I’ve Seen Very Few Places Like This in the World
From food rescue to plastic recycling, Ford brings together diverse nonprofits to benefit Bangkok residents.
By Todd Nissen, Director, Ford Fund Communications & Ford Volunteer Corps
It's 3 p.m. on a steamy Saturday in Bangkok, Thailand, and there is something new happening in Nang Loeng, a teeming historic neighborhood not far from the Royal Palace.
Eclectic doesn't begin to describe the scene at the opening of the latest Ford Resource and Engagement Center (FREC), where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) collaborate in unconventional ways for community benefit.
There's a composting class at the outdoor soil bar. A five-star chef from Marriott Hotels is teaching a sustainable cooking class. People are chatting while sitting on furniture made by architecture students and Ford Motor Company employees using recycled plastic and spare car parts from Ford's factory in Rayong, Thailand.
On the second floor, guests learn how to rescue birds and grade-school children play hopscotch and make maps, one creative way for them to learn and practice English.
Across the alley from the FREC, a 92-year-old woman in elaborately beaded clothes performs a traditional Chakrit dance. Nearby, visitors in an indigo dyeing class dunk white cloths in vats of soupy blue water.
Later on opening day, there will be an outdoor movie, flanked by two Ford Mustangs. Swing dancing, storytelling and karaoke are also planned for the celebration.
Unifying nonprofits to meet resident needs
Ford Motor Company Fund, the automaker's philanthropic arm, launched its first FREC in Detroit in 2013. FRECs bring together several nonprofits offering different services so local residents can get the help they need in a single location to address the community's concerns.
The concept has proven successful: At the inaugural FREC, located in southwest Detroit, residents and neighbors receive $3 in services for every $1 Ford and its 10 nonprofit partners invest.
FREC Bangkok has eight partners providing everything from food rescue services to wildlife conservation to an artist in residence. It is the fifth center in a $15 million global network of FRECs that the Ford Fund runs.
Ford Fund chose the Bangkok location, in part, because of Ford Motor Company's large employee and manufacturing presence in Thailand: 14,000 employees and more than 100 dealers. Thailand also was the first country to hold community service projects after Executive Chairman Bill Ford launched the Ford Volunteer Corps in 2005. What's more, the Ford team saw the city's underserved populations and growing environmental movement needed assistance.
For Scott Chang, Ford Fund's regional lead, this marks the culmination of two years of work.
When Ford decided to expand its FREC concept to Asia, Chang brought to bear not only his own professional knowledge of for-profit and nonprofit organizations but also a personal history of working across Asian cultures.
Raised in Kansas and California, Chang, a first-generation American, was raised by Taiwanese immigrants. For his first five years, he spoke only in Mandarin. As the family story goes, Chang didn't know a word of English when he started kindergarten. For the first month, he didn't speak in class. Then, suddenly, he joined the other kids in speaking fluent English.
After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Chang found his way to China to work for Business for Social Responsibility, a non-profit focused on sustainability.
Chang joined Ford in 2011 to manage its sustainability communications in China. In 2015, he shifted to the Ford Fund as part of the foundation's global expansion. He moved to Bangkok in 2016 when his husband, Brian Davidson, became the British Ambassador to Thailand.
After touring several potential FREC sites, Nang Loeng stood out because of what it has in common with Detroit, Ford's birth place—potential, Chang said.
Nang Loeng once was a thriving series of neighborhoods with rich cultural traditions. Bangkok's first book was published in Nang Loeng; the first cinema in Thailand opened in Nang Loeng in 1918; and Bangkok 1899, a historic nearby house, was one of the first homes in the city to get electricity.
But in recent decades, Nang Loeng had slipped behind as businesses went elsewhere and the population declined. Today, the area is primarily known for its multicultural food market, which draws visitors looking for authentic street fare.
Yet, changes are on the horizon.
"There's something cool about this neighborhood that's going to shift," Chang said. "And by having us here, we get to help the neighborhood remember how great it is, and then do things like bring new technologies, environmental protection, active citizenship and think about how we want to lay out our city, neighborhood and what would make us happy as a community.
"We have a chance to remember our past and then assist in a really nice way that feels very similar to that vibe in Detroit," said Chang.
To do that, Chang tapped his international and nonprofit connections to pull together a unique group of eight NGOs, the likes of which are not found anywhere else. The organizations' leaders are passionate about their work and several also have dual U.S.-Thai citizenship and links into Thai political and diplomatic circles.
The eight NGOs he looked for needed to offer different services but be willing to collaborate—and bring a new way of thinking.
This is critical as Thailand begins to promote social enterprises, businesses and other organizations that work toward social good. In March 2019, the Thai government approved legislation that gives tax breaks and other incentives to registered ventures that aim to deliver a positive social impact while turning a profit.
Chang believes he found the right partners.
"They're young; they're innovative; they're entrepreneurs; they're upstarts," he said.
One example of that is the Na Cafe, located next to FREC's building in Bangkok 1899, a cultural and civic hub that is also a FREC partner. The Cafe is staffed by at-risk youth as part of a vocational training program. Na Cafe also has connections to Gaa, a five-star restaurant that works with Scholars of Sustenance, another FREC partner, to hand out free food to refugees.
Saks Rouypirom, founder of the SATI Foundation that runs Na Cafe, believes the FREC ecosystem model has potential.
"I've traveled all over," Rouypirom said. "And, honestly, I've seen very few places like this in the world."