Pradit Prasartthong

Ashoka Fellow
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Thailand
Fellow Since 2002
This description of Pradit Prasartthong's work was prepared when Pradit Prasartthong was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .

Introduction

Through his Grassroots Micromedia Project (known in Thai as Makhampom), Pradit Prasatthong engages communities and the citizen sector organizations that serve them with effective techniques that encourage communication across divisive lines, thus allowing communities to join together in addressing pressing social concerns. Having proven the effectiveness of his approach nationally and internationally over 20 years, Pradit is now working to integrate his social development methods into the missions of Thailand's universities.

The New Idea

Having observed that communities often have difficulty working across generation, culture, class and gender lines to devise common responses to their most critical problems, Pradit has developed a methodology to encourage community members to break down these barriers while actively involving them in the search for solutions. He uses games, role-playing, and participatory community theater to catch interest, hold it, and use it to educate people on the dangers of drugs and bring into the open taboo subjects like premarital sex and conflicts between the older generation and the young. In every case, the long-term results are dramatic and demonstrate that the approach sparks a lively, inclusive, respectful dialogue that profoundly changes the interaction among people who share a place, a culture, and a common set of challenges and opportunities. Makhampom has worked closely with communities throughout the country and now hosts international students for study tours.
In addition to working directly with communities, Pradit also provides important communications training to individuals and social development agencies that work with communities. Ranging from Red Cross staff to social entrepreneurs to educational outreach workers for the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, national and international government and citizen sector organizations are learning how to engage citizens in real ways, encouraging them to participate in programs as diverse as public health and information technology. Under the instruction and mentorship of Pradit and his colleagues, these people learn both to convey information and to plant it in ways that allow it to take root and have a permanent impact.
With his techniques well established and widely known, Pradit is now returning to the source by integrating his methods into educational institutions. Although he has had longstanding success working with university student leadership and drama clubs, theater departments themselves have thus far remained resistant. Taking advantage of the greater freedom created by national educational reform, Pradit is currently forming a network of university professors and professional theater groups to create a platform that will allow him to spread his methods through both the formal and informal curriculum.

The Problem

A host of challenges–AIDS, drugs, prostitution, gender discrimination, and violence–are increasingly straining the bonds that traditionally held Thai communities together. While tackling such extensive problems requires the participation of the entire community, generation, gender, culture, and class divides–some new, some old–are inhibiting efforts to devise community-based responses. Migration to cities, the globalized mass media, and consumer culture are all drawing the younger generation away from traditions and customs, making it difficult for them to engage, and even communicate, with their elders. Compounding this estrangement, Thai culture traditionally leaves important decisions in the hands of senior (usually male) village leaders, discouraging youth generally–and girls in particular–from expressing themselves or getting involved. Cultural differences additionally leave groups at odds with each other. Within the melting pot of urban factories, for example, workers from different regions with varied dialects and customs remain segregated, unable to see past their backgrounds to identify common interests. Ethnic and religious minorities, though often living side-by-side with those from the majority, have difficulty overcoming mistrust to address collaboratively issues like poverty or pollution that affect them all.

For social development organizations and others who have valuable skills and knowledge to share with communities, engaging citizens can be equally challenging. In Thailand there is a strong tendency toward formality in public meetings, seminars, training programs, presentations, and community organizing work. This formality, which turns speakers into lecturers and participants into disinterested or stifled spectators, inhibits the kind of active participation and ownership that can help citizen movements make progress. The result is less effective communication between people sitting at opposite ends of a table piled high with important social concerns: nurses and mothers caring for malnourished newborns; community organizers and slum-dwellers facing eviction; counselors and troubled kids suffering abuse at home; mentors and adolescent girls navigating the rough waters of sex, safety, and self-esteem; teen leaders vying for the attention of peers being led down wrong paths.

While Pradit has shown that interactive techniques like games and role-playing can be effective in encouraging community integration and intergenerational and intercultural dialogue, the broader theater community does not yet see social development as part of its mission. University theater departments, the training ground for many of Thailand's future actors, have traditionally taught their students to pursue "art for art's sake" or art for commercial gain. Not surprisingly, the mainstream theater companies rarely take up social issues as the subjects for their work, let alone use participatory theater as a means of working with communities.

The Strategy

Over the last two decades, Pradit has strengthened Thailand's citizen sector by working primarily with two groups–communities and the social development organizations that work with them.

Despite the diversity of the communities in which he has worked–rural youth groups, urban slum dwellers, factory workers, prisoners, the hill tribe villages–Pradit has refined a single, flexible methodology that is adaptable to their specific needs. With the help of a Makhampom facilitator, from the outset participants are encouraged to lead: they select the social issue that their group will address; they talk to experts and community members who are affected by the problem; and they express the potentially divisive issue in front of elders and peers in a nonconfrontational way, using games or role-playing. The training Makhampom provides, which is meant to be deliberate and ongoing, is designed to further connect members to their community. Through intensive training in local dialects and traditional music and dance, the facilitator helps the participants appreciate their own cultural heritage and create a broader base of communication.

Pradit has demonstrated that his approach results in profound change, and the dialogue he enables gives rise to enterprising initiatives, improved relations in the community, and policy reform. A youth group in Phayao began publishing a newsletter to educate the community about the spread of AIDS and about the psychological needs of those living with the illness. Another group in Phisunalok initiated a series of local radio programs that featured interviews with elders and discussions among children about community concerns. An ethnic hill tribe community in Northern Thailand used Makhampom training to relate its needs and opinions to the government through theater, thus altering a relationship that had, to that point, been fraught with conflict and discord.

Having seen citizen sector organizations and social development stumble or fail in their attempted programs because of their inability to engage citizens, Pradit also developed an institutional outreach program within Makhampom to train the leaders of these groups in his participatory methods. By learning from Pradit how to communicate creatively and effectively, people who breathe life into Thailand's citizen sector are creating better, larger, stronger, and more effective citizen action throughout the country. In addition to working with citizen organizations within Thailand, Pradit has also trained international organizations like the American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. He has launched a series of international study tours, bringing local citizen organizations, researchers, and community theater companies from Australia, Hong Kong, the U.K., Korea, and Japan to learn his approach. This strategy of aiding social entrepreneurs and others has enabled Pradit to shape important social initiatives in fields as diverse as public health, information technology, and minority rights in countries as different as Thailand and England.

Despite having trained a variety of different groups, Pradit has always viewed integrating his ideas back into the broader theater community as a central, long-term goal of his work. With a new generation of facilitators within Makhampom capable of continuing Pradit's work in communities and citizen organizations, he is now focusing on Thailand's educational system. Although university drama clubs have long found inspiration in Makhampom and sought Pradit's guidance, a variety of factors limited the effectiveness of his repeated attempts to incorporate his techniques into Thailand's formal university programs. Until recently, the highly centralized nature of education in Thailand permitted little outside input into curriculum design, forcing instructors interested in pursuing innovative teaching strategies (like those Pradit taught) to leave the system. Pradit also acknowledges that his previous strategies were not designed to bridge the cultural gap between social development (seen as the province of citizen organizations) and drama (seen as the province of artists). Pradit held formal training in his techniques through workshops–a standard citizen organization approach–that failed to overcome either the artistic community's distrust on the perceived irrelevance of citizen sector ideas.

Now, however, the education reforms of the past few years encourage instructors not only to seek creative teaching techniques but also to use their new freedom to integrate them into the curriculum. With Makhampom's name and reputation almost universally recognized at universities throughout Thailand, Pradit is well placed to serve as a resource person, a role he is already filling. Moreover, because many of his former students are now themselves professors, Pradit has a core group of interested teachers already familiar with his work and convinced of its social significance.

Bearing in mind his past attempts, Pradit is focusing on the more informal approach of developing a network. Rather than positioning himself as an instructor during network meetings, he serves as a facilitator, bringing professors together to discuss relevant issues, while allowing for the kind of two-way interaction that makes the experience relevant and valuable to all who take part. While Pradit believes that training professors will eventually change the outlook of their students–indirectly affecting professional theater groups–he has also begun involving these groups in the network to introduce his ideas directly. Through these efforts, Pradit hopes to deliver to the country's next generation the vision and the responsibility of building a democratic society.

The Person

Born in 1960, the seventh of nine children, Pradit grew up in a loving family in Bangkok. His parents, farmers from the central area of Thailand, encouraged the children and presented them with the best opportunities despite their poverty. Pradit was a talented student and was accepted at Suan Kularp College after excelling at the merit-based entrance exams. At this elite boy's school, adjacent to the Palace in Bangkok, he was sheltered and isolated from the democratic reform movements of the 1970s that inspired violence, conflict, and reform on the other side of town.

From Suan Kularp, Pradit enrolled at Thammasat University, one of the country's leading universities and the seat of the democracy movements of the 1970s. Pradit's university years were instrumental in shaping his thoughts and ideas about the world. During his time at Thammasat, former students and participants in the reform movements returned from exile in the jungle. As a student, he participated in volunteer camps, traveling to help farming villages. There he learned folk songs and dances–integral parts of community life–and understood the value of these art forms in fostering community values and inspiring cross-generation dialogue.

While a student in 1984, Pradit volunteered for Makhampom, a citizen organization that was involved with political movements. He also joined a student theatre club where he learned from his peers and international performers and was encouraged to participate in political drama. At Makhampom, he saw something distinctly Thai. He and his colleagues wrote scripts and performed plays that reflected national identity and customs. Pradit realized that he had found part of what he was looking for. At Makhampom, Pradit worked with groups of five to seven staff to develop drama that reflected the current political struggles of Thailand. He secured performance space from the university, turning a soccer practice room into a makeshift theater. The Makhampom group performed weekly to a growing audience of students who crowded into the small space not only for the performance but also for the discussion of relevant themes that followed.

During his first five years with the company, Pradit designed a workshop program for educators, teaching them to use aspects of performance in their work. Following financially difficult times for Makhampom in the mid-1980s, Pradit became the director in 1989. With Pradit playing the leading role in the group's reorganization, the Grassroots Micromedia Project has expanded its programs to include long-term community development, institutional outreach, and international study tours.