In 2018, KickStart Art (KSA) became a member of Connected Development. The organisation, founded in 2010, had been providing art education in migrant learning centres in Mae Sot, a bustling town on the Thai-Myanmar border where the majority of the population are Burmese migrants, who live alongside Thai citizens and a small international community. Spanning to the north and the south along the border are 9 refugee camps which have been occupied for over 40 years following decades of conflict in Myanmar.
When Kick Start Art joined Connected Development, the community-based organisation was reaching a crossroads - the funding it had previously raised through local art sales was drying up. With its current income streams, the possibility of employing a full-time director to expand the organisation and determine its long-term strategy was out of reach.
John Khai’s vision A key asset that the organisation did possess however, was a very capable and senior artist called John Khai. John grew up in Chin State, a remote, mountainous region bordering Manipur, in Northeast India. Statistically, it is the poorest province of Myanmar. After finishing school at 15, John struggled to find work, so travelled to Yangon then eventually on to Mae Sot. After finishing his studies at a migrant learning centre, John trained as a junior artist with Kick Start Art. He started to develop his dream surrounding the role art education could play in improving lives in his home country, as well as for the growing diaspora on the Thai border. He saw it as a tool to develop the creativity and imagination necessary to build well-developed, engaged citizens who are in touch with their emotions and can facilitate a future of democracy.
John sees art as a way of developing informed and imaginative citizens
Connected Development, inspired by John’s vision, was able to connect KSA with a donor. This donation enabled John to travel back, for the first time, to his remote, rural home community of Tonzang in Myanmar, where he conducted the first ever art education project in the region.
There was enormous enthusiasm from the local community to attend the classes throughout the three weeks John was teaching. Originally, 150 children showed an interest. Whilst KSA decided to limit the number of attendees to 50 to ensure supplies could go round, 85 students turned up regardless. One of the teachers working at the school where the classes were held said that he had always hoped to teach art but had never had the materials to do so; creative subjects are left out of the Burmese national curriculum.
The Tedim road, which passes through Tonzang and connects Myanmar to Northeast India
From a successful pilot to a long-term project?
2019 brought ‘Phase 2’ of the art training in Chin State, enabled by further funding provided by donors that Connected Development helped KSA approach. The project reached 120 children, with some children making a 6hr journey from a nearby town Gam Ngai to reach the classes. Ensuring the long-term place for art in Tonzang, the school’s leadership committed to dedicate a room exclusively to art, where children can exhibit their work and can continue practicing what they learned with Kick Start Art.
A similar project was also conducted in a community from in Kayin (Karen) state in Myanmar, for 78 children living in a temporary settlement just a few hundred yards over the Moei river on the Thai side of the border. Kick Start Art also uses art to create inclusion and harmony between the different ethnic groups in Myanmar, the majority of whom have been affected by ongoing fighting with successive military governments since the 1960s.
Kick Start Art conducting a class outside a church on the Thai-Myanmar border
KSA's ability to work in Myanmar has been restricted by first the Covid-19 pandemic, then subsequently the coup d’état that began in 2021, which restricted cross-border movement. Whilst the legacy of their previous projects lived on, KSA were no longer able to teach in Myanmar themselves.
Responding to setbacks by redoubling efforts to help migrant populations in Mae Sot
The civil war that the 2021 coup initiated has displaced over 100,000 people from Myanmar to Mae Sot, doubling the city’s population. John and his team accelerated their efforts to bring art education to the people who they viewed as needing it the most. KSA scaled up their work in Thailand, nearly doubling the amount of migrant learning centres they work in. They have also expanded where they work and now run ‘Border Art Classes’ for recently displaced communities right on the border, ‘Community Art Classes’ which children with disabilities attend alongside other children to promote inclusive education, as well as summer camps.
John teaching an inclusive art class in Mae Sot for children with different abilities
Forging new partnerships
Since it became a member of Connected Development, KSA has also established a partnership with the Oxford University affiliated Shoklo Malaria Research Unit (SMRU). KSA has provided art therapy to patients with TB and AIDS. It has also run several successful training sessions for staff of SMRU clinics and community health workers, hoping to facilitate a wider programme of art therapy for patients with mental illnesses or terminal diseases in the Mae Sot area.
Many of the children that Kick Start Art teach are from families recently displaced by the conflict over the border
As well as connecting KSA with likeminded donors, Connected Development has helped KSA formalise its organisational structure. John is now ‘Programme Director’, and the organisation has formed an advisory board. Connected Development has helped John to develop his NGO management skills, providing advice on report drafting, proposal writing and maintaining relationships with donors. Connected Development has also provided KSA with multiple interns who have helped with proposal and report writing, social media strategy, as well as website development.
Kick Start Art now employs 4 teachers and teaches over 2,000 students every year
Connected Development has helped to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of KSA through providing advice, building KSA’s capacity and helping it to build its own relationships with international donors. Most importantly, it has provided the support enabling John and his team to map out and fulfil their own vision for how art can contribute to improving the lives of people living in Myanmar and the diaspora.
What does the future hold for KSA?
Thanks to the ‘New Generation’ project that Connected Development helped KSA formulate, KSA has recently recruited two new talented young art teachers from the diaspora in Mae Sot. KSA now has the capacity to scale up its art education projects to reach many more migrant learning centres and border communities. With some additional funding recently secured, Kick Start Art has also recently moved a new studio, where the organisation can directly conduct art training, as well as exhibiting and selling the artists paintings. Inspired by the success with which they have been able to grow so far, KSA is conducting strategic planning to continue to build their impact for the long term.
John Khai, Kyaw Khai, Yunn Akari and Zinko, the 2023 Kick Start Art team!