Tapping the Power of Kids:

A Forum with Architect Chawanad Luanseng

4:00 PM, CODI Conference Room

After the coffee break, Kaze and Billy handed their presentation seats to a guest speaker. The room is still filled with laughter, small talks, and gossips. A scent of Marlboro Light still lingers on Prasant’s shirt after he enters the room. The guest speaker tests his microphone: “One, two, three…..One, two, three.” By the time the crowd quiet down, we already find ourselves in the middle of the presentation.

“We tried to encourage the community to think about improving the physical aspect of their settlement,” says architect Chawanad Luanseng who used to work with Klong Sawaan Canal squatters in Patumthani.

“We asked them to form saving groups and think about plans to rework their dilapidated houses. There were 56 houses in the community, so we organized a large public town hall meeting. Guess how many people showed up?" he asks.

"Exactly two people showed up.”

Then, at the town hall meeting, he asked the “two members of the public” if they knew the size of their houses.

“No, we don’t”
“Can I measure your house then?”
“Would you have time to measure your house for us?”
Is there anything we can do…”

Three months after the town hall meeting, Chawanad was seen wandering around the settlement – the only activity in which he was not given a “no” – picking garbage and taking pictures. An unruly teenage boy of 13 came up to him.

“Why are you still here?” says the youngster in amazement.

“I don’t know,” said Chawanad.

“So what are you going to do now?” asked the young man.

“Well, I don’t know; I just want to know the dimensions of the existing houses,” said the architect. “But your parents don’t allow me to measure the houses, you know.”

“What are you gong to do with the dimensions?” asked the teenager.

“I’ll make a paper model of the entire community. So we could see exactly what it looks like now, and what changes we want to make.”

“But we don’t have money to make improvements.”

“The city does, we just need to first get our act together. Then we can state our demands and plans.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said the young man.

The boy went back to his gang after Chawanad had told him that candies and Coca Cola would be made available for those who wanted to participate in the “competition” to measure all the houses in the community.

Chawanad asks us to guess how long it takes for the kids to measure their houses. The audience estimated that it would take them about 1 month to collect all the data, and 1 more month to draw them out.

“No, it took them exactly 1 hour to measure and draw up the entire plan of the community!” says Chawanad with an affirming nod. “Of course, we spend all our money on candies and drinks; the Coca Cola Company was probably very happy.”

Chawanad also held meetings where kids – age 5 to 15 – were given colored pencil and papers; they were free to draw, paint, and make models of anything. It was like an art festival day. Some groups of teenagers were seen making a paper model based on their vision of the new community – the master plan of their new utopia.

“So the adults started to show up and asked me where their houses were situated in the plan,” says Chawanad. “I told them that I don’t know; they should be the ones telling me where they want their houses to be. Some parents were upset that their new houses did not show up in the new plan. So they started to work more with their kids.”

In addition to drawing up plans and building paper models, the kids also told Chawanad vital information about the social fabric within the community. They told him where the drug dealers lived; who they were; and who were members of the various slum gangs. They told him the gossips about who in the community were dating. They also told him who were getting old and sick.

“After a while, people started to trust us, we started to form groups – now with a few adults joining in – that were in charge of cleaning up the canal. We used simple cleaning techniques like building grease traps which could be made from two plastic bins, some gravels, sand, and coconut skins.

Initially, only 4 households participated with us in this endeavor. Once they realized that it works, other adults start to join in. Soon the entire community was working with us on building this grease trap.”

Chawanad says that he also worked with the squatters on redesigning their septic tanks. “These small things like toilets and clean water are very important – sometimes more important than the building structure itself - especially if you are one of the squatters who have no legal address and so no access to municipal water supply.”

“We managed to build simple septic tanks for 2000 baht each. So the folks could afford to make them on site. In the end, the squatters have shown the larger society that they were indeed the caretakers of the canal. And they earned their respect that way. At that time, the Baan Mankong Collective Housing has yet to be implemented; so there was little money available from the state. We have to make do with what we have; but I think this project demonstrated to society that people who live in the so-called slums are capable of doing planning and design.

When the collective housing program was finally implemented in 2003, many community groups promptly joined the program. They were mostly close-knitted communities; and some were driven close together through the activities of the kids. By the time we joined the collective housing program, we already have a master plan drawn up; we were ahead of the game.”

Teaming up with the kids in doing socially engaged work is not new. In 1966, Mao Zedong appeared before several million Red Guards at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It was probably the largest gathering of kids and teenagers in the entire human history. The Red Guards were 10 to15 years old kids; they came from many different provinces all across China; responding to the call of their Chairman who had asked them to rise up against authority.

The aging Mao, by the late 1960s, was sidelined by his very own communist party; his words were not taken very seriously by his old comrades and his political power within the party was in decline. Mao quickly acknowledged his limitations; his fading power within the ranks and files of party members. So he chose to communicate with the younger generation instead – the kids and teenagers –who had the natural rebellious spirit of adolescent. It was this same spirit that had created Rock n’ Roll and Heavy Metal in Western World. Mao called on them to rebel against their superiors and to rebel against the communist party itself. He called on them to spy on their parents and teachers and – if they were working with local governments – their party superiors.

Within a very short time period of time, from 1965 to 1966, these youngsters had restored absolute control and power back to their old Chairman. They beat up their teachers, strung wires around their professors’ neck, and burned books that were deemed obsolete by the Chairman.

Anarchy, chaos, brutality, and pain ensued; but this particular brand of agitation would go down in history as one of the most nefarious social innovation.

In community organization, one must first learn the social fabric and its organizational structure. Often, the organizers – or the community architects – would find that most adults would be very hesitant in giving sensitive information to strangers. This is especially true if the community organizers are working with the state or the NGOs. Sometimes after working in the community for more than 6 months, the organizers still find that they have learned nothing about the community. That is, they have heard nothing about which the community does not want them to hear. Whether one agrees with his politics or not is another question, but Mao’s strategy of getting his message across to the kids - getting them excited - was indeed a work of a demonic genius.

“A decade after Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party of Thailand was seen organizing along the same line; they first came to talk to the kids in the villages, right?” I observe.

“Yeah, they first came to talk to the kids”, interjects Billy, whose relatives lived near the jungle in southern Thailand around the late 1970s. “Then they encouraged the kids to tell them about their parents; where they lived and what they were working on,” he says. “They first make friends with the kids. It was a very effective method; and in the end, my parents and relatives actually ended up supporting the ‘jungle people’ because the kids had already called them uncles and aunties.”

“But we’re not communists!” says Chawanad

“No we aren’t. And the method is not exclusively communists, you know. McDonalds is notorious for creating elaborated playgrounds for the kids. So even if the adults show some distaste for eating greasy burgers and salty fries everyday, their kids have already embraced them wholeheartedly,” says Billy.

“I want a greasy burger now!” shouts Kaze.

Everyone laughs.

Prashant Chatterjee - our guest from Bombay - is a vegetarian; so he could only defend himself with a shy smile.