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Local Hero: Honoree Chancee Martorell, Advocate for the Thai Community

Chancee Martorell of the Thai Community Development Center
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Nominee Name: Chanchanit (Chancee) Martorell
Title: Founder and executive director
Organization/Business: Thai Community Development Center
Website: thaicdc.org

"Through her organization, she provides a broad and comprehensive community development strategy that includes human rights advocacy, affordable housing, access to healthcare, promotion of small businesses, neighborhood empowerment and social enterprises. She helped establish 'Thai Town' and an 'annual' community event celebrating the Thai and API communities. In 1995 she and others woke L.A. up to the reality of slave labor here!"

— Michael Mata, nominator

About Chanchanit (Chancee) Martorell

Born in Thailand and raised in Los Angeles, Chancee Martorell studied political science and public law at UCLA, where she received her Bachelor of Arts and her master’s degree in urban planning with a specialization in Urban Regional Development/Third World Development. She also studied humanities at Chiang Mai University in Northern Thailand in 1988. Engaged in social activism for the past 35 years, Martorell is currently the executive director of the Thai Community Development Center (Thai CDC), a nonprofit organization she founded in 1994 to improve the lives of Thai immigrants through services that promote cultural adjustment and economic self-sufficiency. Her experiences leading to the founding of Thai CDC include work as a planner, an aide to former U.S. Representative Mel Levine (D-CA) and work with other local and state legislative offices. She also created and taught the first, “Thai American Experience” course offered as part of UCLA’s Asian American Studies curriculum in 1992.

Chancee Martorell at a protest at a Robinsons-May retail store
Chancee Martorell at a protest at a Robinsons-May retail store
1/2 Chancee Martorell at a protest at a Robinsons-May retail store. | Courtesy of Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
2/2 Chancee Martorell doing advocacy work. | Courtesy of Chancee Martorell

During Thailand’s military coup of 1992, she mobilized the Thai community in Southern California to protest the atrocities committed by the military junta against civilian demonstrators in Bangkok, demanding a peaceful return to democracy for Thailand and its people. After civil unrest in Los Angeles, in 1992, she co-authored the Mid-City Plan for the Coalition of Neighborhood Developers, which sought to address the lack of economic resources in an inner-city area of Los Angeles. The pivotal event also led her to documenting the demographics and social and human service needs of Thais in Los Angeles for the first time in a landmark community needs assessment study as a way to advocate for more resources in underserved communities.

She has written about ethnic competency, the Thai immigrant community, Asian poverty, community economic development, urban revitalization strategies, human trafficking and global capitalism. She is known most notably for her work on over a half dozen major human rights cases involving over 2,000 Thai victims of human trafficking who were discovered working in conditions of slavery in the United States. Her tireless advocacy on behalf of the victims and the success of each case has made her a leading expert and sought-after spokesperson on the serious issue of modern-day slavery. She taught a course entitled “Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery” at the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures.

Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
1/4 Chancee Martorell doing advocacy work. | Courtesy of Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
2/4 Chancee Martorell smiles at a member of her community. | Courtesy of Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
3/4 Chancee Martorell speaks at a podium. | Courtesy of Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
Chancee Martorell
4/4 Chancee Martorell poses at a groudbreaking.

On June 29, 2012, she was given the Royal Decoration of the Most Admirable Order of the Direkgunabhorn from His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej for her tireless service to the Thai community abroad. She also received written honors from U.S. Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) that were included in the Congressional record for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May 2012. She served on the Union Bank Community Advisory Board for three years between 2008 and 2011 and was chair in her last year. The members of the community advisory board help guide the bank in its community reinvestment activities and outreach efforts in low and moderate-income communities. On Sept. 28, 2005, she was confirmed by the Los Angeles City Council as Commissioner for the Central Area Planning Commission after being appointed by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and later by Mayor Eric Garcetti. She ended her service as commissioner in 2013 after serving her second term as vice chair. In 2001, the California Wellness Foundation selected her as a Violence Prevention Initiative Fellow. She is also a recipient of several awards and honors, including the Asian Americans for Equality Dream of Equality Award, Assemblyman Mike Eng Inclusionary Award, KCET Unsung Hero Award, a Certificate of Recognition from Assemblyman Luis Caldera for “A Woman Making a Difference in the Heart of Los Angeles,” and many more. Martorell has been married to her husband, Esteban Martorell, since 1994 and has two grown sons.

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