What’s UP with the US Social Forum?

By Adrienne Maree Brown Jul 09, 2009

In 2010, the second US Social Forum will take place in Detroit Mi, from June 22-26. I keep meaning to write a piece that gives an inside look at what’s up with the forum, but time passes when you’re working hard. I want to say first and foremost that the majority of people I have met and worked with on the forum are truly humbled by the movement building happening on a global level, especially in the global south, and want to make sure that we are a part of that process. The World Social Forum came into being as a necessary response to the World Economic Forum, and to the entire idea that economically driven globalization is the only way for the nations and peoples of the world to come together. The process of the forum, in theory, is to have an open space where folks who believe another world is possible can come together for political dialogue and relationship building. In practice, there have been fits, starts, mistakes, and learning. This is to be expected when developing a process with such massive intentions. A group was formed called Grassroots Global Justice to help people of color and basebuilding organizers get to the World Social Forums and make sure that our voices were heard in the global movement building process. It matters that the US shows up in the world not just as global police officers and economic crises starters, but as partners, comrades, part of a shared global community. The idea to have a forum in the US naturally emerged, and it took a long time to come to fruition, with regional forums happening around the country. The first US Social Forum was in Atlanta, Ga, in the summer of 2007. This is where I and my organization entered the process – the Ruckus Society got involved late in the planning, mostly to support on the big opening march, and security. It wasn’t easy to get to the planning table – partially because the folks working on it were overwhelmed, and partially because there was an intentional effort to have grassroots, basebuilding organizations at the center of the process. It would be impossible to over emphasize the importance of having grassroots organizers in the center of the process – as most national (and international) processes and organizations are still led by a privileged class – privileged through education, race, or resources. The attempt to invert the power structure, locally or globally, requires putting shared values for bottom-up, grassroots leadership as a top priority. The first forum was declared an overwhelming success, with estimates that 15,000 people came together for workshops, panels, plenaries, marches, parties and relationship building. It was also a learning process in every possible way. Now, as we build towards the second forum, there has been an effort to cull the lessons from the first go round. In 2007 there was one anchor organization in Atlanta, Project South. They worked non-stop on the forum, with a local committee and growing national support, putting aside much of their ongoing work in the process. There was one diligent staff member for most of the process, Alice Lovelace. Talk about overworked! So, when selecting the city for the 2010 forum, the organizers were looking for a city that wasn’t highly resourced (as many of the large coastal cities are) and could use the energy of thousands of people coming to town to grow their own local efforts, had a strong movement building history, and several local organizations with the capacity to share the load of being anchor groups. After nearly a year of visiting cities, talking with organizers, having deep and transparent conversations about the capacity of cities to host – and the capacity of the National Planning Committee to ensure that the forum would be a benefit as opposed to a burden to the chosen city – a decision was reached : Detroit. There is a remarkable movement history in Detroit, and a healthy body of interested and energized local organizations and community members who were down to take on the work. But more than all of that, Detroit holds a very unique place in our nation – as many local organizers say, Detroit is what the rest of the country has to look forward to. The sort of all-encompassing economic crisis that many of us are beginning to feel more and more familiar with has been present in Detroit for 20-40 years. Once a growing metropolis and the heart of the auto industry, Detroit was devastated by outsourcing and disinvestment. With a peak population well over 2 million, Detroit now houses 800,000 in the largest geographic space of any city in the U.S. There are definitely statistics that speak to the lack of resources – high crime, high murder rates, high drop-out rates, high hunger rates. But another story is being written simultaneously, one that we all need to experience and learn from. Another world is happening in Detroit – new forms of collaborative organizing, a reorientation from oppositional politics into vision-based politics, major steps away from relying on traditional (and corrupt) local governance structures and/or formal non-profit structures, and, perhaps most importantly, the development of practices for a community-centered society. Suffice it to say, I love me some Detroit. Detroit organizers on the ground started working in a body they call the Detroit Local Organizing Committee (DLOC), and played a key role in selecting the anchor organizations. Their intention, having considered reports and stories from the Atlanta process and having sent delegates to the World Social Forum in Brazil, is to have a much larger body of people working on the ground locally from the start. This group was moving mountains before Detroit was officially selected in January, and has been moving mountains ever since. The first meeting of the US Social Forum Detroit took place in March. I was part of the facilitation team. It was largely about formalizing the relationship between Detroit and the National Planning Committee (NPC), setting the dates, working on a budget, and getting some of the key logistics moving along (booking the convention centers and hotels and dorm rooms and public spaces). To ensure a strong local voice in all of the planning, each of the anchors was added to the NPC, as well as two at-large seats for selected members of DLOC. The working groups, which are open national groups that are responsible for moving every aspect of the work forward, were brought together for the first time to assess what work was in front of them. In May, there was a local strategy session for the anchors and DLOC representatives, with a focus on generating a massive work plan and some protocols for how the local community will work together. At that meeting, two local staff were hired so that the work could move forward more smoothly – Maureen Taylor and Will Copeland. Over the past few months, folks have been working hard to determine key pieces of how to move forward – how many staff are needed? Which working groups are needed and what did we learn about the working group process from last time? How does the National Planning Committee need to grow and change in order to be representative of movements in the US? What’s a realistic budget at this economic moment? What are the best financial management systems for such a massive undertaking? Along the way, the working groups have been growing at different speeds. Some of them are already roaring ahead, and some are just barely getting started. The working groups are the key to the US Social Forum process – they are open for anyone, in an organization or as an individual, to participate in helping to shape what ends up happening at the Forum. We’ve also had major steps forward from the tech working group – folks are using Twitter and Wikis, and we got a webpage up – www.ussf2010.org – with information about the forum. This technology is intended to make sure that whether people can physically be at the meetings or not, whether folks have computers or phones, they can access the USSF process. Now we are heading into July and the second national meeting, which will happen in Detroit directly after the Allied Media Conference, which is a major gathering of communicators from all over the country. The conference will be an opportunity for social forum organizers to see another model of a grassroots national gathering converging on the city. Big pieces of logistical work will continue to advance at this meeting; the working groups will take it to the next level – with the idea of launching in a major way that any and everyone can join; and some key decisions will be made about the National Planning Committee of the forum – balancing the scale of the forum with the openness that it needs to be successful, as well as setting up really clear mechanisms for accountability at all levels. Now – there are a lot of other folks involved in the process, and a lot more details that could be shared about how the process is going. There’s a commitment from the media and communications group to have lots of folks writing about the experience as we go along, folks are blogging about it, and as we are able we will get names of people and organizations who are key point people on the website and available so you can speak to folks in your region or area of work to hear how things are going. But I wanted to go ahead and get my point of view out there, and commit to continue to keep y’all involved in the process as best I can.