One evening just before Christmas of 2022, Nate Knapper ’08 sat in a pizza shop in downtown Detroit, weary from a long week and ready for a break. Then his phone rang. It was Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office calling with good news. Knapper’s friend and former colleague Leslie King, a human trafficking survivor, had become the first person in the state of Michigan to receive a gubernatorial pardon for crimes committed during the 20 years she was trafficked. Knapper had helped to facilitate that.
“The timing of it underscored for me that pro bono legal services can be a gift that people can enjoy for the rest of their lives. Those are the moments that bring me a deep level of satisfaction,” Knapper says.
Knapper is an attorney, an FBI special agent, and the founder of The Joseph Project, a nonprofit organization that meets the legal needs of human trafficking survivors. Inspired by the story of Joseph who was trafficked by his own brothers in the biblical book of Genesis, Knapper hopes to empower survivors to move forward with the dreams they hold for their lives, no longer encumbered by the collateral damage connected to their exploitation.
This year, The Joseph Project celebrates its fifth anniversary. To date, the nonprofit has helped over 300 survivors clear their criminal records. Clients have also received family law assistance, immigration services, and credit repair, among other forms of counsel. Additionally, the organization offers anti- trafficking public education activities.
The story of The Joseph Project began when a woman named D’Lynn stood to share her experience of exploitation during a church service Knapper attended. Knapper had newly completed his training to become an FBI special agent and was a few months into his first post on the human trafficking squad at the bureau’s Detroit field office. Recognizing he was “uniquely postured to help D’Lynn,” he initiated a conversation after the service that led to their friendship. A year later, D’Lynn came to him with a trafficking- related debt issue, and Knapper helped her access the legal counsel she needed to clear her name.
“It wasn’t difficult to connect her with pro bono counsel, but the difference it made in her life was profound. That’s what prompted me to start The Joseph Project.”
Knapper continues to balance a full-time career as an FBI special agent with his nonprofit work and hopes to continue expanding The Joseph Project’s reach. Its volunteer legal network currently extends into 30 states, but Knapper envisions a nationwide network of pro bono attorneys or “legal first responders.”
His vision is rooted in the concept of shalom, a Hebrew word meaning peace and wholeness. He believes God calls us to act as agents of renewal, restoring shalom in his world. “As an FBI special agent, the double entendre isn’t lost on me. An agent is simply a person who works on behalf of another. To be an agent of renewal, though, you need to be willing to get behind God’s agenda, submit to his path, and dream the dreams he would have you enact in the world.”
A lofty vision? Knapper says no. “You have a day of small beginnings, and maybe you start with just one person you can help, but from there you develop a concept that’s proven, that works, and you can scale it to help more and more people.”
Knapper says he owes much of his success to his parents, who raised him with a Christian worldview and have always stood behind the pursuit of his faith-formed dreams. “None of it would be possible without them. I just appreciate the deep level of sacrifice they made, maybe laying down some of their own dreams so that I could live mine.”
Though young in his career, Nate Knapper’s story already has many chapters. Early chapters recount the realization of personal hopes and dreams. Along the way, a friend- ship formed, a problem presented itself, and the ability to solve that problem led to a new dream. From there, a transformative idea— The Joseph Project—grew and flourished.