Thailand project is eye-opener for Langley grad
July 7, 2009 · Updated 4:02 PM
A trip halfway around the world turned Amy Brown into a full-blown activist for women’s rights, and her mellow Southern California college campus may never be the same.
Brown, 22, is the daughter of Tom and Dee Brown of Langley and a 2005 graduate of South Whidbey High School. She graduated in May from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks with a degree in sociology.
Her epiphany came during a long trip to Thailand in 2007, when she was a sophomore. She and a classmate were among 30 students from throughout the United States to take part.
They went to help Garden of Hope, a nonprofit world organization dedicated to fighting the sexual exploitation of women.
Brown’s task was to build “authentic relationships” with women and young teens forced to work in the notorious brothel bars of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city about 430 miles north of Bangkok.
Brown spent five months in Thailand, from January to May, in a world far different from affluent Thousand Oaks.
The first thing that struck her was how nonthreatening the brothel bars were, with their bright lights and colors and music.
“That really shook me to the core,” she said. “It was a really inviting environment.”
“But they’re blatantly exploiting these women, who are enslaved in broad daylight,” she added. “That was the scariest thing for me.”
Brown’s task was to keep a file on the women and girls she met, and to help counsel them in career options, medical issues and other alternatives to their lives.
She said Thai law requires women in brothel bars to be at least 18 years old, but that she met some who later admitted to being as young as 14. She said the Thai police turn a blind eye.
Brown described her first day on the job, when she met some young women in the bars who were also on their first day.
“I really bonded with them,” she said. “Essentially, we were all starting on the same night.”
Three weeks later, she ran into them again.
“It was like meeting completely different people,” Brown said. “There wasn’t any laughter anymore. The life that had been in them was gone.”
Brown returned from Thailand a different person, too.
“I had an overwhelming feeling of guilt and privilege,” she said. “It was extremely paralyzing, because I didn’t know what to do. I had to get through that.”
Hope came when a friend told her about Not For Sale, another international organization dedicated to the battle against the exploitation of women.
Brown helped to establish a Not For Sale chapter on the California Lutheran University campus, and organized events that drew hundreds of students and raised nearly $1,000.
“I was so excited about their mission,” Brown said of Not For Sale. “It was a place for me to channel all my feelings and experiences and learn to become an activist for women.”
A month before she graduated, Brown attended the Abolitionist Academy in Michigan to further the Not For Sale cause.
She also was chosen to be one of 50 students from throughout the world to attend the Hesselbein Student Leadership Summit at the University of Pittsburgh from July 11 through July 14.
Brown hopes the new spirit of activism at her alma mater will take root.
“I think we were able to revive the whole campus,” she said. “CLU students were notorious for being apathetic. But they became actively engaged. They didn’t just write a check.”
Brown is currently back in Thousand Oaks looking for a job in social services. If that doesn’t pan out right away, she said she’ll look into teaching languages abroad.
But whatever happens, she’s not the same Amy Brown. She’s socially conscious. She’ll buy only fair-trade chocolate. She refuses to use the word “prostitutes,” and instead uses the phrase “prostituted women” to call attention to their exploitation.
“I’ve learned to live differently,” she said.