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SOMBAT BOONNGAMANONG

ประเทศไทย,

In northern Thailand, Sombat Boonngamanong is devising an education system that erases divisions within society. He links the interests of children, teachers, and parents so that everyone can participate in the educational process. Using the Internet, he is also actively extending this community to the rest of Thailand, its government, and even international neighbors.

This profile below was prepared when Sombat Boonngamanong was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.

คุณสมบัติพัฒนางานด้านการศึกษาในชุมชนชาวเขาที่ด้อยโอกาสโดยได้นำประสบการณ์ในการทำงานกับเยาวชนและชุมชนในเมืองมาออกแบบระบบการศึกษาที่สอดคล้องกับชุมชน  อาศัยความคิดริเริ่มสร้างสรรค์และทักษะในการใช้เทคโนโลยี่สารสนเทศ  คุณสมบัติสามารถระดมครูอาสาสมัครจากทั่วประเทศ และการสนับสนุนในรูปแบบต่างๆ เช่น การบริจาคหนังสือผ่านทางอินเตอร์เนตถึง 100,000 เล่ม  มาสนับสนุนงานด้านการศึกษาในชุมชน

INTRODUCTION

In northern Thailand, Sombat Boonngamanong is devising an education system that erases divisions within society. He links the interests of children, teachers, and parents so that everyone can participate in the educational process. Using the Internet, he is also actively extending this community to the rest of Thailand, its government, and even international neighbors.




THE NEW IDEA

Sombat Boonngamanong has long seen a divorce between Thailand's educational system and the social needs of its people. By actively listening to community members, identifying issues of local importance, and devising solutions together with them, he is designing an educational system distinguished by how successfully it has knocked down barriers between different parts of the community. In the process, he redefines existing notions of both education and community. School becomes a sustainable learning system that mirrors the needs of the community: Sombat's school engages students at all levels, not just high-performers, and includes a childcare center developed by parents responding to needs identified by their children. Sombat has connected the school to the "wired" world, and through the Internet the school has drawn in books (100,000 so far) and long-term volunteers/role models/mentors who bring their skills and show students the relevance of their education. The school is even making strides toward, also with the help of the Internet.

Sombat's peers have said that his school is the first Thai citizens' organization to use Internet technology to address social needs. While others have used it to advertise, Sombat not only fundraises with the Internet, but also builds allies for his learning system. The technology is organically suited to his goal of breaking down barriers, and he uses it to expand the notion of community beyond local to national and even international levels, bringing together communities on an ongoing basis that were not previously linked. His most recent idea is to use the Internet to help the hill-tribe members of the community become citizens, by registering names, ages, and locations and getting other citizens' organizations to log in and add similar information. The job of gathering the data necessary to move the government to action would otherwise take years of travel and census taking.




THE PROBLEM

Sombat believes that the formal government education system up to the university level needs to be reformed, most particularly because of its failure to respond to local needs. The system devotes a great deal of resources to the most elite and highest achieving students and thus actually works well for, at most, the top twenty percent. However, it is considered wasteful for a bright student to apply his/her talents to improving the local community. Rather than integrating knowledgeable and competent graduates back into the community, the educational system "creams" them into other worlds. These young people don't come back to their communities but are instead encouraged to go to the already overpopulated urban centers of Thailand.

Meanwhile, in other sectors of society, resources are lacking. As in other rural areas, Sombat's community near Chiang Rai, which includes many hill-tribe people, suffers from abject poverty and related problems, including less access to formal education, and the lack of Thai citizenship. The community is under threat from western-influenced urbanism, which is gradually infiltrating rural traditions and culture. Many in the community disregard their roots in favor of this invading culture. In the past, many organizations have endeavored to halt the gradual drift away from the traditional rural way of life, but their efforts have largely proved unsuccessful mainly due to a lack of resources.




THE STRATEGY

Having originally worked in Bangkok with various underprivileged communities, Sombat and his organization, The Mirror Art Group, decided to concentrate their efforts in one community to see if a comprehensive approach to societal change would yield long lasting, far reaching results.

In early 1999, Sombat and his organization moved to Ban Huey Khom, a set of several small villages in Chiang Rai province where the majority of the community are members of various hill tribes. Sombat sees this location as a laboratory to experiment with various social change initiatives that, if successful, could be adapted to many different locations. For instance, he believes that rural children, if given the proper educational opportunities, will succeed as much as any other children. Therefore, he is introducing a variety of innovative teaching approaches, which he acquired from his experiences with alternative schools. He is currently working closely with eleven primary schools, starting by integrating drama activities into the curriculum, in Ban Huey Khom.

One of his first challenges was to gain support for improving educational opportunities for rural hill-tribe children. He felt that local children themselves could appeal most effectively to community leaders. So, with his help, the children created a video presentation of a ten-year-old child who wanted to go to school but couldn't because he had to take care of younger children. After watching it, community leaders decided to set up a childcare center which later on became a pre-school. The value of this new institution has been further reinforced by the fact that children attending this pre-school have proceeded to outperform their peers in primary school. This success has attracted outside funders to support the continued development of this school.

Having worked with local schools for some time, Sombat realized that one of their major deficiencies was the short supply of books. Capitalizing on the increasing access to the Internet in Thailand, he therefore developed a strategy for obtaining used books and integrating them into the school curriculum,. He believes information on it will "flow like water" and continuously help spread his ideas. Through his web site, "thebangkok.com," he solicited book donations from Internet users everywhere. Over 100,000 books have come in so far, prompting the community to build a warehouse for them!

Having had considerable success with his book donation initiative (for which he received an Ashoka Citizen Base Award in 1998), Sombat started designing new ways to use the Internet to support his work and communicate with the media, supporters, and donors. He has been quite successful in soliciting cash donations via the Internet, which is less costly and labor intensive than the strategies often employed by Thai citizen organizations (such as using donation boxes in public places or direct mail campaigns, which typically yield less than a five percent response rate). His website now receives about 600 hits a day, and it has yielded many of the 3,800 names on his mailing list. On it he posts stories, photos, and profiles of individual children. He has created a Children's Fund in the village which channels donations through the site into a community-managed fund used to finance projects which benefit the whole village.

Sombat also has used the Internet to recruit volunteer teachers to work in the Ban Huey Khom community. From January to July 1999, over 400 people from different professions, aged between 16 and 61 (the average age is 28 years) visited his project. About 100 (including engineers, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, computer programmers) volunteered to teach poor children and work with community members. Others write to students and encourage them to read their new books. The volunteers become a natural avenue for the spread of Sombat's ideas.

Since one of the problems facing children in Ban Huey Khom is the poverty of their families, Sombat has begun organizing local women into craft-producing units which are provided with an initial seed capital investment and training to produce traditional folk crafts. They produce popular items such as embroidered shoulder bags that are marketed locally and most recently, thanks to the Internet, nationally and internationally.

Most recently, Sombat has employed the Internet to tackle the government's continual refusal to grant nationality to hill-tribe people. He has created an online database aimed at accounting for all hill-tribe people who lack this status. He will be launching a campaign to raise awareness of this situation, encouraging other citizen organizations and the public to enter names of people without citizenship in their areas and to work together to support the granting of Thai citizenship to the hill-tribe communities. Through the Internet, he will encourage supporters to send post cards to the Prime Minister's Office or voice their ideas to the Prime Minister via e-mail. Moreover, he hopes to collect the 50,000 signatures required under the new constitution to introduce legislation to support the hill-tribe communities.

In an effort to help others utilize his successful strategies, Sombat has been conducting numerous training sessions for other citizen organization leaders. He is also a member of several education and youth networks through which he is able to spread his strategies to other groups.




THE PERSON

Born in 1968, Sombat grew up in a comfortable urban family and attended school in Bangkok. But he was never a top student, which stopped him from even being allowed to participate in student government, because in his school student officials had to have high scores. Frustrated that every activity in school seemed to depend only on achieving good grades and later stopped from pursuing a university education because of the limited spots in Thailand's higher-education system, Sombat began searching for other pursuits.

Sombat soon became interested in the theater and began performing skits and plays with his friends, many of whom were in college. Although still in his teens, he founded his own theatrical company, the Mirror Art Group with a group of these friends who shared his goal of reflecting the problems in their society. Over the past ten years, under Sombat's leadership, the youthful Mirror Art Group has put on hundreds of performances every year at the request of citizen organizations and others around the country.

In October 1998, Sombat and his group began to see the need to concentrate their efforts in one community and use it as a model for other communities. Therefore, Sombat convinced his friends to leave Bangkok and relocate in Ban Huey Khom, an area of poor villages in a northern province.

Recently, Sombat was elected the Young Initiator in Social Development by the National Council for Child and Youth Development in Thailand under the support of the National Youth Bureau for his creativity and achievement in the area of youth development in Thailand.

The Mirror Art Group is recognized by the United Nation's Convention for Child's Rights as an outstanding youth organization and has been appointed as a center for children's rights in the northern region.




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