Last week I spent time meeting with Wayla Amatathammachad and several members of Bangkok’s contemporary arts community. Wayla is a film maker as well as the producer of a bi-annual event called the Low Fat Art Festival. I was most impressed with the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, and met with the director, Pawit Mahasarinand. At nine stories tall, and with free admission at all times, this space provides young artists a platform to exhibit their work, with new exhibits every two weeks. In the basement, a former storage room is now a black box theatre for contemporary performing arts. In the evening Wayla and I attended an open air performance of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" (in Thai) in a small park in the middle of Bangkok, a city that is as big as New York. Another reminder that Shakespeare is adaptable to any setting and in any language. With the humidity at 100%, it certainly felt like midsummer! And a great way to spend an evening in the heart of a large city.
Wayla was able to introduce me to Saengthiwa Narapit and Nupin Nuntakiert of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, and I also met with young arts managers at an independent black box theatre called Creative Industries, managed by Panisa “Peach” Puvapiromqan. We all had a lively discussion of the arts in both our countries. The concerns and struggles of arts groups in Thailand are similar those in Montana – funding and sustainability. Also similar is the energy and passion among artists and arts managers.
My four-day visit to Bangkok came at the end of my two-week stay in Southeast Asia. My purpose in making this trip was to visit Vientiane and to address issues of art and culture to student groups there. This last part was an added bonus, and none of these folks had participated nor knew much of anything about YSEALI. Yet their generosity and enthusiasm led me to believe some of them could well benefit with a YSEALI exchange in the future. I urged them to investigate the program. Hopefully we’ll see some of them in the states in the future.
The misconception I had about Denver prior to my arrival has completely changed (and definitely, for the better). I didn’t read much about the city, except to have some surface level information, just as I wouldn’t have read in advance about any other place of travel in hopes that I would be pleasantly surprised about what it has to offer.
I was expecting the typical hustle and bustle of a city, as like any other, with traffic and people congestion in a fast-paced environment. Except to a certain limited extent, none of this expectation holds true.
The city, infrastructure, buildings and surroundings have evidently been thoroughly thought out in the urban planning process.
The public ride to the city was not unbearable (and is still not even after two weeks of use and counting). Although majority of the population commute by car, the reliability and comfort of public transportation was not compromised. The infrastructural development of the city has ensured equal access to transportation for those who has to travel around on a bus or light rail.
On my first day at Downtown Denver (downtown), I quickly took notice of how close the majestic mountains are from the city. I managed to catch a glimpse of the beautiful snowy mountains from the window of the office. What privileged the locals have to have sight of this view as the city’s backdrop.
I was fortunate enough to have been shown around downtown by my fellow mentor, Jim Wagenlander, who generously shared with me a vast amount of knowledge on the history, culture and everything else he knew about the city. It is common to have street and sculptural arts being displayed on and around the buildings. The Denver Union Station is a perfect example of this – located in the heart of downtown, it boasts an array of the city’s top restaurants, bars, and shops in addition to the Crawford hotel and light rail station. Thanks to Daniel Burnham, a renowned architect, who laid the foundation in 1907 for the station to achieve its highly unique design and space for people to enjoy today.
Within downtown, there are free shuttle buses that runs 24/7 for anyone who wish to travel from one end of the city street to the other. There are countless eateries, cafés and shops (of many kinds) which makes the people spoilt for choice!
An hour and a half by car from the city, the mountains await. The beauty of the landscape is surreal. A day trip affords reasonable time to explore areas such as the Loveland pass also known as the continental divide, where one could go skiing from the top of the mountain, Dillon lake where a large fresh water of reservoir is located for supply to the population and Breckenridge, a place filled with ski resorts, alpine activities and Gold Rush history.
Beyond the buildings and mountains however, are the people and corporations that live in it which completes the piece. Individuals and/or organizations alike prioritize giving back to the community in any way they can. Stapleton for example is a redeveloped area where the mayor and his administration (former and current) have dedicated valuable efforts via public entities and committees to ensure that the wider urban planning standards are met at the minimum. What used to be an old airport thirty somewhat years ago is now being transformed to a residential community with vest pocket parks and complexes for the residence to enjoy. I can say with conviction that the intention for people in Denver to live well is apparent in the way in which the city has grown and developed over the years.
All in all, Denver is so much more than a city. It is such a livable place because it gives you the best of both worlds. That is not to say that this place has no issues of its own, but the community at large (or at least, the majority of whom I have met) strive for betterment in their daily lives to make this an attractive home to many.
A mere visit to Denver isn’t enough to truly appreciate the wonders of this place. As a professional fellow, I have had the greatest honor to see, feel, and live in this wonderful city. I will never trade this invaluable experience for anything.
Together with Sarakk (Cambodia) and Farli (Indonesia), we are based in Boise, Idaho for our professional fellows exchange. As it is a Sunday together, we were able to spend some time to explore the beautiful “City of Trees” Boise. We decided to go on the Boise Historic Trolley Tour, which is a guided tour around Boise onboard the vintage Molly Trolley.
Having been in Boise for more than two weeks now, the tour was very timely as we learned the historic importance of the everyday building and sights. Here are some of highlights of the tour that I would like to share:
The Ribbon of Jewels: Female Entrepreneurship in Boise
The riverside parks in Boise are named after successful female entrepreneurs. Some of these parks include, Kathryn Albertson Park, Julia Davis Park, Ann Morrison Park and Esther Simplot Park. In a nation that is still largely dominated by male power, it is indeed wonderful to learn that these remarkable women’s legacies in entrepreneurship are being recognised in a tangible manner.
An interesting read I found online: “These women are reflected in their parks. Marianne Williams Park is where their family’s business operation took place. Julia Davis Park was an apple orchard. Kathryn Albertson Park highlights the open space and wildlife below their home. Our parks take on the characteristics of these matriarchs who were very civic-minded.” A monument such as the Ribbon of Jewels, where the city’s most valuable parks are named after Boise’s female citizens, is a testament to Boise’s values.” (source)
The City of Trees: “Les bois! Les bois!”
The guide shared with us that when the first explorers, who were French, came to Boise, they were so overwhelmed by the beauty of the lush trees in the city that they shouted “Les bois! Les bois!” which meant “The trees! The trees!”. And just in case you were wondering, ‘Boise’ is pronounced as “Boy-see” (and not “Boy-zee).
Reflecting on my Professional Fellowship at Jitasa
I am so lucky to have been able to be attached to Jitasa, USA’s largest nonprofit accounting firm, where they service more than 500 non-profits. What is very commendable about Jitasa is that, they are committed to servicing only non-profits – and they’ve managed to make a successful for-profit business out of this single purpose and still in operations after 11 years of business.
Back in Singapore, I started my own social enterprise called bantu, and we are a social technology business that focus on community management for nonprofits, by increasing productivity and efficiency where it’s most needed. We help non-profits and any organisation who is missions-driven to better manage and engage their volunteers, members and participants of their programmes and events, through a cloud software. We also help nonprofits to recruit volunteers easily through our volunteer opportunities portal. Our goal is to modernise non-profits in the South East Asian region, and enabling them to create even more meaningful social impact.
I have had such a wonderful and eye-opening experience at Jitasa, as they are at the scale of the business that I aim for my own startup to be one day. I had the most wonderful opportunities to learn about all aspects of the business, from managing employees, marketing, sales, account management, investments – all through very precious meetings I’ve had with the various VPs in Jitasa.
On a final note: What I love about Boise is that, everyone is very generous with their time and are so nurturing, where they have so much heart for helping others to becoming better at whatever they are working on. I am so thankful to be on the YSEALI program, and I can’t wait to see how I can bring all my learnings back to my own startup bantu in Singapore.
"Fresh, positive thinking and mind is the way to a clean environment"
Things I did on my last day in Helena, Montana
Today is my last day in Helena and it marks the end of my attachment with the Montana Department of Environment Quality. Throughout the internship here, I have been thinking about the Action Plan that I would like to carry out when I head back to Thailand. Today at the office, I shared a presentation on my Action Plan with my co-workers. Many people attended my presentation and I feel very grateful for that. They also gave me a lot of valuable feedback and comments on my Action Plan.
Things I learned from the Montana Department of Environment Quality
In my three weeks in DEQ, I learned about the many programs and projects that they have. For example, projects related to energy, water and land. The most memorable experience I had was the meeting and conference that I attended Butte, Montana, where I learned about the effects and mining brings about to the communities.
Things I learned about American culture
I learned that dinner and parties are very important for socialization in the United States. I realised that cooking American food is very quick and does not take a long time. I also love that there are many technology appliances in the houses that makes living very convenient, for example, clothes dryer and the dishwasher.
Things that surprised me in Helena
What surprised me the most was the driving etiquette – everyone is very polite when driving. For example, drivers would stop and slow down when there are elderly or just anyone crossing the road. Everyone says hello to each other as they drive by. Secondly, I am surprised by the habit of not removing shoes when entering people’s houses. I still feel obligated to remove my shoes because I do not want to dirty the carpeted floor.
My Biggest Takeaway
During our travels, we often pass by beautiful mountains, lush forest and blue seas. However, we often do not stop to appreciate and think about our relationship with nature or think about how we can befriend and be part of this nature that we see everyday.
For myself, I want to deliberately immerse myself in nature because I wish to live a life of constant mindfulness. I believe that it is only through surrounding myself with the most essential things that are needed in my life that I can experience life fully. I want to spend my life exploring and learning as much as I can about the world I live in, even till the last seconds of my life.
Even though I hold this phrase, “I am but a speck of dust in this vast universe.” dear to me, I do not want to regret not living a truly fulfilling life since I only get to live this life once.
My Encouragement to You
Yesterday, as I was buying groceries at Walmart, I experienced something unforgettable. As usual, I brought my own reusable bag to carry my groceries. The lady at the cashier said that I am doing good job and gave me a 10 cents discount off my bill. She then asked me if I want to donate the 10 cents to a local children’s charity, and I readily agreed. This made me feel very proud as my simple action of choosing to bring a reusable bag not just reduced plastic use, but also did a good deed by donating money to charity.
And this is the final thing I want to share: It can be very simple to protecting the Earth we live in. It all starts by with a small change in lifestyle choices and habits. You can take immediate action through the use of everyday items that does not create long term harm to the Earth. For example, using bamboo straws, travelling on bicycles to work, bringing reusable bags, and supporting products and brands that are environmentally sustainable. Through making such simple choices, we can all play an important role in protecting the environment we live in.
It has been almost three weeks since I came to Grand Forks, North Dakota and to this day, I feel that I have found another place I can call home. I have always been a farm girl by heart. This experience allowed me to be that girl again – fascinated by snow, delighted by the colors of budding tulips, other flowers and trees, invigorated by the birds singing in my window about a new day, navigating the city by bike while feeling the crisp air in my face and connecting with mother nature by walking barefoot on just-mowed grass. But more than lavishing in nature and experiencing this trip with curious wonder, it is the people, the knowledge and perspectives they bring to the conversation, which made my weeks worthwhile.
I have read somewhere which said that if a conversation has not changed something in you, it was a wasted conversation, wasted time. So with the twenty six people (yes, I counted) I had the chance to observe and talk with, I was blessed by learning so much from them, especially about their values and their center why they do the things they do. Among the many things I learned, below are the gems I found of most value – the heart beats that make Grand Forks community thrive.
Sense of community. Almost everyone I met were not born in this city but apart from work that led them here, it’s their relationship with the people that made them stay. I tagged along with Christine Griffin, a nurse from Altru Health System, while doing home care visits. We went to a young woman from Texas, who recently gave birth and she was transitioning in her role of being a first time mother. To her account, Grand Forks has provided her the community support that she needs, especially with the kindness of the healthcare workers. The same kindness and generosity were extended to me and my five other cohorts. In the absence of one host family, we were openly welcomed by multiple hosts – Mark and Marnie Schuschke, Daniel and Sarah Strandquist, Javin and Michelle Bedard, Abigail Bachman and Breanna Janske, David and Michelle Delene, Atty. Howard and Debbie Swanson, the Freedom Church, and the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals. Each of the host gave us unique experiences such as appreciate arts, understand their family life and their challenges when it comes to the social issues they currently face, share hopes and aspirations while cooking Asian food, making pizza, hamburger or just roasting smores over bon fire. I think we are the busiest group in terms of social visits. We had so much fun doing variety of things with new friends.
Strength of Womanhood. In most of my meetings, I always ask personal questions and part of that is understanding what it is like to be a woman in the US or in their region. I received responses with varying descriptions from challenges to opportunities. Women, for the most part, are socially expected to “do everything on their own”. This takes a toll in their physical, emotional and mental health. Ensuring maternal and child health is also a work in progress, especially in making policy makers prioritize this health advocacy and in educating the community about maternal and child health related issues such as breastfeeding. All the women I met had stories and perspectives to share but the common underlying tone is that everyone strives to make their lives better, and help other women.
Resilience and Innovation. Folks of Grand Forks say that winter in this region is brutal. Together with its twin city, East Grand Forks, Minnesota, both cities experienced its worst flood in 1997 due to high volume of melted ice. The cities have overcome the challenge and flourished, and along with resilience came innovation. The cities built better flood protection system and careful oversight of the city officials. The University of North Dakota is also home to the Center for Innovation, led by their Director, Amy Whitney. The center serves as US’s leading rural entrepreneur facility where they provide coaching to innovative start-ups and emerging entrepreneurs.
Leadership and continuous growth. My host organization, Altru Health System, being the major healthcare provider institution in Grand Forks is in the process of change and improvement towards a patient-centered service delivery. “Big Eyes, Big Ears, Small Mouth”, as said by Nina Gerber, People Engagement and Performance Manager of Altru Health System. Leader’s should veer from “fixing things” but should learn more to observe, listen, then respond. Crucial in this change process is the onboarding and development of about 300 leaders of the institution.
I was also fortunate to spend a day with Grand Forks City Mayor, Dr. Michael Brown who also happens to be a medical doctor (Obstetrics-Gynecologist). For Mayor Brown, “leadership is a function of impatience”. Anyone can step up to make change in the system or to any social issue they are passionate about. When asked about his successes, Mayor Brown said that he was able to make the people trust the government by allowing the people and other leaders to dream and by making those dreams happen. Being present in community activities is also his way of letting the people know that their efforts and contribution to the city are honored and valued. What I liked most among his leadership lessons is the ability to know when to “lead” and when to “represent” the people. This requires deeper understanding of the situation and knowing your people. “Sometimes,” he said, “people ask to be represented, but an astute leader knows that what they actually need at that point is leadership and not representation, and vice versa.”
When I left Philippines to join the US State Department Professional Fellowship Program under YSEALI, I prepared myself to come as an empty cup. Since the day I arrived, I have always caught myself saying “thank you” for the many blessings that have come my way. But the most significant aspects of this program are the new knowledge, new friends, the professional network I have made and the lessons I will bring with me to enable me to move forward in my journey to help build more Bridging Leaders in our country.
Thank you, Marlene Miller, my Professional Host for the program, for the support and whom I admire for her embodiment of Altru leadership.
Also, thank you US State Department, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center of University of Montana, Center for Innovation of University of North Dakota, Altru Health System, Grand Forks Public Health Department, UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Philippines US Embassy.
Being selected as one of the fellows in YSEALI Civic Engagement 2019 Spring Program is indeed one of the biggest blessing that I have received in life. Never have I travel that far nor exploring a new continent alone. Therefore, it is indeed a journey that I’m really looking forward but a tiring one, as I need to complete numerous tasks on hand for handover before the trip.
Receiving the first congratulation email that I have been selected into this program brings a mixed feeling. A part of me is so excited as this acceptance not only gives me the opportunity to travel to the land of America but it also come with the opportunity to learn and sharpen my skills in my professional field. In addition, this trip really enables me to take a break, away from the usual environment and reflect on my practices thus far. Another part of me is wondering can I really survive?
Americans don’t eat rice
Yes, and that what I have being told by most of my friends and acquaintances when they knew that I’m going to America. “Be prepared to have potatoes and bread for your every meal” is a quite common sentence utter by quite a number of people within my social circle. Affirmation by few people is enough to bring me into thinking “Can I survive with only potatoes and bread?” Well, I do. In fact America do have rice and it’s quite common for one or two restaurant to have rice as part of their menu. Therefore, while the saying that American doesn’t eat rice might hold some truth, America does have rice.
American is blunt and aggressive
While the Asian people have always being portrayed as shy, reserved, passive and even to a point of being conservative, the western countries are usually seen as being the opposite. The things that struck in my mind before I came to America are “How do I communicate with my host or even other American in general? Is there any specific ways of communication that I can use?” After being here for more than 3 weeks, I can really confirmed that it is really a myth and it is a little injustice to put that label to western countries. Up until today, all the people that I met are great. They are open, patient, understanding, caring and definitely did not fall into the “western country label”. Being in here made me realize that it is really up to the individual to portrayed certain types of behavior and not to label the society.
America is an individualistic country
This is another aspect of America that I’m very curious about. Is all American self-centered? As American have always being portrayed as being independent, more to self-centered as opposed to community centered, I do wonder does American care about the people surrounding them? Being given the great opportunity to travel to America has allowed me to see with my own eyes that this is not true. American does have good relationship with people around them. I saw with my own eyes that the bus drivers remember their passengers and greet them by their first name, neighbors communicating with each other, and people who are willing to show us the direction when we are lost in our way shows the hospitality side of American and they are not as self-centered as we Asian think about them.
I’m very thankful to the U.S State of Department, The Maureen & Mike Mansfield Center, University of Montana, Malaysia U.S Embassy, CVIC, University of North Dakota and the Malaysia local partners for giving me this great opportunity that not only help me in reaching a higher level in my career, sharpening my leadership skills but also allow me to experience the real western culture beyond what is portrayed by the Hollywood. Just as the old Chinese saying, “readingtenthousandbooksisnotasgoodastravelingtenthousandmile. For in reading I see the world through the writer eyes but by traveling I experience the world through my own eyes and feelings.
Traveling to different parts of the world can be a fun and unique experience, traveling with a deep purpose to engage in conversations and bring about change has its own sense of wonder and fulfillment. I have had the honor of being invited to Thailand this month to engage with incredible people around disability, policy, education, access and overall quality of life for people with disabilities. As a blind person, I have a unique perspective having been in the disability fields for many years as part of my profession, but also as someone who lives it every day.
During my trip, I had a great host Ekkachai Nasompong, who is also blind and is very involved with the different aspects of disability in the country. I started my trip in Bangkok at Mahidol University where I spoke about the role of assistive technology in improving the lives of people with disabilities. I got to meet some incredible individuals who are engaging in this topic and learned about their aspirations. I was excited to see a university engaged with the topic of assistive technology and how it can help all people, not just people with disabilities.
Education is a topic that is very important to me and I was very honored to be able to meet with the Director of the Bureau of Special Education of the Ministry of Education in Thailand. We had an initial meeting and a follow-up meeting with top-level staff discussing the challenges in implementing services and how Thailand can better serve its students with disabilities. We will continue to stay in contact to further exchange ideas understanding that change and growth is a process that will not happen all at once. I am excited about this continued partnership that can develop into meaningful outcomes.
I was then invited to a conference organized by the Thailand Association of the Blind. This helped me get a much better understanding of the obstacles and triumphs that blind people in Thailand face. I was able to converse with different people about their experiences and what they hope for the future. I was also able to meet up with global leaders and share some conversations about issues happening across the globe. This included the President of the World Blind Union Fred Schroeder and Chan-Yau Chong President of the Hong Kong Blind Union. While we may come from different countries that have different economies and laws in place for people with disabilities, our struggles are still very much the same.
I then traveled to the northern part of Thailand, Khon Keon where I had a packed schedule. I visited the Benyalai Online Library for the Blind. We discussed the great work they are doing to provide access to books and other materials in accessible formats. I then discussed programs and services being offered in The United States and how they could be duplicated in Thailand. After our meeting, I had a great dinner with the Vice Director of the Christian Foundation of the Blind of Thailand and the work they are doing.
The trip overall was a great exchange of ideas and information around disability and what the future can look like in Thailand. The exchange of ideas and resources has been abundant and well received. It was an honor to be able to share my knowledge with change-makers in the country. This trip marked the beginning in a partnership with different agencies and organizations that are working to improve the lives of people with disabilities in Thailand. I would like to thank my great host Ekkachai Nasompong and the State Department for letting me part a part of such a wonderful and fulfilling experience.