The U.S. Social Forum: Our Best Bet to Turn This Country Around
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There are a group of people that believe another United States is possible -- another world is possible. These are people who work on labor rights, environmental sustainability, anti-racism, anti-violence, pro-peace and pro-justice campaigns. They are a group of people who are reacting not just to war and repression but are working on building movements, uniting struggles, developing relationships. This group of people is growing every day.
From June 27 to July 1, these people -- thousands of activists, organizers and educators from across the country, will be convening at the U.S Social Forum in Atlanta. So far over 800 organizations have already signed on, and the welcome mat is out to any group or individual that would like to participate.
"It is open to anyone who buys into the mission of social change and believes that another world is possible," said Heeten Kalan of Panta Rhea and New World Foundation, which are helping to fund the endeavor. "There is no set agenda; it is self-organized. That is the value. It is open to all groups. This is your space; let's do something with it."
The USSF sprung from the seeds of the World Social Forum, an annual event that now garners up to 100,000 people a year for a weeklong conference of dialogues, workshops, cultural events, marches and rallies. "The WSF was created to provide an open platform to discuss alternatives to the economic plans created by multinational corporations and the governments at the World Economic Forum," their website explains. "These plans often result in strategies that suppress workers and human rights, and undermine national and Indigenous sovereignty."
As the World Social Forum grew over the years, there was an increasing international call for the United States to hold their own forum. "Our counterparts from around the world have been telling us to work on our connections in the U.S., and that the best way to support them is to build a stronger movement in the U.S.," said Robby Rodriguez of Albuquerque's Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). "If we are saying we want to be in solidarity with them, then this is the best way we can show solidarity and demonstrate our commitment to the struggle for peace and justice."
In 2003 the World Social Forum International Coordinating Committee asked Grassroots Global Justice to begin to formulate a plan for a U.S. forum. Today, there are 35 organizations currently on the National Planning Committee, which will grow to include 50 organizations.
"We were just blown away by national movements in other countries and began questioning why we haven't achieved that in the U.S.," said Michael Leon Guerrero of Grassroots Global Justice and a member of the National Planning Committee. "The fate of the rest of the world is tied to what happens here in the U.S. The role of our government impacts everyone else in the world because the U.S. empire reaches throughout the globe. What we are looking at is how do we help strengthen movement building the in U.S., and get past geography and build a broader movement? How do we start to think beyond individual organizations and the narrow foci of our work? How does this all fit together -- environmental justice, healthcare, the war, global warming, the Gulf Coast? We are looking to discuss how we can create those integrations and celebrate the work that has been building for decades."
Organizers of the USSF felt that the time was ripe finally in the United States to be able to have a successful forum of this nature -- grassroots movements were ready -- and the social will was there. The pressure of globalization, the effects of the war in Iraq and the tragedy of Katrina have helped shift the mood. Many who are attending the forum are thinking of doing a track on issues like climate change and immigration. There is also serious anti-war sentiment and a plan to examine what the role of the progressive grassroots movement should be in regards to the 2008 presidential election.
On the road to change
Guerrero stresses the forum should not be seen as an event, in and of itself, but as a process, and Rodriquez agrees. His organization, SWOP, is involved in planning a caravan of buses, the Peoples Freedom Caravan, that will travel from the Southwest to the South, stopping along the way to meet with organizations and picking up people to attend the forum.
Right now the caravan consists of two buses from New Mexico, one from San Antonio, one from Houston, four buses from New Orleans, one from Jackson, and potentially one from Montgomery or Selma.
"In each of the communities we stop in, there will be some sort of action. Some way to support the local work -- show solidarity," said Rodriquez. "If one of the themes of the forum is racial unity and how we build it in this country, how do we begin to practice that on the way to the social forum? You don't just show up and racial unity happens. Part of the hope of the caravan is to model the behavior that we are seeking to embrace as a movement. Part of being able to build unity is to hear the stories and walk in the shoes of other communities that are facing a similar struggle in a different part of the country."
The southwest and southern parts of this country are the most disenfranchised, he says, and so it is necessary need to build cross regional solidarity with each other -- especially between African Americans and Latinos.
"And for those that can't make it, it is also a way to bring the U.S. Social Forum experience to them and for us to take their messages to the forum."
Rodriguez says that there has been a lack of real movement building opportunity in this country in recent years and decades.
"The bottom line for us, in terms of what it means to be part of a movement in the U.S. and especially for our members, who are mostly working class and communities of color, is that you feel part of something bigger," he said. "There are not enough opportunities for people to feel that these days. During the civil rights and anti-war and women's and poor movements in the '60s to '70s, there were a lot of opportunities for organizers and grassroots leaders to connect with one another."
At 32 years old, Rodriquez says he has not found that opportunity -- until now. The closest we have come recently, he believes were the WTO protests in Seattle and the recent immigrant rights marches. "They have generated hope and sparked the imagination. There is power in the actions of people when they get together," he adds.
Rodriguez is hopeful that his members who are attending the forum will come back inspired and hopeful about the opportunity for building a better United States, and that the World Social Forum's motto of "Another World is Possible" can be a reality.
"It has to begin in the U.S. because we have such power and influence in the world," he says. "There is a democracy divide in this country that aims to keep poor people and people of color isolated and disenfranchised and voiceless -- we need things like the U.S. Social Forum to bridge the divide."
The USSF is designed to reflect the diversity of the country, and will include people from all over, including Alaska and Hawaii, and Puerto Rico and Guam. It will include small grassroots groups and larger organizations -- artists, academics and organizers -- labor groups and faith groups and people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
The hope is that people will take what they learn at the forum and the connections they make, and bring it back to their own communities -- but with the idea of thinking bigger, of seeing how individual communities overlap and how struggles across the country and the world can be united.
"We are asking people to think about what it would take to build strength at the national level. Recently there has been a lot of growth of local organizations and groups statewide -- so now how do we start to think about this as a whole country?" asked Guerrero.
"What is the alternative to neoliberal economic policy? How do we see ourselves as part of a broader movement? It is an absolute necessity to work on a global level -- it is the only chance we have to act against powerful multinationals and change the course of this country," he continued. "Many people are not confident with the direction this country is headed -- with the Bush administration and even with some of the Democrats. So, what would a real people's movement look like in the U.S.? It is time to start to change things. This work needs to happen and we need to break out of our issue silos, our identity silos, our geography silos."
Learn more about the U.S Social Forum.
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.