His vision was to create a venue where community activists and creative types could gather and organize around issues and passions. Bodega Califas, as the clubhouse has been dubbed, is located two blocks from Skid Row – Los Angeles’s infamous hub of homelessness and militant policing. Yet less than five blocks away from there, the dirt-stained concrete buildings give way to downtown LA’s financial district, and the newly hip neighborhoods dotted with cold brew coffee shops and record stores. Burgeoning gentrification is nothing new to the city, but never before has it come so close to the largest homeless encampment in the United States, with an estimated population of 8,000 – 11,000 people.
“We’re working on housing, but also on a number of laws that criminalize homelessness,” Mike says, detailing his volunteer work with the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN). LA CAN activists organize meetings with affected communities, create materials for awareness, and are constantly at city hall and the police commission to try to change policy, Mike says.
“The police use Skid Row as a training ground for surveillance tactics,” he argues. “You see the brunt of police brutality here. There have been 20 police killings already this year. ”
At 29, Mike already has 10 years of experience in community organizing and human rights activism. He recalls his time as a CIEE Khon Kaen Development and Globalization student in Fall 2006 as a turning point in his organizing career.
“That was the first year that we envisioned the Human Rights Festival. I had never organized such a large event before,” Mike says of his semester final project. “That was the moment that I realized, if I put my mind to something and focused and made calls and worked with people to put something together, I could actually do it. That was the biggest moment of believing in myself.”
He sustained the momentum from the Festival’s success when he returned to the University of San Francisco, where he cofounded a student group called "Back to da Roots" and interned with ENGAGE. After graduating, he returned to Khon Kaen as a CIEE Program Intern, and stayed on/returned as Intern Coordinator in 2009.
While serving as Intern Coordinator, Mike shared a house with members of Dao Din, a student activism and human rights group from Khon Kaen University, lived at the Dao Din human rights activist house and worked with a Dao Din leader to develop the Thai student movement, hosting workshops with youth groups in villages. He also wrote a number of proposals and a grant that helped Dao Din acquire the resources to become a recognized community center and organization. “It was originally during that time that we started discussing the trip to Mexico,” he says.
As a first-generation Mexican- American citizen, Mike says he has always seen connections between Mexican and Thai culture. “I would give workshops on the Zapatista movement in Mexico at Dao Din, and ever since Dao Din has expressed an interest in going to Mexico,” he says. That idea became a reality last November, when two representatives from Na Nong Bong village and two Dao Din leaders travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to discuss mining resistance strategies with local mine-affected communities.
The exchange was hosted by ENGAGE and Servicios Universitarios Y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca A.C. (SURCO), a Mexican community organizing network. After Na Nong Bong anti-mining activists endured a violent attack led by the local mining company’s cronies in May 2014, Mike and ENGAGE worked for a year and a half to organize the Mexico trip. ENGAGE raised over $30,000 to fund the exchange, and Mike spearheaded a documentary of the meetings, which is currently in production.
“It’s a sad fact that Na Nong Bong lives with poisoned water, violence, and oppression – hopefully we inspired the delegates that went to bring back a positive mindset to fight for what they think is right. And of course, our end objective is to shut down the mine,” he says.
He points out that the Mexico exchange has had a lasting impact not only on the delegates that attended, but also on ENGAGE as an organization. ENGAGE successfully internationalized the Thai anti-mining struggle, he says, and in the process built up the network to include Thais locally in the United Sates and anti-mining activists in Mexico and Canada.
Mike is currently ENGAGE’s Network Coordinator; he monitors all the components of ENGAGE’s work and maintains relationships with CIEE Khon Kaen alumni around the US, as well as with colleagues and interns in Thailand. At last summer’s ENGAGE Convergence in Los Angeles, he helped organize an anti-coup protest action at the Royal Thai Consulate, and has staged an additional five actions since. He stresses that protesting on behalf of our Thai friends is critical at this time, because under military rule it has been difficult for Thais to organize in Thailand.
“What I’m trying to bring to ENGAGE is that we’re doing things that people want to be a part of,” he says. “The biggest issue that we’ve had is a bunch of privileged white kids that say ‘We’ve had a wonderful transformative experience,’ and then they go back to their normal lives. You forget about it. Some people do change and play an active role in society, but a large majority go back to whatever they were doing before.”
By staging periodic actions at the Royal Thai Consulate, Mike hopes he can fire up the network and involve the Thai population in Los Angeles, connecting activists on the ground. Currently, he is organizing the 15th anniversary of ENGAGE Convergence, which is planned for August 2016. He notes that a big goal for this year is to sustain the energy from last year’s successful solidarity programs, and to plan for the future of ENGAGE.
“The message I’m trying to send is, here is a network available for people to go to if they want to be involved, and we’re active,” he says. “Be a part of fighting for issues in your local community, but stay connected to the Thai struggle. All the beautiful people that you met – there’s a network that maintains solidarity with them.”