MEET NightLight Atlanta: An Interview with Courtney Dow, Director

Originally published on MeetJustice.org on July 6, 2011.

Greed fuels it, desperation perpetuates it, and shame covers it in secrecy. However, many individuals and organizations have stepped in to stop the cycle of sexual exploitation in Georgia. They’re composed of ordinary people who are invested in seeing extraordinary change- they desire restoration.

Meet NightLight Atlanta.

NightLight Atlanta is a faith-based organization that has its roots in a ministry that began in Bangkok, Thailand. This week, I had a conversation with Courtney Dow, Director of NightLight Atlanta, about how they’re working to restore victims of sexual exploitation, what it’s like for volunteers, and how you can be a part of the work they do.

Would you mind telling me a little about the history of Nightlight? Where did it start, and how did it grow and ultimately arrive in Atlanta?

Not at all. Nightlight started in 2005, in Bangkok Thailand. Initially, the women who started Nightlight came out of another organization that was in a different part of the city, but Annie Dieselberg, who’s our founder, really had a vision for this other part of town because there were also children there.NightLight started as an alternative employment program for women and children who wanted to leave prostitution in Thailand. The first year, there were two women. Now there are eighty women who work in the alternative employment program making jewelry, and people can buy the jewelry online at NightlightInternational.com. We employ over one hundred and twenty-five women and we’ve helped to assist many other Thai women in getting out of prostitution.

The women who work with us have worship every morning [in a church they founded themselves called Send the Light], and they have classes like budget classes, health classes throughout the week. If they want to learn to play guitar, they can do that. They make salary and they also receive benefits like medical insurance and a savings plan. We carry a waiting list of between 10 and 15 women constantly- due to the market, we can’t hire more than we already have. We operate a childcare center for children of the women who work with us. That stops the pattern of abandoning their children in the country while they come work in the city, because that just encourages the cycle to continue.

We also started a prevention program where [the women] travel and share their experiences. Because of the culture and shame they feel, girls come home with money and don’t really talk about the abuse that they’re experiencing. So families think it’s okay for their daughters to go and work- the families are having nicer houses and driving nicer cars, so it’s even become trendy for girls to go to ‘work’ in the city.

So they know that they’re sending them to be sold on the street, or do they all think they are going to work in legitimate businesses and domestic positions?

Both. Some know what they’re doing. Others think they are going to be maids or get a really good job in a factory. One woman is expected to provide not only for themselves, but also for their entire family. In Thai culture, it’s the daughter’s responsibility to do that. So, we partner with churches in Northeast Thailand where girls share their experiences of being in prostitution- honestly. The first time they did it, they had about 300 people come and listen to the girls’ stories. We are hoping to partner with more churches and do this more regularly.

We also have an outreach team that goes into the area twice a week to build relationships with individuals in the sex industry. Because of that outreach, we’ve been able to build relationships with people from Cambodia, Vietnam, Lau, Burma, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Uganda, Kenya, Ukraine, Belarus, India, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, just to name a few. We’ve helped to repatriate 17 women who have been trafficked internationally into Bangkok.

We also have two offices in the U.S, one in Los Angeles and then here in Atlanta. The one in Los Angeles began in 2007. We [Nightlight Atlanta] began in 2008.

You describe the women and girls in Thailand as being drawn into this industry to support their families. Do you see a difference in the women and girls in America and their reasons for being drawn in?

No – it looks different when you look at it on the surface, but at its core it’s the same around the world. It starts with childhood sexual abuse, and there are other factors obviously: poverty, lack of education, single parent homes, conflict at home, parental neglect. Absent fathers is probably a main reason in Atlanta, because it’s an epidemic here. Immigration is another risk factor of entry into the industry- and that’s worldwide. But the main risk factor is a history of sexual abuse, and that’s what the girls in Thailand have experienced as well as the girls here.

How long have you been an advocate for women and young girls involved in the sex industry?

I’ve been with NightLight for six years.

How did you get started? What brought you into it?

I had a friend who visited Bangkok one summer and she talked about working with an organization that did outreach to women in prostitution. I thought that was pretty cool. I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in Rehabilitation Counseling at the time, and I imagined what kind of issues that could be brought up with individuals in the sex industry. A couple months after I heard about that I was looking to do an internship and my professor ended up getting me an internship in Bangkok. I thought, ‘If I am going to Bangkok then I want to do this’, and eventually ended up doing Nightlight full time.

So when your friend went to Bangkok and told you about her trip, is that the first time you’d heard about human trafficking?

She didn’t call it human trafficking. I didn’t hear that term until I started working with Nightlight, and I actually learned about it the opposite of the way that most people do. I’d see it, then I go back and read about it, which is actually a better way to learn about the issue because it’s hopeful rather than being hopeless. When you start reading about the horrific things that happen to these individuals, you feel like you can’t really do anything.

That actually leads me to my next question. Like you said, it can be very discouraging and overwhelming to people and they don’t know what to do to help. In what area would you say is the greatest need for people who want to volunteer? Would you say it’s direct outreach?

No, because not everyone’s called to that, thank the Lord. We’ve had some people do stupid things, I’ve done stupid things!

A lot of organizations are very protective of trafficking survivors.

Yeah, we are very protective! We try to be. The desire is not to re-exploit them any farther than they already have been. I honestly think what this issue needs is, is love. We need people who are lovers – lovers of God and lovers of people. It doesn’t take a Christian to be appalled at the things that are happening. We have non-believers that partner with us all the time. Everyone in this industry is broken. What does it take to restore an individual? First, it takes love – and if we had more people who understood that, we wouldn’t even have to be involved in the industry; we could just love the people around us, and then those people could love the people around them. I’d say we need more people that know how to love well.

You’ve already given me a pretty succinct history of Nightlight. Can you talk about some of the recent accomplishments and projects you’re doing at NightLight Atlanta?

Yeah! Well at NightLight Atlanta, we look to address the issue through prevention, education, restoration, and intervention. It’s a growing thing, but every project that we start is going to fall into one of those categories.

We’re not an awareness organization and we don’t want to be, because there are already other organizations that are very good at that. But we do realize that it’s critical that we address the demand side of trafficking- so that’s our main focus when we talk about education: trying to affect the demand side somehow.

So then there’s prevention. We have launched two “Kids clubs” in two different parts of the city that’d be considered major red light districts. We basically take what kids would do at VBS, and we do it with them in their neighborhood. We play games, sing songs, tells stories, have snacks once a week in each location. We average forty kids at each club. So that’s nearly one hundred at risk kids we work with each week. One of the locations is in an extended stay hotel. The other one is in a trailer park that is right next door to a strip club. We really believe that the best preventative measure is to introduce them to Jesus, and through that self-esteem is built, people learn how to make good decisions and deal with conflict. There are situations that these children are in that are heartbreaking. There are situations that you wouldn’t believe are happening a couple miles from here- and that to them, is normal. So we try to bring them a message of love and mercy, when they’re not getting that in their lives and never have. All they see is violence and hatred. The messages that they’re getting constantly are that they are worthless; they’re not going to do anything. They drop out of school really early.

That’s a huge risk factor.

Yes, it’s a huge risk factor! So, that’s what we look to do with our prevention program.

There are at-risk communities all across Atlanta. We’re in two of them, and that doesn’t begin to even scratch the surface. What we’d like to do in the future is partner with churches that have at-risk communities across the street. Then we bring our structure to those churches. We oversee it. But they staff if it with volunteers. They go after their communities- it’s their ministry. We just provide a way for them to do it. Most people don’t even know that they can do it. We don’t need to ask permission. If we do our research and no one is doing outreach- someone needs to do outreach!

That brings us to our intervention piece. We build relationships with anyone who’s working in the sex industry- even with people who are buying sex. We go into strip clubs, brothels, hotels. We spend a lot of time in the streets building relationships with people who are soliciting on the streets.

The last piece is restoration. Annie Dieselberg said it well: rescue is the easy part- it’s the restoration that is the hard, arduous journey. It’s exhausting. Our restoration piece is two-fold. We have a mentoring program, where we pair individuals escaping the industry with a mentor. The individual can continue working in the clubs or on the streets, and a mentor will come alongside them and pour into their life. And then we have prayer counseling where we teach the person to learn to hear from the Lord. So the Lord has a conversation with them about whether or not it’s time to leave the industry, and they learn how to hear the Lord’s voice. The mentor works to affirm what the Lord is saying, never to give advice.

One girl told me a couple months ago, “Sometimes I feel like it is too hard and it’d be easier to just go back and hustle on the street. I’m working so hard and it feels like things keep going wrong. I have this voice in my head that says ‘Go back, it was easier before.’ But I have a second voice that says ‘I am the Almighty. I have a plan for you. Trust me.’ The cool thing is, I never had that second voice until now.”

She has been out of the industry now for about eight months. She’d been in the industry for ten years, starting when she was thirteen when and was trafficked to Atlanta when she was fourteen. Since she met us, she got a job. Her boyfriend, the father of her children, also got a job. They got married in May, and she just passed her G.E.D! She says the last grade she can remember completing was fourth grade.

NightLight interacts directly with victims of sexual exploitation. If there were one major misunderstanding about these individuals that you could clear up for our readers, what would it be?

I loved that question- I got so excited when I saw it because I have a soapbox, for sure! The main thing that I come up against is the assumption that individuals who are in the sex industry have made a choice, and it’s not. It was never a choice. We already talked about the risk factors a little, but individuals in the sex industry can suffer from rapes, beatings, sexual illnesses, acute anxiety, depression, insomnia, flashbacks, and permanent brain damage. Melissa Farley did a study of individuals in prostitution and found that 88% of the people they interviewed wanted to get out of prostitution. 41% met the criteria for Post-traumatic disorder, which is higher than veterans of high war zone activity. A Canadian report found that women and girls in prostitution had a mortality rate forty times higher than the national average. Also, men and transgender individuals make up a significant minority of the population and they report the same frequency of assaults as the women.

Another stigma that I deal with, not as much from people outside the industry but with the girls that are in it, is that the experiences of individuals in prostitution, strip clubs, massage parlors, and brothels are statistically different. But they report the same amount of rapes, threats, and beatings. So I work with a lot of women who might say “I might be doing this, but at least I’m not doing that.”

They’re still experiencing intense violence and abuse.

They don’t even recognize it. They don’t see themselves as being the same as someone who’s being sold on the street, or in a brothel…it’s to protect what pride they have left. They don’t see themselves as experiencing the same levels of abuse.

And another one that I deal with…the average age of entry into the prostitution industry is between 11 and 14 years old. So even if [victims] are adults now, I want to encourage [people] to work with adults as well. Not just children, but also adults. A lot of people think that they’re just there to pay for their[drug] addictions. Another Melissa Farley study found that only about half of individuals in the sex industry use drugs and alcohol, and of the people that use, 92% of them started after they entered prostitution.

So, the third misconception, different from the first one, is that adults who are involved in it are involved by choice BECAUSE they are adults, but kids aren’t.

Right. That suddenly, just because they’re 18 they’ve chosen to be there. Also, we’re not only talking about women- we are talking about men and transgender victims here.

We have people in Atlanta that don’t believe that prostitution is slavery, but they haven’t talked to the girls that I’ve talked to. Anyone who would read the accounts would say ‘Oh, that sounds like slavery.’ I’ve even heard cops in Cobb County say “Oh no, we don’t have [trafficking] here.” Entire countries will say it’s not a problem. Thailand doesn’t want to talk about the issue- I think that it’s changing, though.

What is a typical outreach event like for Night Light volunteers?

We typically meet here [Grace Midtown Church, 1095 State Street] and have share time, where we share about our week and allow people to give a voice to what the Lord’s doing in their lives. It’s not uncommon before outreach for people to have nightmares or conflicts. So we have that share time to check in with each other, because we’re like a house church, or a community. Then we worship together, pray and minister for each other. Then we go and eat, and break bread with each other. Then we go out and we minister. So by the time we get there, we feel pretty good. We have issues, but we leave them [home]. We want to be totally focused on God and following the spirit. After we do that for a couple hours, we come back here and we debrief. We do that to make sure everyone’s okay. Sometimes we see some bad stuff and we need to make sure people’s hearts are doing okay. We also pray for cleansing and for the people we met.

And a lot of debrief is so we can celebrate! Not everyone is involved in every conversation. When we go into the [strip] clubs the guys stay outside, so they don’t know what happens while we’re there. So we get to share at Debrief. We try to finish around 3 AM. It’s the same format that we use in Bangkok.

Why is this issue so important to you, personally? What draws you to it?

My heart has always been for people who are hurting who don’t have a voice. So when I heard about this and found out I was going to Thailand, it made sense that that’s what I would do. And I love it. I really have felt like it’s where I fit. I feel like anyone can minister to individuals in the sex industry. You don’t have to be cool, you don’t have to look cool. You don’t have to use slang all the time- but sometimes you need to understand it! They realize, ‘they may not be the coolest person but they love me.’

We have little old ladies that are like, “Do you think that I could…?” We’re like “Yes!” Some of these women and men [in the sex trafficking industry] were raised by their grandmothers. People bring eight year old kids to our “Kids clubs” just to play with the kids.

Night Light has several different areas of service that volunteers can become a part of, which is great. Can you tell me a little about each, and how people can be involved?

You can get involved with NightLight through our prevention program: our kids club. That meets twice a week. We’ve got outreach once a week. Our outreach team ministers to at least 500 women a year, and that’s actually a small number. We minister to 350 women at Christmas alone! We have a mentoring team, which is great for people with really busy schedules who are also really relational, because it’s whenever they are available.

Other ways people can help are to pray for us, educate yourself, educate others. Invest financially. Mentor anyone – mentoring the next generation is something that the Lord tells us to do in the bible. Doing outreach of any kind. People can organize awareness events. I worked with a group of HR people who came up with the idea of altering their company policies to decrease the demand aspect. For example, there are companies that will compensate for an employee’s trip to the Strip club if they have a client with them. Having more companies say “We’re not compensating that. We’re not going to support that.”

The last thing I tell people is to do what they love. Even people who don’t feel like their gifts or talents can address this issue, it can! We’re all called to It’s not just that some people can do the justice thing. We can all do the justice thing, and we all need to use what we’ve been given. People ask, “what can I do?” And I say “I don’t know- what can you do? Music? Art? Are you good at administrative duties? Are you a good writer? I don’t know what you do.” Do what you do, do it well, and do it for this issue.

Courtney Dow

Courtney Dow, Director of NightLight Atlanta

If you’re interested in learning more about NightLight Atlanta or would like to become a volunteer, click here.

To check out the products NightLight women have made, click here.

This article was revised on Monday, July 18, 2011, to clarify a few errors, including the mispelling of NightLight founder Annie Dieselberg.

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