Just two weeks before walking at her graduation for a master’s degree in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley, Minh Dang was in the nation’s capital to be recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change. And in the short time since her graduation, Dang has made trips to Los Angeles and New York to attend anti-trafficking meetings, and has given a guest lecture at Stanford entitled “Language that Liberates: Speaking Our Way to Freedom.”
Dang, 28, is the Executive Director of Don’t Sell Bodies, an anti-human trafficking campaign founded by actress Jada Pinkett Smith. The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transport, or receipt of persons by means of threat, force, or deception, for the purpose of exploitation.” According to Free the Slaves, there are currently 27 million people who have been trafficked into every industry imaginable — from restaurants to factories to brothels to domestic servitude — in what has come to be called “modern-day slavery,” one of the most pervasive and most silent human rights crises in human history.
At the core of Dang’s work in the anti-trafficking movement is her own story. Her father sexually abused her throughout her childhood in San Jose, Calif., and her parents began selling her for sex in brothels starting at the age of 10. For more than two decades, she was by turns neglected, beaten, sold and exploited as a slave by her own parents.
In her attempts to seek her parents’ love and cope with her ordeal, Dang excelled in school and went on to undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, where she became Executive Director of REACH!, an Asian and Pacific Islander student recruitment and retention center, and a Program Coordinator at Cal Corps Public Service Center. It was during her time at UC Berkeley that she was finally able to escape her birth family with the help of friends, mentors and psychotherapeutic work.
In 2010, Dang’s personal story of enslavement went public for the first time when MSNBC aired a documentary called “Sex Slaves in America” featuring interviews with Dang. Almost overnight, Dang became a public figure in the fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
These past few years, Dang has solidified her commitment to helping all people live in freedom, beginning with herself. She marks the anniversary of her own freedom on April 16, and has calculated that on April 16, 2026, the number of days she has spent in freedom will finally match the number of days she spent in slavery.
“If we need any reason to dig deep and to continue our fight against slavery, I hope that my seven-year anniversary of freedom gives us one,” she wrote in one recent blog post. “I hope that someday people don’t have to celebrate their anniversary of freedom. I hope that everyone’s Freedom Date will forever and always be their birth date.”
Oakland Local: First of all, congratulations on the Champions of Change recognition! What was it like to be in DC?
Minh Dang: DC was awesome. I think the coolest part was meeting other people who are doing amazing things, and remembering that I’m not the only one out there fighting a really critical battle; and also seeing the interconnections between all of the different issues that each Champion of Change is fighting. And it was also really interesting to be back in the Asian and Pacific Islander space for me. As I’ve been doing my anti-trafficking work, I haven’t really thought of it specifically as a racial issue, so to be recognized in the API space was really important to me both personally and professionally. Personally, because I was abused within that community and I associate that with my birth family. But also professionally in that, though human trafficking is seen as an issue in Southeast Asia, the domestic conversation about human trafficking here in the Asian community hasn’t really happened. So it was a great place to initiate that in a way where people could hear it and could see the power and potential in API communities talking about it.
And being there with my chosen family, and bringing friends whom I’m making my family — that was really great.
OL: How far back would you say this anti-trafficking work really first started for you?
MD: I would probably say 2007. There was an event at UC Berkeley that a student/friend organized. I hadn’t publicly shared my story at that point. This was a human trafficking event and she asked me to share my story, and I didn’t want to. There was another survivor who was sharing her story at the event, and the Oakland Police Department was there. They were on this panel, and the Oakland PD was talking about picking up johns and asking, “How do we end this? We really need to punish the johns because they’re really at the root of this,” and I remember thinking, “Wait a second. Nobody’s talking about why the kids are on the street in the first place.”
So I stood up and I said, “Hey, I actually am a survivor, and I think we’re missing a crucial piece here, which is that these kids are being abused most likely at home, and in my experience being sold by their own parents, whether directly or given by their parents to other people to sell. And so focusing on the johns is really kind of a symptom, rather than focusing on whether the kids are running away from an abusive home.”
So I said that publicly in that space, and just the fact that I did that was big for me. But then there was a reporter in the room from MSNBC, and that’s how my first documentary began. I didn’t want to do the interview with MSNBC for a year, and they just kept in touch with me. And finally doing that documentary really launched my public speaking career on the issue.
OL: What are you currently trying to accomplish through Don’t Sell Bodies?
MD: My work around Don’t Sell Bodies is to continue to build public outrage about human trafficking and its underlying causes, and then to engage citizen action. Really, to let citizens at all levels — whether you’re skilled or unskilled, whether you’re an elected official or a businessperson — to really let everybody know that no matter where you sit in society, if you care about this issue, there’s a way for you to engage and we want to help you figure that out. But we want you to do it locally because we’re really trying to push that, hey, this is happening here. And then the third piece around Don’t Sell Bodies is building the voice of survivors of human trafficking who have a valuable voice to add, and to help facilitate that and provide resources and training, and provide access to people who don’t usually have access to share their stories or policy recommendations.
And I would say that, in all of that, we’re trying to be a thought leader in raising issues that need to be discussed within human trafficking. So we started doing these Twitter chats where we’re trying to talk about, like, how do we deal with the fact that this is a horrendous issue and yet we don’t want all of the news stories to be about pictures of women that are being beaten up? How do we ethically communicate via media about the horrors, and also not reinforce stereotypes that this is only about women or only about sex trafficking? How are we not providing more images of people enslaved on farms or in garment factories? We also want to raise conversations about boys — what about the boys being sold? So, slowly trying to infuse into popular media the nuances of the issue, trying to help people cut through the noise, and to say, “Hey, these are the statistics that we know are true” — not just accepting what we see in terms of media portrayals of human trafficking, but also adding in what’s missing.
OL: A lot of your work also centers around engaging with other survivors and helping survivors figure out how to navigate the media, how to set up speaking engagements, etc. How have you navigated that for yourself, considering you’ve had your own process around learning to do those things?
MD: Well, I think a lot of it has just been about maintaining my own therapeutic process. A lot of it I kind of learned as I went. I also had mentors telling me to consider this or that. At the beginning, people were telling me, “You need to ask for this much money.” And I did some research too, like on “What does it mean to be a public speaker?” So some of it was figuring it out on the fly, some of it was formal advising from other people and some of it was researching on my own. And some of it was transferring some of my skills that I had already from my previous job as a service learning professional and my previous experience teaching, and using those presentation skills.
OL: Have you encountered people who ask about aspects of your experience that you’re not interested in talking about?
MD: I feel pretty open about my experience, so if people ask about it, I don’t really hold back. The only time I’ve been concerned has been when people have asked about the prosecution of my parents. I had to get legal guidance on what I can share, just to make sure to cover my own back. It’s not the content so much as the specific context in which questions are asked.
OL: What is the status of where you stand right now in regard to your parents, when people ask?
MD: I tell people that I am in the process of seeing what legal recourse I can take but that I’m pretty sure my statute of limitations for a criminal suit is over; that I have reported them to the police; and I’m still deciding what justice means to me. I’ve considered reaching out to them and having a conversation with them. But I’m still figuring out what it would be like to see them in person, and trying to be honest with myself about where I’m at in my healing.
And then with my brother, I’ve reached out to him several times. We both had to do things with each other that we didn’t want to do. My brother was forced to perpetrate on me, but I know he was only a kid — he was two years older — and that’s a really tricky area because I imagine he feels guilt, I imagine he is trying to deal with it however he deals with it. So I have no idea if he’s talking to my parents, I have no idea if he believes me. I just haven’t talked to him. I’m open to a relationship with him, but he hasn’t really responded, and I can understand that because part of my overtures were in a not-so-nice way — I was like, “I’m mad at you,” basically. I’m just sort of leaving it as it is. And at first, he wasn’t super supportive of me leaving the family, and at that point, I just couldn’t be around anybody who wasn’t [supportive]. And now, I am open to it, but it doesn’t seem as available.
OL: Officially, have your parents responded at all, outside of their footage on the MSNBC documentary?
MD: They’ve always declined to comment when media contact them, or they’ll say, “Call my lawyer,” but never give the lawyer’s name.
OL: It seems that, from a mainstream perspective, most people don’t have personal experience either with being trafficked or personally knowing someone who has been trafficked. Outside of serving as a representative for yourself as a survivor, how have you humanized the issue such that it’s actually accessible to people to want to get involved?
MD: Well, one of the things we’re trying to do is promote what other survivors are doing. So on the side of representing myself, I write a blog that is based out of my experience but that also shares the experiences of other survivors. There’s this one woman Antonia who has this bakery called Neet’s Sweets because she’s always wanted to be a baker, and her way of adding to the anti-trafficking movement is by being a baker and then training other survivors to learn skills in her bakery. She doesn’t really go around sharing her story; she is public about it, but she’s a businesswoman and works to let people know that you can buy these ethically-produced sweets. I continually share other people’s stories who’ve said it’s okay to share them. And I also work to connect other survivors to each other so that we’re constantly being spokespeople for one another, too.
OL: Is there a way people can get involved if they’re interested in joining the movement?
MD: I always tell people to first look in themselves at what’s going on in their own lives, because I’ve personally had an experience of trying to fight for justice out in the world when my life was crumbling. So I always tell people, first and foremost: Address any trauma and abuse that you’ve suffered in your own life — and that doesn’t mean that you have to reach some level of healing before you can go help people, but it helps to be clear and to know what you have that you’re bringing with you as you do support other people. I can’t stress that enough.
And beyond yourself… given statistics about sexual abuse in the world, there’s probably trauma and abuse within your family or close friends — and so how do you create space within your closest relationships to talk about it?
And then beyond that, in terms of actively being involved in the anti- human trafficking movement… again, I kind of slow people down and say, Please just read and learn more before taking action, because even my own story is not representative of all that’s happening. So learn about labor trafficking, learn about sex trafficking, from Atlanta to California, and really get to know the diversity of experiences. And then get involved locally with a nonprofit that is doing work, because they’ve been in the field and have avenues for you to get involved. That could be fundraising, that could be becoming a mentor, that could be you raising awareness among people who don’t know about it.
There are also organizations that aren’t officially anti- human trafficking that also could use your support. Maybe anti-human trafficking isn’t directly your work, but maybe you’re a teacher and you really care about education. You can make sure that your school is checking up on folks who seem like they might be getting picked up by an older quote-unquote “boyfriend.” Try to use your skills and knowledge in your area of expertise, and do what you love… like, if you like baking or making jewelry. Build it into your life in a way that’s sustainable, rather than adding some new crusade to go on.
From Don’t Sell Bodies’ perspective, we see human trafficking as an issue that is rooted in poverty and educational inequality and racism and so many different forms of oppression that if you focus on any of those, you’re gonna be helping the anti-trafficking cause.
And if you want to get involved in anti- human trafficking organizations, you can go to Don’t Sell Bodies’ website. We have a Resources list of folks that we think are doing good work out there. But I always share with people that there’s already a lot going on out there — so join in.
I’ve also come to really appreciate the power of donating. But maybe that’s not enough for you, which is great because I, too, feel like sending money is often not enough — so take on the task of organizing a drive for a nonprofit’s wish list, or organize a fundraiser, or organize a documentary screening — just simple things that anybody can do that doesn’t require the nonprofit to hold your hand.
OL: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your work that we haven’t talked about yet?
MD: I would just say… as survivors are speaking out more, please see us as complex people. I said this in another article where the interviewer asked me how it felt to get this [Champions of Change] award, I said, “You know, it’s really bitter. Like, I’d really love to get an award for having invented the iPad. I’m getting an award for telling my horrendous story.” And yes, that’s amazing and great, but don’t put survivors on this pedestal — we’re actually just people too. And I’m really glad to be recognized, but that recognition doesn’t fill the hole where my mommy doesn’t love me or the hole of the wounds.
I definitely want people to engage survivor voices — just like we want to engage women’s voices in women’s issues, or any community who’s suffered something — in the solution. But don’t make it isolating and dehumanizing, as if I don’t have just regular bad days.
Dang will be the keynote speaker at MISSSEY’s 2nd Annual Inspire Change Gala, happening at Oakland’s Rotunda Building on Saturday, June 15, 2013. For tickets and more information, visit missseygala.weebly.com.