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Using Community Organizing to Change the Welfare System in Korea

these are the members of the cooperative

Seoul     Without a doubt this is all backwards.  I’m giving one of the keynote addresses to the International Seoul Welfare Forum 2012 about the ways that the City of Seoul could reorganize its welfare delivery system through its “community welfare centers” so that 20% of the operation is founded on “community organization” methodology.  We had to submit our remarks for translation weeks ago, but today the Seoul Welfare Foundation hired a bus and took us to actually see two projects, one independent and one outstanding center of the 100 such operations in the city, so we could have a ground level understanding of what they are trying to initiate to radically change their support system.  This is not welfare as anyone knows it!

We visited two “villages,” both of which were neighborhoods in Seoul.   My friend Na Hyowoo explained to me later that “community” as a concept in Korea is a very serious connection for people.  “Village” speaks to the rural tradition in Korea and re-creating within larger communities and geographies in Seoul a sense of cooperation and mutually that resonates traditionally but has modern implications around joint effort and organization.

The first was Sungmee Mountain Village.  This was a solidly middle class area where almost 15 years ago a small group of families reacting to their displeasure at the way childcare systems were organized, joined together to start a different, cooperative childcare through their own resources.  One thing led to another.  Not surprisingly, if you didn’t like the way public childcare was working, then you were unlikely to be a fan of the public education system either, so we also visited a nicely laid out, modern building housing their 1-12 unaccredited, non-traditional school which has 170 students and they told us 25 teachers – how about that ratio!  Out of the school had come a cooperative coffeehouse (“Little Tree”), a cooperative restaurant where we had a delicious lunch, a “side dishes” store, an organic ice cream operation, a car “hospital” for better, cheaper repairs, and even some nicely put together cooperative housing developments for 9 and 10 families.  They weren’t all about service and social enterprise.  They had also waged a 3-year campaign some years ago, complete with protests, to stop development on the mountain, and have been back to that well whenever needed, signs at the ready.  Our guide, one of the primary leaders, told us that perhaps 1500 people were active in various cooperative ventures they had formed in this brief period of the 100,000 people living in the community.  It was all a very impressive accomplishment arising from the individual volunteer efforts in the area and, as importantly, individual “investments” and subscriptions to create these projects made from cooperative members ranging from $30 at the low to $15000 at the high.  This wasn’t welfare and had no direct connection to the City of Seoul or the Seoul Welfare Foundation, but clearly intrigued the city and others because it spoke to what might be possible for community organizing efforts to create.

Hoping on the bus, we then visited the Dobong Village, its community welfare center, and a number of projects created by the social workers and “community organizers” of the community welfare center.  The center itself was a standard, government issue multi-floor building with space for meetings and cultural activities, adult and children’s day care, and other services.  But, there was much more along the lines of the Sungmee Mountain Village.  We visited a small coffeehouse, books, and meeting space called “The Light,” which was run by a women’s advocate and activist and designed as a non-traditional space to force different discussions.  We visited the Seum Café, trained and staffed by disabled baristas and servers and their parents, which was integrating the whole families into the community as well as involving them in productive and prideful labor.  We visited another couple of spaces that the welfare center had re-purposed from a city parking garage for another small space for food and coffee (called the “goblin”) and a carpentry shop which was training young workers.   All of this was fascinating, and to think that there were 99 other locations where they wanted to try something similar was intriguing and inspiring.

"The Light" founder, a feminist activist in the community who organized and managed this as a space for conversation and support

Was it community organizing?  I’m not sure, even though I have to address exactly that subject in less than 12-hours.  Was it a better way to deliver community services and integrate welfare into the full life of the community, proving that “it takes a village?”  Yes, possibly so.

The next steps would take real training for well intentioned men and women wanting to be community organizers.  It would involve a willingness to accept and support the creation of autonomous organizations with genuine participation and the right and opportunity to build power, create change, stir up controversy, and deeply engage the community.

We will meet with the Mayor of Seoul soon to begin that conversation, which is really the subject of the international conference.  The mayor is a progressive, former human rights lawyer, running for another term in December.  It’s one thing to have your legacy be hundreds of “demonstration” projects along the lines we saw today…precious pearls on a string around the neck of the city.  It’s another thing to take the next step and embrace creating the vehicles for real power for people through community organizations.

Do we dare to dream it might happen in Seoul?