YSEALI U.S. Fellow Summer 2017 Cohort:
My first week in Thailand participating in the YSEALI exchange program was spent primarily in Bangkok, a large city teeming with ten million residents and countless visitors and tourists. Coming from a county known for the Grand Canyon and its vast rural landscapes, it felt, in many ways, extraordinarily foreign not because of the language and culture differences, but because of the differences inherent in a large urban metropolis. During my second week, though, we flew to Chiang Rai which was more rural, mountainous, and agricultural than Bangkok. Chiang Rai, with a population of about 75,000, felt very much like my own home city, Flagstaff, a similarly sized city surrounded by mountains and far from large cities. This similarity, along with the larger role of central government in Thailand, offered a profoundly interesting chance to see how the different government structures worked in two otherwise similar cities.
Meeting with the Mayor of Chiang Rai, with central government agencies tasked with administering local services, as well as just having time to walk around the city and talk to residents, was enlightening as to how important local knowledge is to administering local government functions, even in a more centralized government such as exists in Thailand. Time and time again we were told about the efforts being made to create more citizen engagement. It was apparent that in the areas where citizen engagement was most successful, there seemed to be greater citizen satisfaction with the functioning of government and objectively better results. In areas where citizens felt disconnected, it was also obvious that there was less satisfaction with government and this fact helped emphasize to me how vital it is to ensure we’re always working with the people we serve, versus simply dictating policy to them.
Because of that, I think one moment from the entire trip that I will always remember fondly is having the opportunity to present on citizen engagement to first year political science students at Mae Fah Luang University. It was the first day of classes and my colleague, Allan Ekberg, and I had been asked to talk to the students about the importance of young people participating in government. Towards the end, though, we were engaging in a dialogue with students and we had the chance to ask them what problems and challenges they thought were most important for their future.
Their responses were so enthusiastic and passionate that we couldn’t help but be inspired. Their eagerness was infectious as they discussed how they wanted to make their mark in the world and make a difference. For me, it was a great reminder that citizen engagement is vital for many reasons, including helping remind those of us often mired in the everyday realities of our work that what we do makes a difference for people, as was clear from the conversations we had that day.
Toby Olvera, Coordinator
Criminal Justice Coordinating Council