When young people step up to transform their hometown: on creative space that leaves no one behind
In each passing era, social changes and social issues were diversely defined. Equality, once a hallmark of 19th-century progress, is now enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This pushes for a development process that honors both success and failure. A step forward never means leaving anyone behind. Whether the end of our journey will embrace every life or not, that depends on the way the development process brings us along.
At the moment, the SDGs might not be a big news to us. For the past 10 years, the media and many organizations have already discussed them. We no longer need to cite the goals in full, as all the issues tackled have well entered into the public consciousness. The next step that we must take is to grapple with the following questions: how can we uncover the nexus between social issues, and how do we transform the needs of minor lives into the development process that begets both structural changes and genuine sustainability?
‘Us,’ the change-makers
Like characters in a film, ‘we,’ too, have different things to carry out. Different roles to play, for example. Different responsibilities to shoulder. Different purposes of existence in a play of this world. Different scenes to enact. Despite a lengthy list of dissimilarity between our lives-roles, all of our contributions will always carry into the denouement. If we think of changes as the consequences of protagonists’ actions, then who should step in to take up these leading roles, then?
If we believe that young people are future citizens, blessed with vitality and scintillating creativity, then we can dedicate a learning space for them to experiment and share knowledge with one another. This can drive the young to see, and chase after, the horizon of possibilities and changes that lie beyond, no matter how long social disruptions and crises go on. Yes, certain issues might put too much weight on them, but the roles of change-makers belong to the young alone.
Connecting the dots between each role, piecing together the stories of individuals – these are but the overture to our common goal: changes that pave the way forward and help young people in exercising their full potential. As a core element of these, a learning setting expands the boundaries of young people’s capacity to guide the tides of change with hope.
In this article, we invite you to join a conversation with UNDP Thailand and TK Park, two driving forces behind the birth of various learning spaces across the years, and explore their perspective on, as well as projects about, changes in the making.
When collaboration morphs into a succession of fast-paced and sustainable changes
It has been 5 years since Youth:CoLab Thailand, led by UNDP Thailand, first started out as a platform that drew potential of change from young people. Not only those youthful sparks of social transformation orient the society towards the 17 SDGs, they also touch on problems at the local level.
As Youth Engagement and Social Innovation Officer from UNDP Thailand, Khun Nitchakan “Kadae” Daramatat condenses the lessons learned along the way into a summary of all the happenings: discrepancies between metropolitan youth’s capacity and those of other provinces are palpable. So far young participants from vulnerable communities display a profound understanding of their own problems. This is partly attributed to their lived experiences. However, when compared to young people from the metropolitan region, it is evident that they lack communication strategy and tools. It is also revealed that cross-sector collaboration is the main catalyst for sustainable change.
“As for the 2022 Youth:CoLab Thailand, UNDP Thailand has received strong support from Thailand Knowledge Park (TK Park), an important partner who also advocates capacity development for citizens. We started with small provinces, such as Mae Hong Son, Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, et cetera, bearing in mind that our goal had always been about instilling the learner mindset in young people while instigating sustainable development at the local level. Then we saw that learning and community development could bring young people so much joy. This was where TK Park, an organization that specialized in education, and UNDP, a promoter of development, met.” Khun Kadae speaks of challenges and her previous collaboration with TK Park.
Creating a learning space for ‘everyone,’ not just young people
Learning is always associated with children and youth. It is no secret that Thai adults believe it is too late for them to learn. But for TK Park, this should not be taken as a fact. Although the majority of TK Park users are young generations, the organization endeavors to answer all the learning needs of people across the age spectrum, assisting everyone in enhancing their skills and establishing lifelong learning. An inclusive learning space equips citizens with knowledge, expands the possibilities and depths of development, while embracing mistakes and newly discovered paths towards sustainable progress.
Khun Kittirat “Tong” Pitipanich, Director of TK Park, deconstructs the mainstream perception of TK Park. “Many think of TK Park as a mega library within Bangkok’s imposing department store, but in fact it is a mere library, another mechanism to diversify the ways of learning with books as its main medium. It was created to be a learning model for everyone.”
TK Park has passed its living library on to partner organizations across the country, from the local administration to municipalities, as they are responsible for establishing local learning spaces (e.g. Education Outside the Classroom [EOTC] and people’s libraries). The TK Park model is all about experimenting with new prototypes, new innovations, or new services, supported by a set of indicators called the Social Return of Investment (SROI). Focusing on user participation, this monitoring and evaluation system helps track the frequency of relevant activities such as book borrowing rates and information access via social networking systems.
“We found that our online platforms attracted more and more users, notably during the pandemic. The numbers of our users are now 3 times more than what we had pre-pandemic. There are now 31 learning spaces in 23 provinces, with 2 newest spaces will be established in 2023 in Phayao and Surat Thani. In the future, we hope to open our learning spaces in other provinces. TK Park is currently in partnership with more than 300 education networks, collaborating closely with relevant organizations such as the Ministry of Education, Thai Health Promotion Foundation, and the Department of Corrections, who manages “the Library of Wisdom.” Khun Tong reflects on the outcomes of education investment over the years, particularly amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, and TK Park’s ambitions to expand their spaces of learning.
Although TK Park positions itself as a space for every individual, certain issues require youth leadership in problem solving. This is precisely why investment in youth and capacity-building is on TK Park’s top priority. If we can nourish the minds of younger generations, they will emerge as precious human resources with a long journey ahead. This will benefit the local communities, families of young people, and even every life in this country.
Clear seawater and air for all
In this year, Youth:CoLab Thailand dived into the local communities, searching for issues that already interested young people. As one of the most important partners, TK Park created bridges that led to many communities. The duty of coordination fell on UNDP, who stepped up and became a focal point of contact, driving youthful creativity from behind and drawing support from various stakeholders across the country.
“We started with making sense out of the local context, understanding what the community members identified as issues and non-issues, instead of tossing around the notion of the SDGs. In this way, we can really grasp what the problems are. Some communities have environmental issues, climate issues, education issues, or even a crisis of inequality.” Khun Kadae explains the action plan and participatory process of the 2022 Youth:CoLab Thailand.
Collaboration leads to a novelty of analytical approach that focuses on local issues. It encourages the community members to observe their surroundings with critical gaze, unearthing the hidden interplay between the social and the environmental. This leads to a “how” question set – how can we improve all aspects of life? How can we create a common ground? Because sustainable development encompasses socio-economic and environmental dimensions. It asks us to think long and hard about how to make economic growth happen without environmental degradation, and how ecological conservation can go hand in hand with economic development.
Khun Kadae addes that “UNDP also organized a human-centric design training for TK Park staff across the country. It is not a training-training, but rather a space for sharing learning experiences. The TK Park staff offered their insights on the adaptation of human-centric design to their communities, based on the interesting local issues. The UNDP would then assist them in turning their vision into a reality. This leads to sharing of knowledge, collaborative approaches, and thinking systems between 2 organizations.”
Khun Tong refers to his experiences in working with the local community in Mae Hong Son. He found that persistent air pollution, such as haze and smog, had been threatening people for years. What his team did was creating a learning space, providing analytical tools for the community members and participants, establishing “the Clean Air Heroes” project that supported youth leadership.
Due to its proximity to seawater, Narathiwat has one major problem: water sources. This is how “the Ocean Hero” project comes into being. It drives the community members to come up with solutions that only they can think of.
The power of creativity
With TK Park as the facilitator who understands the local context and UNDP as the knowledge manager and provider of development toolkits, possibilities of change emerge out of youthful creativity. Khun Tong speaks of the lessons learned from UNDP-TK Park collaboration.
“Everytime I hear a story from young community members, I am convinced that a safe space for them to think or experiment freely helps them see their true potential. Besides being a learning space, it is a place where opinions are deeply heard and felt. When this resolve reaches young people, it does strengthen their commitment to problem solving. This is how meaningful collaboration begins.”
“I saw collaboration between the local administration, the state committee, and the private sector. I saw conjoint involvement from the local members, such as professors, private enterprises, or municipalities. However, the gap between young people and their mentors was so evident when compared to such national-level missions. This is the biggest difference we have seen so far. I found that creating an ecosystem of support for young community members would have a long-lasting impact. The more adults from various organizations listen to youth, the more hopeful they feel for their communities. This in turn reinforces local networks.
“The problems we are experiencing right now are complex by nature. A single solution from UNDP will neither make them go away nor pave the way for rapid transformation,” added Khun Kadae.
With TK Park’s goals and missions to establish learning spaces that continue for more than a decade, Khun Tong believes that the collaboration with UNDP Thailand is the stepping stone towards a kind of development that allows youth and the local communities to instigate the change they want. The next big step is making this development process sustainable.
“Many things start when we first climb the ladder of change. As of now, TK Park has built the first step. The hardest thing to do next would be building the second, the third, and the fourth steps. Having youth joining us in observing the local issues and realizing that there is always a way out is the first step for them. It is like a light at the end of a tunnel. We hope that our young participants can build a next step on their own.”
At the end, what TK Park and UNDP did might not be groundbreaking. Many may think that the outcomes of their projects are too nebulous to see, too impossible to change anything.
“What we did, and did well, was nurturing trust. The community members knows that we did all of that without ulterior motives. We came with a clear action plan. We had key actors we wanted to talk to. We could get everyone on the same page. We did not simply throw a set of solutions at them. Trust takes time to build. We have to be patient in order to know what we can do exactly and how we should plan the projects. This is a delicate matter. Certain issues are adults’ issues. But change must begin with the young.”
This is just the beginning of the collaboration between TK Park and UNDP, a growth journey wherein nobody knows better than the rest. This is where knowledge is shared. This is a structure of sustainability that keeps up with younger generations who are ready to make change in their hometown, no matter how complicated and entrenched the problems are. If we have the same vision and goals, the solutions will benefit us all.