A Plan to Recruit Community Lawyers to Represent Informal Workers

Bangkok | 05/31/2013 10:44am
Witchaya Pruecksamars | Informal City Dialogues

I could almost hear a collective gulp when Dr. Apiwat Ratanawaraha, the lead facilitator of the two-day Innovation Workshop, finished explaining what was expected of everyone. Perhaps the participants were overwhelmed by the job ahead.

Their task was to create potential solutions for some of the issues Bangkok might face in the year 2040 – issues that were envisioned in the Scenario Planning Workshop a few weeks prior. In that workshop, participants selected from a range of factors influencing the future of Bangkok, like politics, housing and land tenure, and education and social awareness. They then further boiled those influences down to two critical factors, which were placed on an x/y axis: Integrated city versus segregated city on the vertical axis, and informal political organizing versus formal political organizing on the horizontal. The four quadrants formed became their scenarios for the futures of Bangkok, and those scenarios in turn became the foundation for today’s innovations.

Dr. Apiwat gave some examples of existing innovations to inspire the participants: Voice of Kibera, the citizen reporting project in Nairobi’s largest slum; Peepoo bags, a single-use toilet bag intended to replace the flying toilet and the Liter of Light, solar lamps made from plastic bottles, a project first piloted in the slums of Manila. I’m sure that the participants from the informal sectors had never seen such initiatives before – in fact, seeing the PowerPoint slide about Kibera made us realize that the conditions of Thai “slums” are enviable compared to those in other parts of the world.

“The exercise keeps getting harder and harder!” exclaimed Mr. Chalerm, President of the Motorcycle Taxi Association of Thailand. Soon enough, however, the participants were nodding vigorously. Perhaps they were already busy converting their experience and knowledge into ideas.

Approximately 70 percent of the previous workshop’s attendees returned for this one, and the newcomers were mostly from the formal sector, particularly academics bringing their own expertise. All arrived with one purpose: To create innovations that might lead to a more inclusive and resilient city. Dr. Apiwat encouraged the participants not to hold back their opinions, but also to be respectful of others’ ideas. “His or her idea may not work, but you don’t need to say anything,” he urged the group of about 50 attendees. “Let’s be friends.”

Day 1: Four Scenarios and Many Ideas

The participants were asked to review the four future scenarios developed in the Scenario Planning Workshop. The first scenario, “Mixed Veggie Stew: An All-Inclusive City,” imagined everyone in Bangkok mixed together, like a stew with all the ingredients simmered in one pot, everyone participating in the city’s economic and social realms. The second scenario, “Curry Rice: A Mafia and Clique City,” saw many different groups of people with strong, individualistic self-identities (perhaps like curry and rice) but without much social interaction or political organization. The third, “Sectioned Plates: A Tug-of-War City,” portrayed clear social segregation and territorial demarcation between the rich and the poor, where the rich are entitled to rights and resources, and the poor must organize and fight for their rights. The final scenario, “Food Court Buffet: A Free for All City” imagined excessive concentration of power and resources in the hands of a few, leading to a vicious cycle of inequality and an every-man-for-himself urban dystopia.

The participants were separated into five groups, one group per table, each told to immerse themselves in a particular scenario. (Two groups got the same scenario, given that there were four scenarios and five groups). A role-play session followed. The workshop team had prepared a dozen characters, and each participant was given a character to narrate, ranging from toilet cleaner to construction worker to graduate student to male prostitute. They were asked to imagine what their character would be like twenty-ish years from now in the context of the scenario they were given. I eavesdropped on one group to listen to a female participant narrate her character, who foresaw him in the same occupation, but better organized. “I would continue to work on the same job … but I would be part of a Male Prostitutes’ Association,” she imagined.

This was followed by an intense session of brainstorming innovative ideas, which had to be framed by the five most important issues and challenges to the city that had been previously decided upon: Leadership development, changing the perception of public officials, development of recreational and green space, enforcement of law and social organization.

More than twenty ideas emerged, some of which were more thoroughly thought out than others. A few seemed almost whimsical — those ones were my favorites – like the “Come Have Dinner With Us” initiative, in which public officials would regularly visit an informal settlement for dinner, the rationale being that “when [the officials] ate our food, they must work for us.” (“How about we go eat at the official’s house instead?” someone suggested). Another idea recommended live monitoring of a public official’s daily life, an idea inspired by the Panda Channel, Thailand’s 24-hour live broadcast of a giant panda named Ling Ping. If the official slacks off, the audience can “vote” him or her out. A third endorsed community karaoke, a shared space to foster a stronger sense of community, with a monthly competition.

Despite the playfulness of these ideas, the discussion that gave birth to them was uncompromising. For instance, when a representative from a CSR magazine was asked by a fellow participant how her “1 forest, 1 community” idea would be funded, she casually replied, “by the Rockefeller, of course.” In response, a housing expert with a typically gentle, almost timid demeanor raised her hand and exclaimed, “I object! The money must come from the communities themselves, otherwise they will not be strong.” They moved on quickly, and in hindsight, the community forest idea was a welcome contribution to the group dynamic and overall synthesis of ideas.

Out of twenty ideas, five innovations were voted up:
1. Leaders’ Academy – The academy will offer various activities that cultivate aspiring leaders; seasoned community leaders will take part to mentor and share their tips and tricks.
2. Under-the-Overpass Market – Local communities will be able to sell all kinds of goods in the underused spaces beneath the highway overpasses of Bangkok.
3. “20:80” Initiative – Everyone in the community will allocate 20 percent of their private household space for public use.
4. Community Lawyer – Attorneys will do pro bono work to fight against injustices suffered by people in the informal realm who cannot afford legal representation.
5. Community Smart Card – Volunteer work or acts of kindness would be rewarded with credits that can be used for discounts and freebies; these credits will be stored in a smart card that can be used at stores.

Day 2: Marketplace of Social Innovations

Those five ideas were further developed and refined during the first half of the second day (speed-innovating!) and were later presented in a fun and dynamic format colloquially known as the Marketplace, whereby the presenters were stationed at flip-charts (think of them as stalls at an expo) to pitch the ideas that they, together with the participants, had developed earlier. Participants roamed the room, listening to the presenters sell their ideas. A voting exercise soon followed, and two final innovations were selected.

But before the final voting began, Dr. Apiwat asked his team of facilitators to come up with 10-second slogans for their ideas on the spot, giving them a last-ditch opportunity to win hearts and minds. And so they did, with substance and style, much like a friendly salesman or an aspiring politician. Their slogans were fairly succinct, but what was truly inspiring about them was their poetic quality (my translations don’t do them justice):

“No lawyer would know better, with regards to the problems in our communities, than the community lawyer.” (ทนายใดเล่า จะรู้ปัญหาชุมชนเท่า ทนายชุมชน)

“If you want to know how a market can improve lives, please give the idea of mafia-free market a chance.” (ตลาดใต้ทางด่วน อยากรู้ว่าตลาดจะยกระดับคุณภาพชีวิตได้อย่างไร ลองให้โอกาสตลาดไร้มาเฟียสิครับ)

“Community smart card … a tool to connect everyone into the community-based system.” (Smart card ชุมชน … เครื่องมือเชื่อมโยงทุกท่านเข้าไว้ด้วยกันในระบบของชุมชน).

In the end, the two ideas that received the most votes were community lawyer and community smart card. But although the innovations had been selected, there was one more thing to be done.

Everyone was divided into two big groups. We talked and talked in order to make those two ideas feasible (I also joined in). The community lawyer idea was fairly straightforward because the need is so apparent. It was argued, however, that the smart card idea, while appealing in principle, may not be the best tool for bringing people together (not to mention the technical issues – would it function as a credit card, an ID card or a prepaid card?) In the end, the two ideas were combined by Dr. Apiwat to create the final innovation: The Community Lawyers & Grassroots Paralegals project, whose components include recruiting and training community lawyers and grassroots paralegals, along with a website that can access the project. When all was said and done, the vote was a squeaker.

All photos by Witchaya Pruecksamars