To write my second blog (on the bus trip back from Koh Chang) I refer back to my notes from the first week of our time in Bangkok. I have picked out some key quotes that stand out in my notes and in my memory. There was so much insightfulness and knowledge transferred during the presentations, I feel this is a good means for reflection.
‘Slum is not in the people, it’s in the system. [ The wrong/bad system! ]’
This Somsook statement is twofold, it challenges not only how the conditions of slums are generated, but also the perception of the people who live in slums. By reframing the cause of slums – as stemming from the inadequacies of the urban system, more appropriate mechanisms for dealing with slums can be understood and established. By reframing the perception by and of the people living in slums away from the dominant belief that slum dwellers have caused and have chosen this destiny, liberates them from being a cause of the problem, to having the potential to be a part of the mechanisms for transforming slums.
For me, the most important part of this statement is the liberation of the perception of and by the slum dwellers; as changing mindsets is a fundamental precursor for transformation, and is a key condition which sets transformation apart from change.
‘There is a gap between the people and the system, let the people fill the gap.’
All too common in developing cities, and even developed cities for that matter, there is a gap between what the urban system can deliver and the ‘complete’ needs of the people, where the ‘complete’ needs go beyond the majority to include the margins, minorities, invisible and unforeseens. But the point which Somsook labours is how this gap is filled. Her approach is opposite to popular approaches of firstly, to ignore the gap, and secondly to adapt the system to fill the gap. By letting ‘the people fill the gap’ individuals and groups are able to ‘design’ a mechanism which suits their particular situation and conditions, empowering them to play an active role in shaping their own lives.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge of this approach is for those currently in a position of power and / or control. This is because, by mobilising those without power / control a space to ‘shift’ the dominant power structures is created.
……….With this, is the huge (and somewhat contradicting) task of institutionalizing the process? A process, which by character is non-generic, non-institutional, but of the people, the place, and the context. Is this possible? And is it truly beneficial? And will it continue to fill the ‘gap’?
‘Networks have power, they are visible unlike individuals who are invisible.’
It is clear that Somsook truly understands and has huge faith in the power of people. She is also extremely clever at knowing how to set up the ‘conditions’ for extracting and harnessing this power for the collective benefit. This quote goes on to demonstrate her understanding of the system, and how to influence the system. Somsook’s tactics revolve around power and relationships, and the opportunities they create.
I specifically selected these 3 quotes as together (amongst many many other quotes), they demonstrate Somsook’s balanced understanding of the people, the context and the system. An important aspect for me, is that the people in slums are not seen as objects but as subjects of transformative processes. Somsook’s approach is dynamic, enabling it to adapt and respond on a case by case basis.