enrolled in high school and college. It’s an incredible success story, and one of the amazing things about her story is that she was the one who got angry about what was happening and she said, “This isn't okay.” That anger about what was happening was useful. Juliette ended up studying abroad; she got to be a regular teenager. At the end of the day that's what I want for every one of my clients.