In 2001, the World Social Forum burst on to the world stage with its ambitious rallying call, “Another World is Possible.” This now-familiar mantra has come to symbolize the dynamism of movements for social and economic justice around the world. If attendance is any measure of success, it is worth noting that the World Social Forum has grown from 20,000 participants at its first gathering (5,000 were expected) to 150,000-plus at the 2005 gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
The Forum responded to a hunger for a different kind of possibilities-oriented dialogue that embraces principles of pluralism, deep debate, respect, justice, and an internationalist perspective.
A broad-based network of U.S.-based activists, grassroots organizations, and their allies are betting that a similar hunger exists in the U.S. and that this is a time when a U.S. Social Forum could be a vehicle for moving a social, environmental and economic justice agenda to center stage.
Recent census figures confirm what most know intuitively or by lived experience. Poverty and inequality are on the increase in the United States. Since 2003 an additional 1.1 million people have slipped below the poverty line. The May 15, 2005, Business Week cover story, entitled, “I Want My Safety Net!” sums up a growing backlash that transcends party,race, class, and geography.
“Hurricane Katrina has put the historic racism, white supremacy, and poverty that has always been a part of this country on center stage,” says Walda Katz-Fishman, a Howard University scholar activist and member of the U.S. Social Forum planning committee. “It has come at a moment when people are building a common analysis and are conscious about dealing with basic and structural problems.”
The U.S. Social Forum planning effort grew out of a series of consultations held in 2003 between activists in the United States and members of the World Social Forum International Council. Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), a national alliance of U.S.-based grassroots organizations, facilitated the process, including a 2004 meeting of 50 grassroots organizations in Washington, D.C.
The 22 organizations spearheading the planning came of age in response to varying forms of community displacement resulting from the last 20-plus years of neoliberal economic policies. Most are led by people of color. All are rooted in a commitment to building power for social justice through building low-income community leadership, strategic alliances,and learning from and with movements in the global South.
U.S. Social Forum: Atlanta, 2007
Atlanta will host the gathering. According to Jerome Scott, director of Project South and member of the planning committee, “It is important for this first U.S. Social Forum to be in this historic area of the country. The South continues to have great strategic importance—lots of oppression and lots of resistance.”
The Forum will take place from June 27-July 1, 2007, with 2006 devoted to strengthening the outreach and organizing efforts of its 10 regional organizing committees. The timing was moved back following Hurricane Katrina, after planners consulted with groups in the hurricane-affected communities, including about 50 internally displaced organizers from New Orleans and the Gulf States who participated in a recent meeting called by the People's Hurricane and Relief Fund in Penn Center, South Carolina.
The U.S. Social Forum effort builds on what has become a widespread practice since the social forums began: local, regional and national social forum “spin offs” that seek to expand the World Social Forum model of movement-building around the world.
Last year, the World Social Forum International Council decided that the time had come to focus on pushing the debate and organizing closer to home. In addition to a diverse array of social forums around the world, 2006 will be the year of the “polycentric” social forum. Simultaneous regional gatherings are being held in Bamako, Mali (Africa) and Caracas, Venezuela (Americas). The Venezuela forum organizers made U.S. participation a priority. The Asia region polycentric forum slated for Karachi, Pakistan, was postponed due to last year's earthquake.
“A U.S. Social Forum has tremendous potential as both a process and an event. It connects us to the rest of the world and the global South,” says Michael Guerrero, director of Grassroots Global Justice.“That is essential right now. Corporate power exists at the global level. We have to find ways to organize at that level without losing the local work.”
Now that a location has been selected, U.S.Social Forum planners are turning to organizing and fund-raising. The group has hired Alice Lovelace as the lead national staff organizer and is working to raise the $100,000 needed to scale up, secure sites,and develop the website and communications infrastructure that can serve as a movement-building tool leading up to and after the actual event.
The forum will take place at a key moment between Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 U.S. election and has the potential to serve as a rare and powerful moment in the history of organizing and movement-building in the United States. Organizers hope it will be the largest and most significant gathering of progressive U.S. civil society in decades, with up to 20,000 participants from across the geographic, racial, cultural, economic, and issue spectrum. There is much more social justice work taking place in the United States than most realize, the organizers point out. The forum process will be a critical point for creating connections, developing strategy and breaking the isolation people often feel as they work at the local level.
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