Seoul The Mayor of Seoul, Won Son Park, is a widely recognized progressive, former human rights lawyer, and as he pointedly mentioned to me, “an activist.” As speakers at the afternoon conference, we were meeting with him early in the morning along with the leadership of the Seoul Welfare Foundation which was sponsoring the Seoul International Welfare Forum 2012 along with Hyowoo Na, director of Asian Bridge, an ACORN International’s partner in Korea. The meeting was in his office of course in the super modern, space age City Hall.
The Mayor was plain spoken and gracious. His desk was stacked 3 feet high with reports and paperwork. A set of slanting, crooked shelves behind his desk held yet more reports. More interestingly the back wall was filled with post-it notes. We asked about his rainbow of notes as we left and it developed that he was known here for collecting comments from citizens about improvements for the city. He was careful to point out to all of us that the citizens were the “boss” in Seoul. I told him when my turn came that in the USA we had a president who had been a community organizer, but seemed to have no concept what they might mean, so it was a pleasure to meet a mayor that actually cared about community organizing.
The welfare conference theme was “Community Organization for Sustainable Welfare System” and Ed Shurna of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and myself were both giving keynote addresses with other speakers from Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and Korea on the program. Ed, a friend and comrade, was tasked to give some sense of the history of community organizing from Alinsky forward. My topic focused on the stated goal of the city and the welfare foundation to deliver 20% of their services “using community organization methods.” Ed had definitely drawn the easier straw, since weeks ago, I had no clear view of what the 85 community welfare centers might have to do with welfare.
After several days immersed in the program, this was also not “welfare as we knew it” in the sense of cash payments, benefits, eligibility, and needs tests. This was “social welfare” in the broader terms, but they were also modeling social enterprise. Talking to a visiting professor from Sweden, it seems the city was “broke as a joke.” It could have meant that they were looking for “sustainable” welfare in order to transfer the costs to citizens. Such a framework would explain the field visits the previous day better.
We’ll talk more of all of this, but the Mayor was without doubt the real thing, so it was hard not to be optimistic even in fact of concerns.