Started in 2010 by founder Alezandra Russell, Urban Light fights the sex-trafficking of young males in Chiang Mai, Thailand, through the variety of services offered at their Youth Center. Summer Fellow Joanna DiBiase spoke to Russell about her organization and their impact on human trafficking in Thailand and around the world.

Joanna DiBiase: Could you talk briefly about what your organization does, what your goals are?

Alezandra Russell: Yes, Urban Light is an organization I started 7 years ago. We work with Chiang Mai’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations of males. A lot of the males that we serve are potential or are in fact victims of trafficking of all kinds: sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and severe forms of exploitation. Urban Light’s main goal is to empower the lives of these young boys who, for so many years, haven’t had access to services and support, and to be that beacon of hope in this concrete jungle of unfamiliarity that the boy’s face when they come down from their homes in the mountains and along the border areas.

JD: That’s great! So your organization, as you said, focuses on male victims of human trafficking. Why is that so important to you to focus on young boys?

AR: I think it’s such an important question that needs to be asked, because 7 years ago when I was pouring myself into the issue of human trafficking, and reading every type of article and book and piece of literature that existed, very little existed on male victims. I had this kind of biased view of what a typical trafficking victim was: the victim was female, and was vulnerable. When I came to Thailand, I realized that there was an entire gender population that was being completely neglected and not talked about. The more I researched while I was in Thailand about organizations serving this population of teenage boys who were victims of trafficking, I found out that there were none. I quickly realized that this international dialogue, that [Urban Light] is such a big advocate of starting, really needs to be shifted. How can we be a part of that and be an advocate for these boys; shifting the dialogue from not just being a female issue, or a female and male issue, to being a human issue. That’s really what we’re trying to do, to ignite this conversation. So far, after 7 years, we’ve had a tremendous amount of impact, but it’s still something that needs to be at the forefront of this issue: the fact that young males are just as vulnerable, because they’re so beneath the surface, hidden in plain sight. That’s why we’ve chosen after so many years to continue working with young males.

JD: So you wouldn’t say that the trafficking of young boys is unique to Thailand, even though that happens to be the area where you found that issue?

AR: I think this is absolutely a global issue. You see issues of exploitation of young boys in countries like Afghanistan, Qatar, Mexico, all over the world. Unless we are really looking beneath the surface, we aren’t going to be able to fully understand the impact. It’s really about shifting the dialogue. Once the awareness piece comes, then we can start cultivating this collective of people who can be the advocates for these young boys, but we see it as a growing population of victims beyond Thailand.

JD: Your organization highlights 8 pillars in your service: health, employment, housing, education, harm reduction, prevention, outreach, and legal support. Which of these do you think has been the most difficult to implement in your work?

AR: I would say health is our most key factor. Our boys are exposed to so many different harmful habits and risky lifestyle choices that expose them to all kinds of issues. We’re dealing with HIV, Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B, tuberculosis, a plethora of issues. For us, health is key because if you’re not a healthy person, able to access treatment, then the empowerment part, which we are so keen on, falls by the wayside. So our most important thing is getting them to be healthy, strong individuals.

JD: Yeah, that’s so important. Especially even in America, sexual health education is so often pushed aside.

AR: Yes, especially in a culture like Asia where you don’t talk about those things. It’s not a conversation that’s easy to initiate. With Urban Light being a safe space, the boys know they can access condoms, or HIV testing, or counseling, or treatment even. It creates space where we make it the norm, not a shameful thing to talk about. We talk about health issues through life skills, through our peer to peer counseling sessions. They get to see sexual health normalized. That’s something that we really try to focus on.

JD: Something that I’ve found a lot of in my justice work is this balance between direct service and long term awareness and prevention. How would you say your organization strives to balance those two things?

AR: You know, I think we’ve tried to be jack of all trades, but one thing I realized early on in starting Urban Light is if we are going to be jack of all trades, we’ll be master of none. How can we really tailor our services so that we are on organization that provides those pillars? We don’t try to do everything, because I think so many NGOs try to do that and they inevitably fail. What we are best at is the services we have identified, and for the services that we’re not as good at we partner with other NGOs in Chiang Mai that we can refer our boys to. We’ve been really good at providing direct service. Right now what’s really trendy is prevention, and as much as we recognize prevention as something that needs to happen if trafficking is to ever disappear in our lifetime, it’s something that we can’t tackle. So for the most part Urban Light is about protection, about working with the populations that are already dealing with trafficking on a day to day basis, dealing with exploitation and various forms of risk when they’re out on the street. For us, that’s our niche. Would we love to focus on prevention and do everything? Absolutely. We know that there is a need, but right now we are really focused on making our services strong.

JD: Yeah, so important. In terms of your personal anti-trafficking journey what has been your biggest success?

AR: For us, I think being pioneers. In Chiang Mai specifically we are one of the only organizations working with this population of young males. I think it’s incredible having this legacy of 7 years, and providing services for hundreds of young boys. I feel so honored that this community has accepted our work, and seen it as a vital piece of the fabric of the overall health of the community. Urban Light is definitely trying to create this new acceptance piece, giving the boys an identity, and humanizing them. I think we’ve really had an impact in the trafficking world being advocates and pioneers in this issue. And global partners are looking to us for the answers. That’s the most shocking part; you can have what I call a “passion project,” seeing an issue and desperately wanting to be part of the solution, and 7 years later having it organically develop into this four-floor building where you have these services, hundreds of boys coming in and out, a staff of 11. It took on a life of its own. That is a testament to how much this is needed, and how much this population craves and demands these kinds of services. I feel like we are definitely pioneers in that aspect. There’s still so much work to be done. Even though you leave the center at 5 o’clock and check out, you know there’s a next generation of boys who’s going to be filling the bars, leaving with customers, and continuing the tradition that unfortunately Chiang Mai and Thailand are known for, as the sex capital of the world. So how can we shift that? How can we make Thailand not so much the sex capital of the world, but a place where you can go and enjoy beaches and food and culture? We are trying desperately but sometimes it feels like you’re only a drop in the bucket.

JD: Well, hopefully people will be inspired if they hear your story.

Urban Light is an organization based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, dedicated to rebuilding, restoring and empowering the lives of boys who are victims of sex trafficking, child prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation. For more information, please go to: https://www.urban-light.org/.

Joanna DiBiase is the HTS North America Summer Fellow.

PC: Urban Light