the US Social Forum.

1 08 2007

Another World Is Possible; Another U.S. Is Necessary.

Well, I’m inspired.

July 10, 2007

A week after the US Social Forum I am just barely regaining my energy to engage in the world again. It was a week and a half long marathon – first with an organizer training camp I had the privilege of helping coordinate with RAN, then with the four days of the Forum itself, and then the post-forum meetings and networking in Atlanta.



If you’d rather not read stuff, here is a short clip of
me on the Radio talkin bout the USSF (I join the KPFK show about half way through).

 

The United States Social Forum was the most significant social movement gathering I’ve seen in the US in my lifetime. 10,000 incredible organizers spanning the spectrum of movements got together to share, build, strategize, and hopefully set the trajectory of our “movement of movements” for the next five to ten years.

 

Friends from Maine to Guatemala spent the previous year fundraising to make the pilgrimage. Never before have I seen so many amazing people who have touched my life as an organizer as I did in Atlanta – what was more inspiring was that it seemed like everybody’s best selves were shining through; everyone was excited and ready to build.

 

The USSF differentiated itself from World Social Forums with an explicit focus on movement strategy, planning, and building. The intention was for a space that is more than a networking bonanza, more than the chaos of a Leftist Bazaar, and instead give the space and framework to reclaim and re-orient the U.S. Left. The USSF was multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-issue, and shone a light on what we can build here in our country.

It was not without its contradictions, frustrations, drama, and disappointments, for sure. Some left the Forum feeling disempowered and marginalized. When coordinating an event for 10,000 people, there are bound to be screw ups that leave folks unhappy, and no doubt reinforce dominant power structures in the process. But despite the chaos, as a friend Suzy put it, “I got a sense that people of color—especially immigrants, indigenous people, women of color and queer people of color—were like, “the Left is ours,” and were bringing the most innovative strategies and concepts to be seen in years, rocketing the whole thing into another dimension.” It was beautiful.

While groups from across the spectrum were in attendance, the bedrock of the Forum was base-building community based organizations led by people of color.

The lens of the forum was one that did its best to put oppressed peoples front and center – and have the issues framed by the people they most directly impact. The Forum offered a moment to re-imagine what real solidarity can look like.

As a friend Dan put it, “At its best, the desire stretches for a new way of conducting politics and social movement based on but not duplicative of what has come before. It is a call to build a left that is grassroots and democratic, visionary and strategic, a left that manages to have unity without sacrificing its political principles.”

 

There was, of course, a near media-blackout. There were more major articles in Cuba than in the United States about the US Social Forum. Dan’s article in The Nation was one of the first “mainstream” articles to come out online.

Some of my official participation in the Forum coordination was taking a (very much backseat) role on the Youth Working Group (YWG) and the USSF Concert Committee. The YWG, bottomlined by Monica from the Southwest Organizing Project, set up a Youth Tent that was dynamic and held an amazing presence and energy throughout the forum. Poetry, music, meetings, parties, speakers, and fun. The youth were representin’ and had more energy than anyone else at the Forum. The YWG brought a meaningful youth voice to the forum making it intergenerational in a meaningful and integrative way.

I organized a panel on “Intergenerational Organizing and the new SDS.” Initially the lineup included:

Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, Director of the Institute for Multiracial Justice
who was replaced at the last minute by Bob Wing, founder of ColorLines, War Times, and co-founder of United for Peace and Justice.
Ashanti Alston, former Black Panther and political prisoner.
David Solnit, anti-war activist and editor of “Globalize Liberation”.
Senia Barrigan, Madeline Gardner, and Joshua Kahn Russell, all of SDS.
Moderated by Dan Berger, editor of “Letters from Young Activists” and author of “Outlaws of America”.

Here is the description:

Intergenerational organizing and dialog is key to movement building in the U.S. Often young people feel silenced and alienated, while elders to do not have the space to share insights and experience. We must learn from and organize with one another in order to have a clear sense of history, the future, and our own relationship to them both. This panel will talk about the dynamics, opportunities, and challenges of intergenerational organizing and highlight how SDS is attempting to stitch together generations to build collective power and strategy for change. We will address issues of:
1. History. groundwork and framing on mass movements. What are mass movements? What are our histories?
2. Back to present. What challenges do young people face when first coming into movement?
3. Moving forward. How can intergenerational organizing facilitate young people coming in—how to build movements, personal process, long-haul/community building, etc.?
4. Thinking ahead. Vision of what intergenerational organizing can be and what a mass movement could be right now.

Our panel was in a church, and godly churchbells rang out every half hour, making us all feel like we were giving profound insight. 😉 At one point a dove (actually a pigeon) flew out from one of our seats, circling the air above us. I’m not sure what that was a metaphor for, but I’m sure we’d find some way to make it seem meaningful if we put some thought into it.

The discussion we started on intergenerational organizing was continued the next day with Resistance in Brooklyn’s panel. We got into deep issues about the roles different people play in the movement and how we can build stronger movements for the long haul. The most valuable part of it was the audience sharing how their organizations have tried to work intergenerationally. It made me realize how much there is a void in Left literature and debate in documenting and exploring these kinds of relationships, particularly from the perspective or movement organizations (rather than individuals). There may be some kind of book project emerging from that discussion… —-

The Forum opened on Wednesday with a march celebrating our movements and the project of building together. Groups from all over turned out, brought signs, puppets, costumes, noise makers, stilts, skits, chants, and love. The purpose was to come together across our political differences and set the context for collectively struggling across movements and ideologies. It was absolutely beautiful…until I faded back into the lifestylist/individualist crowd, and was once again disappointed by how out of touch that community is. While other groups chanted things like “another world is possible” folks could only think of divisive chants to insult other marchers, like “anti-war! anti-state! you liberals better get it straight!” Oy vey. The obsession with divisiveness in that community was pervasive, as indicated by the fact that the leading article on the USSF on IndyBay was about Medea Benjamin getting pied. Regardless of what one might think about the pieing, it was certainly not the most important thing for people to learn about the USSF. The constant focus on negativity was a hallmark of the self defined “anarcho” communities I grew up in. It seemed in full force in Atlanta, as articles about the USSF such as “Another NGO Conference is Possible” demonstrate a fundamental disconnect with the reality of who is bottomlining what. There was an NGO presence at the Forum for sure, but the bulk of organizing and attendance was not paid staff of big nonprofits. While some NGOs like the Ruckus Society made really meaningful contributions and stepped up to share resources, the NGOs that were less relevant to grassroots organizing ended up mostly isolating themselves by being out of touch. If anything, this Forum taught me that grassroots bottom-up organizing is on the rise in this country and if the attendance of workshops such as INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” is any indication, the domination of movements by agenda-driving nonprofits is being challenged in deeper ways than ever before.Organizations spanning the spectrum of issues and demographics were forging new ground in horizontal organizing and liberatory politics, ‘from below and to the left’. As reflected by everything from the Another Politics is Possible track, and statements issued to the forum from the Zapatistas’ La Otra Campana, the philosophy of non-hierarchical politics is growing and evolving, developing new sets of movement building tools and a people of color focus…whether or not the “capital (A) Anarchists” are interested is yet to be seen.

RAN CAMP

 

During the week prior to the forum, I worked with Rosa Gonzalez, Levana Saxon, and Debra Erenberg, organizing a four day long Rainforest Action Network organizer training session among about 28 young people from across the country.

The camp participants ranged from high schoolers to recent college graduates, from people brand new to activism to more seasoned organizers. As part of the facilitation team, it was an exciting and humbling experience to see so many folks dive in to serious life-changing issues and ideas with such energy and enthusiasm. I learned a lot, and the experience of having other young folks tell you that an experience has changed the way they see the world and their role in it, is perhaps the most gratifying thing in the world. It reminds me why organizing is important and why it’s worth the endless hours, stress, energy, and exhaustion. People were grappling with issues about what the implications are of dedicating your life to social change, for your family, parents, friends, job…everything. We dug into issues of Climate Justice, Environmental Racism, Coal, the Auto Industry, Indigenous Rights, made art, talked about vision and strategy, anti-oppression, danced, played games, hung out with Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative (EJCC), talked about the movement and nonprofits and grassroots organizations, and jumped into the social forum experience with open minds and hearts.

 

SDS

 

Students for a Democratic Society turned out over 100 people from across the country, from Florida to Los Angeles to New York to Olympia, to Detroit. SDS converging in Atlanta was kind of like a microcosm of the USSF: people from all over our organization coming together and meeting for the first time, talking about organizing and the future of our group and the movements of which we are a part.

Because SDS is in the process of developing its structure, our presence was chaotic and disorganized – yet we somehow still managed to meet nightly, have a table and literature, organize three workshops/panels, support several others, dig into some deep issues, meet with elders, organize strategy sessions to collaborate with and support other groups, including Bob’s Moses’ Baltimore Algebra Project (which may be the first coherent project that SDS Nationally, and is about supporting an effort led by high school students of color). The endless meetings and debriefs helped us understand our strengths and challenges, and gave us space to be self reflective in how to move forward as an organization.

 

We had hoped the Social Forum could be a place to sit a moment, reflect, and chart a course for the future. Beyond the officially scheduled workshops, trainings, and plenaries, there were meetings of all kinds where organizations got together to strategize. Some were meetings like the ones between SDS and the Baltimore Algebra Project. Others were like the White Anti-Racist meetup organized by the Heads Up Collective, where various white anti-racist organizations got together to meet, and start to map out how they could build relationships and strengthen their work together.

 

Parties like those thrown by the Ruckus Society, or by the delegation from the Gulf Coast, reminded me that if we want to win a new society, we need a movement that is more fun than the rest of society. I think we’re getting there.

I’ll end this post with some more of Dan’s words, “The energy is kinetic and infective. Still, the real test is not what happens here but what emerges from it. And there are already reasons to hope: numerous urban community organizing groups from across the country sponsored a workshop track, parties, and meetings to solidify a Right to the City network. Under the auspices of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the marginalized left voices within the immigrant rights movement had a chance to make their position known through workshops and a national press conference. A pre-forum gathering sponsored by Queers for Economic Justice and Southerners on New Ground took first steps toward building the infrastructure for a Queer Left, while another pre-forum gathering–strengthened throughout the week–brought together queer, feminist, and antiracist groups to envision solutions to state and interpersonal violence that don’t involve the sprawling prison-industrial complex.

These examples show that a mass movement is slowly beginning to cohere. It is far too early to predict its success, failure, or specific forms. But the forum presents a picture of movements in motion, a chance to glimpse and above all participate in building the world we want to see. After years of patient organizing, the grassroots centers of social movements are beginning to burst through soil corroded by years of neo-liberalism and an impoverished dominant political culture. The consciousness, vision, and strategy emanating from the social forum is uneven and developing–and it may just be our best hope to have both democratic processes and liberating politics.”

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