Friday, April 10, 2009

P' Kovit in Boston: explorations, reflections, interview

In early March, P’ Kovit visited Boston for a series of speaking engagements at Brandeis, and we spent an afternoon together exploring urban neighborhoods. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to catch up with P’ Kovit for the first time in several years, and we hashed out issues relating to a wide range of issues from homelessness and property rights to community banking, organizing, and development.


During his visit, I took P’ Kovit to Haley House Café ( in Dudley Square. Haley House, a Catholic Worker affiliate, houses a variety of functions including a bakery café, bakery training program, youth culinary classes, live-in community, soup kitchen, food pantry and clothing room, and affordable housing. It buys its fruit from Earthworks, a local non-profit that builds urban orchards and cultivates neighborhood stewardship and environmental education curricula around them ( It also partners with The Food Project to supply its fresh vegetables ( ENGAGERs might be interested in The Food Project because it fosters exchanges on a micro-scale among urban and suburban youth in the Boston area, creating opportunities for them to work together on urban and suburban farms and sell their produce at farmers markets together.

We also visited an open space system created by neighborhood residents, South End/Lower Roxbury Community Land Trust, and United Neighbors of Lower Roxbury. Two community members showed us around and described their past and current efforts working toward neighborhood improvement and shared his experiences community organizing in Isaan. Similar to DSNI’s roots just down the street (, neighbors united to address the prevalent dumping of trash on vacant lots in their community. Less than a decade later, they have knit together community gardens, Frederick Douglass Peace Garden, Bessie Barnes pocket park, and a cul-du-sac that they’ve turned into a car-free community plaza, complete with a stage for community performances and celebrations.


Spending time with P’ Kovit in northeastern US rather than Siam helped me connect the issues I had learned about studying and living in Thailand and the issues we have back home. Explaining some of the problems, movements, and proposed solutions bubbling in this part of the world magnified the differences between New England and Isaan and made me rethink the range of possibilities available to us in the social change work that we do. For example, I told P’ Kovit about my local bank, Wainwright Bank ( For me, it qualifies as a community bank because it invests in a number of local and regional community projects through a community grant program, creates free meeting spaces for community groups and non-profits, issues a Social Justice Award, and offers an Equal Exchange CD option that benefits small-scale coffee farmers in Latin America. It also has built an identity and marketing strategy based on diversity, equality, and social justice. In contrast, P’Kovit talked about community savings groups in which everybody contributes some money for community projects. He suggested that this type of activity can create cohesion and momentum for groups who want to make change in the long run. I liked this idea a lot. It reflects a different way of thinking that relies less on institutions and more on self-initiated change. Wainwright Bank and the various credit unions and community banks out there play a strong role in localizing our investments and ensuring their social responsibility. But a savings group can be a viable option for groups in areas where banks are still decreasing and discontinuing their loans to small businesses. It could also function well for more specific efforts to commit and funnel their energy toward a concrete goal.

Another blatant point of contrast from our conversations was the high degree of networking that NGO-CORD and the Assembly of the Poor provide for social movements in Thailand. We have extended our levels of specialization to social change in the States and do not focus very much attention on network and coalition building. Even environmental groups and labor groups, for example, should share common policy points, but they define themselves so differently culturally and organizationally that they don’t link up. I can imagine that a U.S. American reading my interview with Kovit would balk at the proposal that the HIV/AIDS network would carry out protests together with the squatter networks in front of the Government House in Bangkok. One potential umbrella group that may begin to fill this gap could be the Solidarity Economy Network (SEN; SEN describes movements clustered in Latin America as well as Quebec/Europe (under the name “social economy”) to promote alternative development based on principles of solidarity, mutualism, democracy, justice, and pluralism. It keeps its theoretical foundation fairly broad (for example regarding distribution of income and property rights) in order to broaden its scope to include all the diverse organizations working for a participatory democracy and social justice.


After his visit, I wrote up an interview with P' Kovit for publication in Boston's Spare Change Newspaper. A copy of the interview is located on the Surin Farmers Support blog:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Closing in on 4 months!

Kovit arrived in the US on December 20th, 2008. It was his birthday, and what better gift than finally getting to have this experience, an experience that ENGAGE and Kovit have been planning for a long time? What I didn't realize when I undertook the role of coordinating his stay here was that Kovit's trip to the US is also a gift for ENGAGE. Since he's been here, he has pushed Shin and myself to develop our organizing skills, think critically and realistically about how we function as an organization, and the potential we have to empower people's movements in the US through the relationships we hold with all of our members, all of you.

Let me take you back to where we were when Kovit first arrived, where we have come, and what the future holds. Below are the notes from our initial discussion when Kovit arrived at the ENGAGE staff apartment in DC:

-- -- --

Kovit Goals

* Support ENGAGE concretely
o Work with ENGAGErs to understand where/who their community is.
o Create international alliances (priority 2) e.g. Spartanburg – Khon
Kaen exchange
o Build local initiatives (priority 1) e.g. Help Allyn get a team together
* Support NGO-CORD
o build linkages between organizations in US/Thailand for coordinated
action in the future
o Learn how organizations and organizers organize at the grassroots level
to think about ways to help create in target groups a sense of ownership
of the movement/projects.
* Support CIEE
o Help students get more prepared before they leave, make orientation
easier for stuff
+ e.g. Small forum with departing students in the US
# language, culture, and program philosophy training before
they leave
* Personally
o Advance a level and a half in English

Josh Goals

* Become better facilitator of experiences for others
* Make sure Kovit is fulfilling his goals and fulfilled inside
* Maintain good communication between all parties involved; Kovit, CIEE,
ENGAGErs, allies


* Build and deepen the relationships ENGAGE has with communities in US/abroad
* Create new relationships with organizations/people
* Get ENGAGE members excited/reinvigorated
* Connect individual ENGAGErs to local initiatives in the US
* Reflect and show how much ENGAGE has grown until and throughout the Kovit tour
o Everything shall be documented!

Above all else

* Make sure we are working well together – i.e. We must have a functioning,
participatory, group process

-- -- --

These goals are what guided us in our initial plans, and I think many of them have been successful. For example, Kovit has gained a better understanding of what it means to be an organizer in the US, and will be gaining even more insight as his travels continue and he spends time with people who are doing really cool things.

Kovit has been traveling for the last month, spending time outside of Boston, in Nicaragua and now in Minnesota. Before all this, he traveled to New York City and Richmond, VA. All these trips have happened because of the awesome people we have in those locations, and in the case of Nicaragua, because of a relationship we have with the program through one the current interns with the CIEE Thailand program. In between he's been staying in DC checking in, catching up with us and on his sleep, and thinking about ENGAGE.

With Kovit in Minnesota right now, I've had some time to think about his trip so far and where it's going. There are many things that I think have been going excellently, others not so great, moments I'm proud of and worries about what's to come. This post is a chance for me to put my thoughts into words so that everyone can see them, and to provide some highlights of the trip so far.

Since getting here, Kovit has really had the chance to gain an understanding on ENGAGE. Like many of us when we first heard about ENGAGE, and many of us still, Kovit's understanding was really on the surface. The ideas, the principles, the concept is genuine and huge, but the reality of enacting them, of seeing them in action is more difficult. What does it mean to say we support our members and how do we do it? Now, with Kovit's help, we are trying to foster the relationships necessary to be successful, and create the space for tangible and sustainable actions. I myself have gained a better understanding of ENGAGE and its potential with Kovit, and my hope is that everywhere he goes and everyone he sees has the chance to do the same.

One of the coolest things to have happened so far is the number of ENGAGArs from all walks of life have spoken up to help plan trips, find out what's going on with Kovit and the communities he works with, and simply to spend time and reminisce about old times. This has been a great thing to experience. It is rare, I think, to find an organization that links not only cross-culturally and globally, but also dissects so many generations of students.

Kovit's english skills have also improved, and I am proud every time I watch him holding a good conversation in english with someone who has probably never heard a Thai accent before. he's been spoiled somewhat by the number of people he's spent time with that are fluent Thai speakers, but that's not an option everyone he's been or will be going, and he does better than I would be to do in Thailand with what I know. Hopefully this will help Kovit in his future goals of building stronger international relationships.

Despite all the successes of his trip so far, there have also been weaknesses that we hope to strengthen. Much of his early trip here was spent exchanging with organizations in DC, but much of what we did was on the surface. While he's here, Kovit really wants to dig deep and develop understandings and relationships with people that will last a lifetime. This is something that we are trying hard to do with those tangible actions mentioned above.

For example, in DC, we are working on setting up an internship between ENGAGE and an organization of day laborers. This is, as always, based off of a relationship that an ENGAGEr has with the community, and a great way to plug current and returning study abroad students into actions in the US where they can utlize what they learned while abroad. We hope that other opportunities like these arise, and will keep you posted on them as they come.

And lest you think that ENGAGE and Kovit are the only beneficiaries of his trip here, that would not follow one of the models ENGAGE is defined by. The exchange of information is always important in how we approach the world. With that in mind, on his many trips and in DC, Kovit has had the opportunity to share his experiences and knowledge with students, community leaders and organizers, friends, and anyone who is interested. People who have never had the chance to study abroad at least get a new perspective on the world, and organizers learn about a different model of people's movements. Hopefully these exchanges instill some insight and strengthen movements here. They've also given some ideas for Kovit to take back to Thailand and try out with the communities he works with there. In case you're interested, I've posted a couple of flyers from speaking events he's done on the ENGAGE wiki. One is from Brandies University and the other from EMPOWER DC. Others may post their flyers as well if they'd like. These can be found here.

Now, I hope that provides at least somewhat of an update about what's been going on. I'm sure I could keep going on and on, but no body wants to read a novel of run on sentences. I actually love talking to people much more and would love to catch up one-on-one if you'd like, simply e-mail me at and we could set something up.

Before I part, here is what the future holds. Kovit will be in Minnesota through the 20th, spending time with the White Earth Land Recovery Project ( He will also potentially meet with staff members from the Center for Global Education: Mexico program that ENGAGE has been building a relationship with over the past couple of years. It should be a great way to further solidify this relationship. After Kovit return from Minnesota, Kovit will be traveling with Shintaro to Mexico to do some reentry work with students from the CGE program and the International Honors Program: Rethinking Globalization, another program that we have been working with. Upon his return from ten days in Mexico, Kovit will spend a little time in DC checking in, and then heading down to Spartanburg, SC. He'll be working with SEEC and helping plan the convergence. Hopefully, Kovit's time there will help SEEC grow and give Kovit some great experience in grassroots organizing ENGAGE style!.

After the convergence, I will be heading off to Thailand, and this is where my worries arise. To continue creating the space for these experiences for Kovit's last six months, somebody will need to take the reigns and help plan for the future and be on the ground to keep things moving along. So far, no one has been able to make the long-term commitment, and we are still searching. If you are interested in getting involved, please e-mail me ASAP so we can start a conversation!

And with that, I will leave you until the next update!

as always, peace and love

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

Today was another busy day!
Kovit and I woke up and had breakfast and prepared for the day.
After going to the library for a bit to use the internet we met up with my friends Lauren, Liz, and Macon.
Lauren and Liz just received a grant from the Attorney General's office through their Gang Reduction Program. They are using the grant to develop an alternative tour of Richmond for 90 teens from the Southwood community in Southside in Richmond, VA. Many of these teens have lived in Southside their whole lives but have never crossed the bridge and explored the rest of Richmond, so the tour hopes to highlight some of the more unusual facts about Richmond and it's neighborhoods.
The actual tours will be taking place Saturday, February 28th and Saturday, March 21st- but Lauren and Liz gave Kovit, Macon and I the tour in hopes of allowing us all to explore and get to know Richmond a little better.
We started the tour in the historic Church Hill- where we talked a little bit about the background and history of the community. We stood on one of the many hills overlooking the city.

Kovit really enjoyed visiting, and learning about the culture and history of Jackson Ward. Freed slaves began moving into the neighborhood during Reconstruction, and by 1920 Jackson Ward was one of the most active and well-known centers of African-American life in the country. Jackson Ward was once known as "the Harlem of the South", and is still a predominantly African American community. In Jackson Ward we visited the famous Hippodrome theatre

Jackson Ward hosted a thriving entertainment district centered on the famed Hippodrome theatre. Among the names that appeared regularly were Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Richmond's own Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Jackson Ward also had a thriving African American business community and was known as the "Black Wall Street of America". We learned about Maggie L. Walker- the first woman to charter and serve as president of an American bank- as we visited the Maggie L. Walker Museum. Maggie Walker encouraged her fellow African American community members to "buy Black" and support small local Black businesses in order to keep the money with in the community.

We visited many other interesting neighborhoods and communities in Richmond and then returned home to prepare for our exchange with the staff at Synergeo.

The mission of SynerGeo is to enrich the lives of children and families through the arts, education, and cultural awareness. Their vision is to partner with communities in order to empower people to live in community with mindfulness, compassion, and creativity.

Their goals are to 1. Provide an intentional community among the Jonah House residents, 2. Inspire community action through the Arts, 3. Provide children, youth and families affordable access to the Arts, 4. Encourage creativity & positive expression, and 5. Be a partner to surrounding communities, organizations, corporations, & communities of faith.

We exchanged with the Synergeo staff at the Jonah House- which is on the same block as my house! Kovit talked to the staff about his work with the urban poor in Khon Kaen, and they talked about the different projects and programs they offer to kids in the community.

After the exchange we joined Synergeo for their monthly community dinner. The third Monday of every month Synergeo opens its doors to the Oregon Hill community for a potluck dinner. This month's potluck dinner featured photos and descriptions from a project with the Landfill community in Khon Kaen. Kovit really enjoyed the community dinner and thought it was important to have a space for people to meet their neighboors, and enjoy good food and good conversation.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kovit is in Richmond, Virginia!

I headed up to DC on valentines day to meet with Kovit and Josh and plan for the week in Richmond, VA. This is Kovit's first stop in the U.S. without a translator so we talked about some of the obstacles we might have to overcome.
On Sunday morning after cooking breakfast at Josh and Shin's apartment, Kovit and I drove down to Richmond, Va.

We started our day at the Food Not Bombs house in Richmond.
Food Not Bombs was born in 1980 when the movement's founding members served free food to the homeless outside of a stockholders' meeting of the First National Bank in Boston. The group's message is simple, "less money should be spent on destructive military equipment while much of our nation's population lives in poverty". Now there are Food Not Bombs groups all over the world!
The Richmond Food Not Bombs has been active sinc 1994. Folks have been gathering in Richmond every Sunday to cook vegan meals for people with out homes or access to healthy meals in Monroe Park for 15 years- only missing 2 servings in its history! All of the food that the group receives is donated from local restaurants and grocery stores.

At the FNB house we got to chat with local activists about the FNB mission while helping cut vegetables and fruit. Kovit met many interesting people, including Aaron- an activist in Richmond who works with the Latino population. Aaron is friends with fellow Engagers Virginia Leavell and Mandy Skinner, and became aware of Engage after he traveled to Mexico with the Mexico Solidarity Network. Aaron teaches an ESL class in Richmond- and explained to Kovit and I that it is different than most ESL classes because it is mostly conversational. He said that everyone sits around in a circle and discusses a different issue each week, and because Aaron is committed to justice he tries to incorporate different social justice issues into his class.

After cutting vegetables and fruit, we left the FNB house and headed to Monroe Park- located next to the VCU campus- to serve the food. Kovit and I helped serve vegan pasta and veggies to about 30 or 40 people.

After leaving Food Not Bombs, Kovit and I returned to my house and sat down to reflect and evaluate the day. Kovit enjoyed working with FNB and especially enjoyed talking with Aaron. He was excited about the possibility of Engage working with Aaron in the future.
He liked that the FNB house was open and inviting- a place where people can just show up and talk and share ideas. However, he wondered why the people they serve in the park do not join them to cook or clean up. I explained that those folks have joined to cook and clean sometimes in the past.
He thought it was very good that they serve food every week, but wondered where people in Richmond receive food the rest of the week or where they find shelter. He said he has only had one experience with the homeless in Thailand. We both agreed that the United States and Thailand are very different because community is usually much stronger in Thailand. He explained that even if you are poor, that if someone does not have a place to sleep or food to eat that you will help them, but we agreed that is not always the case in the U.S. He also wondered if there are people helping to organize the homeless population in Richmond, and we discussed some of the obstacles involved with organizing the homeless.

Later that night my friend Vash came over. We chatted about a project she is working on in New Orleans where they plant sunflowers. She explained that there is a big problem with lead poisoning in New Orleans and that the sunflowers help take the lead out of the soil. Its nice because it is fun activity for everyone in the community to do, and looks very pretty. She also talked to us for awhile about the ESL classes that she teaches and about her love for herbal remedies.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Blog Up and Benfit Show in Richmond a Success

This blog is finally up! It is a space to provide updates as the exchange moves forward. For the first update, I'm happy to report that the benefit show thrown by Shayne in Richmond, VA was a complete success! Four bands played, there was at least 65-70 people in the venue at any given time, and probably at least 100 people were there throughout the night. We also raised $298.06 for Kovit!! If you want a little guidance on how to throw a benefit concert, go here. Thanks coming up soon!!