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Elena Shih '04 Honored With 2012 Inspirational Young Alumni Award for Anti-Trafficking Work

Elena Shih

Elena Shih’s work in analyzing approaches to human trafficking began with a leave of absence from Pomona College her junior year. She was working as a Mandarin legal intake counselor at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center when she realized that a recently passed and then watershed anti-human trafficking law, which offered victims three-year temporary residency permits if they were able to provide evidence of their victimhood, didn’t jibe with the way these trafficked individuals saw themselves.

“These individuals spoke of their journeys with remarkable strength and resilience, and often refused to characterize their experiences in the way that U.S. policy wanted [them] to,” recalls Shih ‘04, who wrote about this issue in her senior thesis for her self-designed major in Asian studies, women’s studies and economics. “[I applied] transnational feminists’ critiques to this policy, hoping to show that this policy merely mirrored an othering and essentially mainstream discourse around Third World women as inherently backwards, uneducated, victimized, etc.”

This work has led to an academic and nonprofit career focused on helping trafficked people, analyzing current anti-trafficking programs and policies with a critical eye, and balancing that perspective with practical solutions. And for her accomplishments, Shih is being recognized with the 2012 Inspirational Young Alumni Award, which honors a graduate of the last decade for their dedication, perseverance and consistency in following their vision of the inscription on the College Gates: “They are only loyal to this college who departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind.”

After graduation, Shih was awarded a Fulbright to conduct research at the Beijing University Center for Women’s Legal Aid. As an intake counselor, Shih learned of migrant concerns at a grassroots level: wage garnishment, exploitative conditions, separation from family and sexual abuse. She also found a disparity in the top-down approach that the U.S. State Department and some well-meaning international NGOs took in trying to make international standards apply on local circumstance.

This work led Shih to study other projects that seek to help formerly trafficked women, including faith-based approaches, which she researched for her Master’s thesis. She also started her own project, Border Statements Collective, on the Chinese-Burma border in a small town where most of the heroin in China enters and which reported the first Chinese case of HIV in 1989.

“This combination of drugs and disease has caused a pandemic crisis that is spread by drug trafficking, human trafficking, intravenous drug use and high rates of incarceration,” says Shih, whose program is still active and seeking volunteers and artists. Her organization seeks to “re-infuse different forms of contemporary and traditional arts practice as a way of empowering youth in these communities.”

One example is a peer education campaign in which students create comic books on HIV/AIDS prevention, which are then distributed in local schools. “This hopes to de-stigmatize the illness, moving it away from the heavy-handed Chinese government propaganda approach,” says Shih.

Shih says she’s from a “loud immigrant household in Queens, New York.” While her parents were born in mainland China, both have limited connections there now—which Shih credits with her interest in the nation. “I think that's what drew me back there for the Fulbright--to reestablish connections with a place that I had very little with.”

Shih earned her MA in sociology from UCLA in 2009, and is currently working on her Ph.D., conducting research on trafficking victim reintegration programs in China—an empirical counterpart to the faith-based vocational training organizations she wrote about for her MA. “I'm bringing the tools that we use at the UN to the smaller faith-based organizations working to coordinate worker and participant-led evaluations of organizational practices—for example, revising shelter rules and regulations to be more just,” says Shih.

When in Los Angeles, Shih also works with a storytelling project with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking’s Survivor Advocacy Caucus, wherein local artists lead workshops on everything from photography to film to collage. Works from these workshops have been exhibited at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. “It’s funny how everything always connects back to Pomona,” says Shih. “I first heard about CAST when the production of the Vagina Monologues that I participated in in 2002 elected to donate our proceeds to CAST’s pioneering anti-trafficking work.”

Indeed, Shih credits her social justice work with the opportunities she had at Pomona, which included involvement in the Asian American Resource Center, the 5-C Asian American Studies program, the Sponsor program, Women’s Union, volleyball and water polo, and the orchestra. Working the Office of Admissions, in particular, helped prepare her for work she also does now with UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center, counseling undocumented students attending college through California’s AB-540 program, international students and recently emancipated foster youth on different ways to fund their educations. “[Working] as a senior interviewer instilled in me an investment in equal access to school and a very deep and serious notion of diversity,” says Shih.

“Looking back, my involvement in different pursuits for social justice during my four years at Pomona never had to be classified as a distinct form of activism; social justice was just a way of life; it was deeply ingrained. Pursuing concrete acts towards correcting some of the wrongs we saw around us was just [part of] the limitless opportunities available as a Pomona College student.”