A team from City of Seoul and the Seoul Community Support Centre visited Brixton Green this week. This was part of their visit to the Locality conference and other community-led initiatives in the UK. Many of the staff members of the Seoul Community Support Centre come from the Seongmisan Village movement and they are passionate about meeting fellow co-operators (or “villager” as they call themselves).
We visited Brixton Market and Brixton Village and discussed the social and economic challenges Brixton faces with the recent changes, Lysada, the Moorlands Community Development Project and the proposed site for Brixton Green.
It is remarkable how similar the challenges and solutions are for these communities across the world. How although divided by language we are united by our passion and desire to strengthen our communities for now and the future.
Here’s a brief background of what’s happening in Seoul City at the moment.
Social Innovation Mayor
Ever since Mr. Wonsoon Park became the “social innovation” mayor of Seoul, there has been enormous interest in supporting and fostering civic & community enterprises, community-led and owned organisations. Previously there had been amazing examples of community actions in the areas of “Seongmisan village” in Seoul, but it has always been discrete examples within an unwelcoming environment. Many co-operators and villagers (with the support of the new mayor) wanted to spread these amazing initiatives across City of Seoul and the Seoul Community Support Centre was set up to foster and support these community initiatives.
Seongmisan: A village within a city
Seongmisan community is an urban community located within the City of Seoul. The residents in the area around a hill called Seongmisan have created a cooperative “village” model within the urban context, where faceless individualism and fierce sense of competition is prevalent. What is unique about Seongmisan community is that it was able to create a location-based, traditional “village-like” solidarity among residents through active participation and collaboration of community projects. The continuous trust and relationship-building among residents was the key to creating what proved to be an innovative and resilient community within an urban context.
Relations, Communication and Cooperative Operation
Please see below an excellent essay written by the Head of the Seoul Community Support Centre. Many of the lessons have particular relevance to Brixton’s community at this time.
– Case of Sungmisan Village –
Yu, Chang Bok (ZZangga)
- 1. Overview of Sungmisan Village
Nestled against Mt. Sungmi behind the Mapo-gu office, our village extends over various administrative districts such as Seongsan-dong, Mangwon-dong, Hapjeong-dong, Yeonnam-dong and Seogyo-dong. It became widely known about 10 years ago when the media covered our efforts to protect Mt. Sungmi. Now, we welcome 4 to 5,000 visitors from all over the nation every year. Although it was formed as a residential area a long time ago, it has taken about 20 years to reach this point where we can call it “our village.”
In 1994, about 20 double-income couples who couldn’t find suitable childcare gathered to raise their children together. They decided to operate a childcare center by themselves. They created a cooperative childcare center, pooled investment money, and established a childcare center with the fund. That’s how “Woori Childcare Center”, the first cooperative childcare facility in Korea, was born in Mapo-gu. The following year, “Nareuneun Childcare Center”, the second of its kind, was opened and then, a cooperative after-school center began operations in 1999.
Sharing the cooperative childcare philosophy of “raising our children together”, parents boldly relocated to the surrounding neighborhood of these unique childcare centers. Now the number has grown enough to call it mass migration. In the early stage, facing a number of problems, we operated the cooperative facility with seemingly endless meetings and activities. In the meantime, the children have quickly grown up and the oldest boy from the early days, a naughty child then, is already a young man aged 24. Parents experienced a genuine camaraderie in the course of raising the children together. They developed tight-knit relations thanks to the children. Just as the saying goes, we know “how many spoons everyone has in their kitchen”. Usually, our biggest concerns were about children, yet the interest in our children has been broadened to an interest in our community. That’s because we believed that in order to raise our children properly, the neighborhood should be a good place to live in.
In 2001, we created a consumer cooperative based on the valuable experience gained from operating a childcare cooperative. The consumer cooperative’s main business was the group purchase of eco-friendly food items, which helped expand relations not only with members of the childcare cooperative but with local residents. Ten years later, this consumer cooperative has reached 5 billion won of annual revenues and a membership of 5,500 households while serving as the center for a variety of local activities. For example, it supports the formation and operation of various community clubs (hiking, farming, anti-atopy, diverse study groups including instruction on parental roles and folk song). Besides, it supports the annual Sungmisan Village Festival, a concert in the forest, and village field days and handles other community issues. One of the representative community issues was to “Protect Mt. Sungmi.” The two-year (from July 2001 to October 2003) campaign was successful thanks to the enthusiastic participation of local residents.
In May 2001 when the consumer cooperative was created, we held a festival to promote the cooperative to local residents. It has already been over 10 years. The annual festival is held in May when the neighborhood is filled with the fragrance of acacias. Residents with a flair for performing take to the stage. And then, people come to think that one festival a year is not enough and that every day should be a festival. That is how the Sungmisan Village Theater was born as a venue for all clubs in the village. The Theater is open to residents and professional performers throughout the year. People can enjoy movies, plays and concerts in the Theater. Events like fashion shows and coming-of-age ceremonies are held. The Theater is also used as a venue for community meetings and parties. This is kind of a village square on the border of a community hall and a community theater. With the Theater opening, the number of clubs for cultural and arts activities has been growing. Currently, there are 15 clubs including Sungmisan Pungmul Band (Korean traditional percussion band), a small troupe called Mumalraengyi, a photography club called Neighborhood Photo Studio, a video club called Multtne, a middle-aged rock band called Ama Band, a village choral group, a drawing club, etc.
Sungmisan Village expanded its connections with local residents through the consumer cooperative and people there were united as one through the “Protect Mt. Sungmi” campaign. To solidify its community life, the village established an alternative school from elementary through high school, the first K-12 grade alternative school in Korea. It has been already 9 years since the school opened in September 2004 after two years of preparation. Currently, 170 students are enrolled at the school. The village completed the perfect education system from childcare center, after school center, community school Ggumter to alternative school.
Residents operate educational institutions from pre-school to high school with their own resources. This is the most important infrastructure for the village since they can provide for 20 years of pre-adult education. We could lead a life together as a community in a big city like Seoul where most people don’t know their neighbors even after years of residence. Neighbors who share the needs of everyday life enhance solidarity in the course of solving the problems. This is a mutually beneficial network and this is what a village is all about.
Community Enterprise and Community Employment
Following the consumer cooperative, one or two community enterprises have been created every year. In 2002, an eco-friendly side dish store, called Neighborhood Kitchen, opened to sell side dishes made with 100 percent organic ingredients without the use of MSG. Then, a village café, Jageun Namu (Small Tree), and a restaurant, Sungmisan Babsang opened with joint investment of residents. Whether it is money or labor, if we chipped in or worked in turn for one another, we can easily resolve seemingly daunting tasks and during the process, develop lasting relationships with neighbors.
“Sungmisan Gongbang”, a workshop run by a disabled young man named Soo Jin, “Binu Dure” which makes handmade soap, “Hanttam Dure” which produces sanitary pad, bed sheets and hanbok (Korean traditional garment) with eco-friendly cotton, and “Dolbom Dure” which provides care for senior citizens, were all created by mothers with the ability and desire to work. Recently, an alternative housing development company, named Sohaengju (meaning happy housing through communication) was established to sell homes based on a co-housing concept. Currently, about 20 community enterprises are in operation in the form of cooperative. Residents chip in as much as they can afford and volunteers with the time and energy are in charge of the operations. Those community enterprises have greatly contributed to job creation, employing some 150 residents.
- 2. Relations and Communication
What is a Village?
A village is a relations network among neighbors addressing the problems and needs of everyday life together. This means that neighbors complain about the deficiency in everyday life, identify the needs and share it as their problem. Once they share the problem, they try to find a solution and address it together. During this process, relations with neighbors are formed, which is a village. Usually, the process of complaining about the deficiency and finding a solution is based on close relations among neighbors.
Close Relations and Chatter
“Chatter” is the means of communication among people in close relations, which is often called useless chatter. Chatter plays the most important role of delivering information in a village. Chatter complements the drawbacks of official communication and builds consensus. It also has an important function of comforting the hurt feelings of residents suppressed or neglected from official communication, increasing the level of communication by removing misunderstanding and conflicts among community members.
Furthermore, chatter can be a key tool for new comers to access a village. It is not that simple for individuals to access a community. It is hard to access a community without any “safety net” due to a risk of privacy being exposed and infringed. “Chatter relations” play the role of safety net. When people access a community, they are concerned about how they would be seen by community members. That is why they are more careful and even cowered. Chatter relations can prevent the negative first image of new comers by informing their personality, characteristics and in particular traits in advance. Even those with a negative image can excuse themselves and give positive images through chatter, which plays the role of “protection.”
Although it has the important communication function, chatter sometimes plays a negative role. People in chatting relations often distort the fact and truth, or the reasonability of the situation while ignoring the rationality of communication due to their private and intimate relationship. When people in chatting relations are engaged in discussion to make an important decision in a community, they often give up their opinions due to intimate relationship or agree with the argument of other mentor due to “loyalty” even though they disagree with it. Chatting relations even aggravate the communication process by triggering the emotional part of the issues, crippling the discussion. This may not be seen as a serious issue because we often experience the cases where “relationship”, not “justice”, decides the conclusion. Yet, it shouldn’t be seen as a light issue because people may get out of the illusion of a community and move out to other regions.
Public Sphere and Community Meeting
A meeting is another ordinary communication means along with chatter. Residents discuss the differential fee system at a meeting of the cooperative childcare center and approve an annual budget plan at a board of directors’ meeting of the consumer cooperative. They gather to discuss community issues, big or small, and sometimes engage in heated discussions.
In addition, most of the residents joined the effort to protect Mt. Sungmi facing a risk of being demolished. Ten years ago when the first crisis came, they fought to save the mountain for two years. At that time, 4 to 50 residents were engaged in intense discussion at a meeting held every day. The heads of community agencies were encouraged to participate but it was not mandatory. The village follows the principle of “individual participation” where all residents are able to participate as they want. It is not a venue for the heads of agencies to gather the opinions of each agency. Anyone can participate in the decision-making process if they are interested in the corresponding subject and ready to take the consequential burden of the decision. People experience a collective communication while sharing the context and nuance of opinions at a community meeting where various people suggest various opinions. At a meeting, the authority as the head of an agency is excluded and everyone horizontally communicates with each other as an individual while ignoring hierarchy.
Anyone who has something to say participates in a meeting and talks about it. This is an open space for anyone to make his argument. This is a venue for public discussion where anyone can deliver his opinion to others, where the audience listens to each other, and where they can identify their existence. People communicate with, invite, accept and welcome each other, and lead a life in public space. This public space is divided into intimate sphere and public sphere.
Intimate Sphere and After Party
While a community meeting plays the role of officially recognizing the issues and drawing a conclusion, an after party provides a good chance to review an alternative from various perspectives, find a creative solution and identify a troubleshooter. At the after party, important ideas that could not be considered at a meeting emerge, and opinions and elements regarded lightly at a meeting take the center stage among people. In particular, a person who was not active at a meeting often offers an opinion and becomes a troubleshooter for the issue. That’s why some praise an after party, saying “sharing issues at a meeting and resolving them at an after party.” Yet, there is a drawback in discussion at an after party. Sometimes, the results of an official meeting become invalid at an after party, and follow-up measures are not taken or managed. Therefore, discussions at an after party should be balanced with the discussions at an official meeting. If they find a solution to an issue at an after party, they need to plan how to implement it at an official meeting. In other words, to communicate properly, people should make good use of the cycle of “meeting-after party-meeting”, balancing the official and unofficial communication means in public discussion.
- 3. Decision-Making Principle
Individuals gather to complain about the problems in everyday life, and then the needs of individuals become a universal issue. They start thinking about how to resolve it and finally try to deal with it. Yet, the process inevitably involves a value. For example, some parents want to raise their children well. This is an issue that the market has been failing to resolve. And the government is not interested. They decide to address this issue together, but their different values are reflected in the process of finding a solution. A difference of values can cause a conflict in communication. Therefore, addressing this conflict is the key task of a village.
Consensus rather than Majority
The criterion for civic organizations to resolve a conflict is whether to realize the mission, the target of the organization. Yet, a village does not have an explicit common mission everyone shares. We couldn’t make decision by majority since we became neighbors to raise our children together. That’s why we do not jump to a conclusion and continue to discuss until everyone reaches a consensus. It’s kind of “let’s get to the bottom of it” discussion. This seems the most inefficient way of making decisions. Yet, if making decisions by majority, a majority’s opinion officially suppresses a minority’s opinion, and decisions are made by neglecting disagreeing members, even though it is considered as an effective way of mediating differences of opinion. Furthermore, making decisions by majority justifies the authority of a majority under the name of democratic decision-making. By contrast, the “let’s get to the bottom of it” discussion makes it hard for a majority to control a minority while respecting everyone involved and recognizing the difference, even though it takes time and energy and members are tired due to slow progress.
We have been through this decision-making process while raising our children. There was no easy job from a little issue related to operation to education principle. Parents basically see other children from the perspective of their children even though there is a difference of degree. This is not something to be blamed. Parents have different opinions on each issue and so it is hard to mediate them. Yet, in terms of issues that need to be decided while raising children together, parents cannot give up their opinions just because they are a minority. This is an issue related to the children. It is difficult for parents to accept the decision that is not appropriate to their children. When it comes to this kind of issue, it is not easy to make decisions unless everyone agrees. That’s why discussions continue for a long time. Parents should discuss and review the strong points and weak points from everyone’s perspective. In this way, it seems almost impossible to operate the cooperative because they can’t decide anything.
There are two methods to mediate differences of opinion. One is concession and compromise. This solution is to respect the opinion of a majority and find a compromise. Even if you don’t agree with that, you support those who make that argument and believe that it is right. This is the respect and consideration for those who are willing to do the work. This is about supporting and encouraging for those who are willing to do the work even though you don’t agree with them. We call this attitude “see with a kind eye.” You encourage them even if you disagree or are not interested.
Yet, a third alternative that meets the needs of both opposing parties emerges during the course of discussion. At first, it seems almost impossible to reach a consensus unless one party gives up. But, interestingly, a good idea that meets both parties appears during discussion. Alternatives that they haven’t thought about before come to their mind. This happens magically when both parties come to understand the needs and situations of the counterparty. Therefore, the “let’s get to the bottom of it” discussion is not an irresponsible discussion where people fail to reach an agreement and just continue the discussion thoughtlessly. This is a process to better understand the positions and situations of opposing parties. Both parties can find a win-win solution only when they reach a certain level of sympathy. The “let’s get to the bottom of it” discussion is the process of enhancing the level of sympathy for each other.
The village didn’t introduce this discussion culture as a means to understand and realize the advantages of direct democracy. Making decisions by majority was impossible due to differences of opinion while raising the children together. We couldn’t exclude their situations and opinions just because they were a minority.
Yet, Consensus is not Everything
What if we couldn’t find a solution in such a difficult and long discussion? Each individual does it, or everyone does not do it. It’s because we need to pay the cost in order to reach a consensus. The cost includes not only the communication efforts to reach an agreement but the disappointment of those giving up their arguments. Therefore, we don’t push too hard to reach a consensus.
First is the opposing situation of whether to do [A] or [not-A]. If we fail to agree either one of the opposing opinions, we do not [A]. This does not mean that we agree with the argument of [not-A]. We just do not [A] because the opposing parties of [A] and [not-A] fail to reach an agreement. This is a consideration for the opinion of [not-A]. And we don’t think that we should do it despite the opposing opinion. Can we be happy even if we do [A] against the opposition?
Second is the opposing situation of whether to do [A] or [B]. If we fail to reach an agreement, each party does as they want. We don’t push too hard to find one answer. They spend the energy in doing what they want. In fact, in most cases, time will tell which is right. Those who believed in A often realize that A is not right after working on A. Also, those who argued for B, once they see A working, say “Is this what you talked about? You should have talked earlier.” People often realize which is right only after they have done it. I’m not arguing that you should try anything thoughtlessly. What I want to say is don’t push for the argument too much, “just do it”, “those who want to do should do it”, and “see with a kind eye” even if you disagree with them.
Key is those who want to do it
These days, we are told about the complaint, “we can’t do the work since there is no one to work together.” This is not the case. It is not true that there is no one to work. People want others to do the work that they should do themselves. Why should it be done by those who want to do it? If there is a person who really wants to do it, two or three persons with half the enthusiasm and three or four with a third of the enthusiasm join the work. They are already seven or eight persons. There is nothing that seven or eight persons cannot do. By the way, what happens when these seven or eight persons are all dedicated to the work? Does the work go well? No way. The work goes in the wrong direction. We just need one person who can put everything in it. If you are the one person, everything is ready to go.
People feel good when they think about and prepare for the work since they imagine that the work is going well. And then once the plan is established and executed, one of them is selected as the head in charge and the rest become members of a steering committee. It takes some time for the work to take root successfully. And they face a different reality from the preparation stage. They have their positions as the head in charge and a member of a steering committee, respectively.
The head in charge loses the enthusiasm and joy they felt during the preparation period and feels that it is not working while dealing with various problems. This is when he suffers from an illusion. Although he felt the rise of energy in the preparation stage, he finds it boring in the horizontal flow of energy in the execution stage, leading to an illusion that energy goes down. He has to endure this period to enter the success phase. The persons who want to do it are likely to overcome this period. Those who have to do the work are easily tired and disappointed at their capability. They often feel distressed and step down during the course. Yet, those who want to do it happily overcome the difficulties and achieve the success.
Open Discussion and Collective Intelligence
In February 2003 when the “Protect Mt. Sungmi” struggle peaked, Sungmisan Village was in the middle of work to establish an alternative school. The alternative school project began to persuade five households trying to move out in search for an alternative school to settle in the village. Residents were about to reach an agreement of establishing an alternative elementary school after three months of workshops, public discussions and lectures. Everyone was happy about that. Yet, one resident poured cold water on the exciting atmosphere.
“My child is in fifth grade and will soon go to a junior high. I’m worried about increased academic competition at a middle school.” And then, another resident argued, “I didn’t care about establishing an elementary school. My child is already at a junior high. If you are to establish a junior high, let’s establish an alternative high school too.”
The steering committee for establishing an alternative school decided to create a school covering from elementary through high school on the spot. The first K-12 grade alternative school in Korea was created through open discussion. We did not have the idea of creating a K-12 grade school in the beginning. The decision was made by embracing the needs of residents during discussion. The needs of residents are all important and it is hard to weigh the importance of each need. Therefore, we tried to accept the needs of every one of the residents.
And then, as residents participated in designing and establishing the school, we created the philosophy and operation principle for the K-12 grade alternative school. They were not made by a few planners. A new vision for the school emerged wile parents who would enroll their children at the school participated, gathered and discussed their needs. The so-called collective intelligence manifested itself.
- 4. Operation Principle of Community Enterprises
If residents complain about the problems in everyday life, find a solution and then step up to resolve it, in most cases, they start as a modest-size club. Yet, they want this club to evolve into a more stable and lasting group over time. That is when they think of creating an “enterprise.” We call it a “community enterprise.” The operation principle of community enterprises is “cooperative.”
Social Needs and Cooperative Solution – “If the market and the government do not solve it, we address it.”
The works the village has dealt with are about meeting the needs of everyday life. Childcare, education, food, necessities, play and communication are all desperate issues for households with a tight budget in a city. Yet, they cannot find a solution in the market. Even if there is a solution in the market, it’s too expensive that they cannot afford. They are looking to the government. But the government is neither interested in these issues nor ready to deal with them. What should I do? Those who feel the needs have to address it. In the end, the people feeling the desperate needs deal with it themselves.
Although I can’t do it alone, it is possible to do it if we band together. If several people feeling the needs work together, everything is possible. One successful cooperation work leads to another one. Yet cooperation may be a cumbersome process. Working together is not that easy. People often think that it would be better to do it alone. That’s why we need communication. Communication enhances the effect of cooperation, increasing the chance to succeed. “If the market and the government do not solve it, we address it.” This is the history of Sungmisan Village and the key to community enterprises. This is the same as the value of social enterprises and community business.
Community enterprises of Sungmisan Village have been developed through a cooperative in the form of [residents’ proposal to open business à recruit investors à investors’ participation à operation staffs’ participation à consumers’ participation]. They have contributed to establishing voluntary participation systems and activity culture, and forming a mutually beneficial network in a local community.
Everyone is the Owner
Contribution is a way of financing the basic resources needed for opening a cooperative. This is similar to a Korean saying, “making a united effort to help a person.” Anyone who wants to chip in opens as many accounts as they can afford. They can open one, or ten accounts, or more. Yet, just one voting right is given to each person. In the case of a corporation, shareholders are given voting rights depending on the number of shares they have. That’s why those with less than 10% of shares control the company. The secret of monopolistic control lies in the voting rights proportionate to the number of shares. In this regard, one vote per person has a significant meaning in that a monopolistic control is impossible in the structure of a cooperative.
Meanwhile, contribution is different from “donation”, the financing way for non-profit organizations. People have less resistance to contribution than donation. It’s because they can have the contributions back when they leave the cooperative. In addition, they experience and identify the needs of the cooperative while participating in and using it after making contributions. Therefore, it is rare for members to leave the cooperative. If people make contributions, they automatically become a member of the cooperative. The members are the owners of the cooperative and play the role as an owner at the general meeting.
Once investors are recruited, operation staffs are selected at a general meeting. Those who want to participate in the operation are selected by unanimous consent. Those who want to do it take in charge of the operation. Usually, people recommend the suitable persons and they are selected by consent. Many working moms in the village are concerned about childcare issues. Even if the salary is meager, it is not easy to quit the job for a household with a tight budget. Nonetheless, they want to take care of their children while they grow up and then return to the work. But, in reality, it is not easy to go back to the work and so it is stressful for them. By the way, they are interested in community works and want to join. If other moms recommend and encourage them to do the work, they are engaged in community works.
It is good to take care of the children when they work for a community. It is good for the children as well since they can see their mom anytime as they want. There are also various flexible working systems suitable to their lifestyle. The five-day work week system can be a little burden for housewives with children. In that case, they can work from 10 am to 3 pm for three days a week. The pay is low compared to when they worked for a company, but it is good to be less stressful. In addition, they feel even more satisfied in serving neighbors. Currently, there are more than 150 people working at Childcare Center, Sungmisan School, the Consumer Cooperative, and the Theater. They are actually protecting the village. Self-employed persons and housewives stay in and around the village all day, know what’s going on in the village and step up to address the problems. Those who are hired at community institutions are protecting the village.
The main consumers of community enterprises are members of the cooperative. They are regular consumers since they joined the cooperative out of necessity. Of course, community enterprises are open to the residents who are not members of the cooperative. People consume ice creams made by neighbors they come across on the streets, at market and school, side dishes at Neighborhood Kitchen operated by the mother of Minsoo who likes singing and dancing, organic rice at Sungmisan Babsang operated by parents of Sungmisan Childcare Center, etc. We just believe them for sure.
The producer of Neighborhood Kitchen is the consumer of Jageun Namu (Small Tree), the producer of Jageun Namu is the consumer of the cooperative, the operator of the cooperative is the consumer of Sungmisan Babsang, etc. We consume something from each other and provide something to each other. “Insider trading” is committed in a very complex manner in the village. We are responsible for each other. The depth of insider trading can be seen as a growth indicator of community enterprises. It is just like that wild herbs seem to grow separately on the ground, but their roots are tangled and intertwined under the ground. That is the secret of wild herbs having a tenacious hold on life. This is the case for community enterprises as well. Community enterprises can only prosper when multiple enterprises grow together just like wild herbs, not when they strive for growth independently. [July 22, 2012, written by ZZangga]
 He lives in Sungmisan Village, Mapo-gu, Seoul and represents the Sungmisan Village Theater. He recently became the head of Community Support Center which is in charge of support for Community Building led by Seoul City.