When asked why The SOLD Project supports university students, I was at first taken aback. The question seemed to come from the point of view that we’re here to combat child trafficking and university students are no longer children, so ostensibly resources should be focused solely on students who are underage. It’s an important question, and a great opportunity to articulate something that might seem like more of an aside, but it actually gets to the heart of what we do.
We can answer this question on two levels: the individual level and the societal level. On the individual level, we tell all our students to dream big and we push them to discover their passions and help them find paths to achieving their dreams. This is our number one form of prevention: keeping them in school so they can reach better-paying jobs and end the cycle of poverty that perpetuates trafficking and renders them vulnerable. For many of our students, going to university is the impossible dream that scholarships suddenly allow them to dare to dream. How can we tell them to dream big and then fail to continue to support them right when they are on the cusp of attaining it just because they’ve turned 18? That’s like reaching the final 10 yards and not passing the goal line.
On the societal level, supporting university students becomes just one more dimension of the holistic approach we try to take to prevention. What we do is not just about saving individuals; it’s about helping communities become empowered enough to protect themselves. If we can help individuals attain higher education and better paying jobs, at the very least these students send money back home. They also will try to ensure their kids attain higher education thus breaking the cycle of poverty that can be so crippling. A lot of times people have to leave their home villages to pursue better job opportunities, which can mean a drain of talent. But sometimes they come back.
One example is Lee Ayu, the founder of Akha Ama coffee. He comes from a tribe in one of the most remote villages in northern Thailand but had dreams of doing so much more, not just for himself but for others in his village. He fought his way into a university education, despite a lack of preparation but with plenty of determination, then came back home to see how he could use it, and came up with the idea to grow coffee. He went out and learned everything he could about growing, harvesting, roasting, and preparing coffee and began to sell it in Chiang Mai. He went back home and began training other families, and now works with more than 20 families producing more than 25 tons of coffee a year. His company is one of the ones that has been instrumental in changing the perception of Thai coffee and bringing it up to par with world standards. (Read this Q&A with Lee Ayu. It’s a fantastic story.)
Another example is one of the founders of a farming co-op just outside Chiang Mai. I happened to meet him through a friend and he graciously showed us around the co-op. He explained that he had grown up on a farm and his parents had become very ill from pesticides that farming corporations had required they use. When he went to university in Chiang Mai and chose to come back to the farm instead of working in the city, everyone wondered why he would bother coming back. But he used his education to help his family go back to traditional, natural pest control recipes, broke away from the corporations, and formed a collective of farmers working together, democratically, to bring organic produce from farm to table, working directly with consumers in Chiang Mai.
These extraordinary, inspiring examples show how students who go on to pursue university degrees can come back and apply their knowledge and skills to raise up and empower their entire communities back home. Maybe one day our students will do so too.
At SOLD, we take the long view. It’s not just about keeping today’s children off the streets now, it’s about ensuring the well-being of future generations. We’re not just trying to protect these individual children from the immediate threat, we want to make sure these communities are no longer attractive targets to traffickers at all.