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The Social Forum Comes To The U.S.

Max Uhlenbeck Jul 28, 2007

Social Forum
Photo: SWUNION.BLOGSPOT.COM

By Max Uhlenbeck

“ Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” —Arundhati Roy

We stood in front of the hotel, watching as people packed their bags and final belongings in anticipation of the long journeys back home. Hot, tired and emotionally drained from five days of workshops and seemingly endless meetings, we caught our breath as our bus pulled up to the curb.

The first-ever U.S. Social Forum (USSF) had come to an end, and there was one thing that it seemed like everyone could agree on in its immediate aftermath. The event had been a remarkable accomplishment. Some would later say that it represented a turning point.

Held in Atlanta from June 27-July 1, the USSF brought together the kind of broadbased, multi-racial and inter-generational cross section of organizers and activist groups that many of us had only heard stories about in dispatches from far-away lands. This was a gathering of the grassroots. No superstar speakers, no Democratic party (aside from a few Dennis Kucinich signs), no large international NGOs taking up all the space. As one local Atlanta organizer said to me, “Now see, this is always how I pictured the movement looking like in my head.”

Long Road Home

Just a few years ago, this kind of coming together would have been hard to imagine. In the fractured, isolated political landscape that was post-September 11 U.S.A, it was difficult for many to share writer Arundhati Roy’s optimism and faith in a better world.

Even the World Social Forum (WSF) itself (see timeline), where Roy delivered her speech in January 2003, had in recent years become increasingly coopted — first by the overwhelming presence of political parties and transnational NGOs, and then by corporations themselves at this year’s WSF in Kenya, where cell phone and airline company advertisements seemed to blanket the forum (including the main program).

How ironic then, that many years from now, when organizers look back at the WSF process, they will see that it was actually inside the United States — the belly of the beast, the brain of the monster — that this dynamic dramatically shifted. As USSF Director Alice Lovelace told Inter Press Service: “Members of the [WSF] International Council were here. They said it was the best Social Forum they ever saw. They said it raised the bar across the board in terms of diversity. The sessions were focused on the future, on vision, on strategies. They were going to have to step up their game to match what we did.”

Indeed members of the international WSF community had been calling on organizers inside the U.S. to organize their own regional forum for several years, pointing out the importance of having a forum take place in the United States. As Michael Leon Guerrero, a USSF organizer, explained on a panel titled “Moving the Movement in the U.S.,” — the grassroots had not yet bought into the concept of organizing a major nationwide gathering, and the whole WSF process was still very new to many of them. It took time and patience, but eventually after several rounds of consultation, specifically with people-of-color-led, community base-building organizations from around the country, it finally seemed like time to bring the forum home.

Beyond Non-Profits

The term “grassroots” is often used without qualification, but walking around Atlanta somehow you knew you were among them. There were high school and college students, civil rights veterans, indigenous organizers and Gulf Coast survivors, as well as immigrant rights movement leaders, rank-and-file trade unionists and Palestine solidarity activists. Although funding for the USSF was slow in materializing — a minor drawback related to not relying on the traditional, larger non-profit organizations and foundations (read: wealthy white folks) early on in the process — money eventually came in once it became clear to funders that the USSF was going to be a major event.

One of many overflowing workshops during the USSF was a two-part session titled “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” Co-organized by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Left Turn magazine, the discussion continued an important national dialogue that many organizations and individuals had been engaged in, analyzing the relationship between foundation funding, the increasingly corporate structure of the non-profit model and the possibility of institutional (revolutionary!) change.

Slow Process

The USSF was not without problems. As you can expect with any major undertaking coordinated by overworked and underpaid activists, some things slipped through the cracks. Although reports varied, the most unfortunate situation of the week seemed to surround the Ida B. Wells Media Justice Center and folks from POOR magazine who had traveled from the West Coast to run trainings and produce material during the conference. Media in general seemed like a bit of a blind spot, with little coordinated coverage even on the Pacifica radio network.

All in all though, the first USSF felt like a great success. At the closing plenary, several new alliances were announced, including an inspiring coalition of domestic workers’ organizations. On the local level, organizations traveling together seemed to really benefit from the time spent both preparing for and attending the forum. RJ Maccani, who organizes with the Regeneración Childcare Collective here in New York City, described a seemingly typical experience:

“The Another Politics is Possible delegation was made up almost entirely of women of color, mothers, kids, youth and childcare volunteers. Many of us had worked together in the past but only in small groups, and some of us had never worked together at all. The U.S. Social Forum became a journey for us that involved months of planning and fundraising — just preparing for the Forum was a broader, more collective project than many of us had ever shared together.”

What will come out of the USSF remains to be seen. Calls for coordinated days of action and future local social forums were made during the closing “People’s Assembly” on the final day.

USSF organizers are looking at a possible 2010 date for a second U.S. Social Forum. As a friend and I were debating the likelihood of these next steps actually coming together, I had to remind myself of a quote by Commandante Germán, one of the founding members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), who once said: “We walk slowly because we are going very far.” Without setting up too many expectations, I think all of us in Atlanta took one very large step.

Max Uhlenbeck is on the Left Turn magazine editorial collective. To read more personal accounts of the U.S. Social Forum or to subscribe to the magazine, please check out: www.leftturn. org. A U.S. Social Forum reportback will be held July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Brecht Forum at 451 West St. btw Bank & Bethune.