That this would be no ordinary conference was clear right from the opening ceremony of the Southeast Social Forum. There were no big-name speakers on the agenda. Instead the aspirations and heartache of the poor and disenfranchised came into the space through performance and the arts.
What is the World Social Forum?
Social Forums have been taking place around the world since 2001, when organizers, principally from Latin America and Europe, brought together 20,000 people in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The idea was to go beyond protesting outside the World Economic Forum, where the rich and powerful set a global agenda. Instead, through a World Social Forum, ordinary people could set the agenda under the banner "Another World is Possible."
The forum was inspired in part by the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, which were accompanied by participant-organized seminars and teach-ins on topics ranging from food and agriculture to women and development. Rather than have a central group plan activities, organizers set up the space in which social change groups from around the world could organize their own sessions.
There was no hotel ballroom. The opening took place instead at the historic Hayti Community Center, built in 1891 as a church and later converted into a hall that accommodated the likes of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The organizers of the Southeast Social Forum, held in Durham, North Carolina, in June, made clear who was at the center of the gathering. Mothers and fathers, factory workers, labor organizers, farm workers, community organizers—each group was asked to rise to applause.
People who had worked hard to raise the funds and bring a delegation spoke of what they hoped to take back when they returned to Miami, Atlanta, the Gulf Coast, and Virginia.
“We are the ones we've been waiting for,” someone said. And moments later, the historic church filled with the famous Sweet Honey in the Rock song — in three-part harmony.
Organizers prepared participants for the coming days' work by reminding them that they would have many workshops and activities to choose from. But, “if you are not getting what you need out of this, you're organizers! You know what to do.” Space would be available for spontaneous sessions called by participants, along with opportunities to announce these sessions.
Every voice had been raised, and the stage was set for two days of work aimed at strengthening and connecting the progressive movements of the South and laying the foundation for the U.S. Social Forum, which will take place in Atlanta in the summer of 2007.
You are how you meet
The design of social forums is radically different from that of ordinary conferences. The organizers set up a space and time, establish the process, and define the major themes. But it is the participating organizations that provide the substance for the sessions and organize their members to attend.
Social forums are designed to build grassroots leadership. The content of the workshops “has to be things participants can put to use in their lives, and it has to come from their lives,” says Alice Lovelace, the lead staff organizer for the U.S. Social Forum. “We start by acknowledging that everyone in the room has knowledge.”
People want to know what tangible outcomes they can expect from the forums, said Michael Guerrero, coordinator of Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ). GGJ has been bringing delegations of American grassroots leaders to the World Social Forums for the last several years. “How can the social forum be a strategic point in your work?” he asks these groups. “How can we use forums to integrate the movements and to start developing a long-term vision?”
While single-issue organizations can galvanize their members to make change, in order to muster suffi cient political clout to change the direction of society, the movements need to come together.
“There is so much division in the United States,” says Guerrero. “We're too quick to burn bridges, too competitive and unwilling to recognize the contributions that everyone makes.”
“We have to figure out how to have differences and still work together,” he adds. “And we need to look at the broad scope of the progressive movement and how it all fits together.”
“We've reached a critical moment,” said Stephanie Guilloud, one of the lead organizers, and program director for Project South. “We are running out of options. Reforms are being rolled back; small gains are rolled back. We need to change tactics. This is the time for transformation on a larger scale.”
Coming, at last, to the U.S.
North America is the last region of the world to host a national or regional social forum, and few Americans have attended the World Social Forums.
When the International Council of the World Social Forum first began pressing for a U.S. or North American Social Forum, GGJ argued against it.
“There was not enough awareness early on,” says Guerrero. “We felt that there was a lot of work to do to raise awareness in communities of color and grassroots groups, so it would be representative.”
The Southeast Social Forum was a test to see if a U.S. forum was possible. Organizing for the regional forum began early this year out of the Atlanta offices of Project South, on a tight timeline, with little money. Organizers wanted to build the Durham event from the grassroots up, with strong participation by youth and workingclass people, and a majority of people of color. And they were hoping to have at least 500 people attend from throughout the south.
They invited organizations with grassroots memberships to rent buses, hold fundraisers, do whatever was necessary to bring the people who seldom go to conferences.
To prepare the young people, Project South held four weekends of “Building a Movement” (BAM) workshops, culminating in the social forum.
To get a strong representation of Latinos, the mainly African-American organizers hired an outreach organizer with money raised at a special fundraiser. Simultaneous translation was available throughout the forum.
Organizers wanted the forum to be a place to address the tensions between African Americans and Latinos that had grown in the wake of the massive immigrant rights demonstrations. And they wanted to fully involve those who are organizing in the devastated areas along the Gulf Coast.
“We knew the risk,” says Guilloud. “And we knew we were succeeding when the registrations began coming in,” she said. “We'd get phone calls from people saying, ‘I'm bringing 18 people on a bus. We're bringing moms and kids.'”
People came from across the South—rural Georgia, Atlanta, Miami, and the Gulf Coast. “We had people from immigrant groups, people working on fair wages, the environment, housing, civic justice, labor rights for service employees, and people from progressive churches,” says Lovelace. “We had farmworkers, domestic workers, low-income people of all kinds.”
Showing up, fully human
The spirit of the forum was felt not only in the content of the sessions, but in the ways that participants' emotional and spiritual needs were addressed.
For those tired from the travel, burned out, or in recovery from Katrina—for anyone who wanted a respite—there was a Healing Sanctuary. Inside was an altar to any who participants wanted remembered, a quiet space for meditation, prayer, or rest, and a room where massage and various forms of body work were offered and gratefully accepted.
Elsewhere, a dorm lounge was transformed into kids' space with tents, hiphop dance, a vision quilt, and a map where children could show where they had come from.
“People often see these sorts of things as fluff,” Guilloud said. “But this is quite necessary. We need to stop compartmentalizing ourselves and integrate our whole selves into our work.”
U.S. Social Forum—2007
The day after the forum, organizers met to take a breath, and to celebrate, before plunging into preparations for the U.S. Social Forum. They had exceeded their goals on all counts. Nearly 600 people had come, nearly a third of whom were youth, and 80 percent people of color.
“We are making history together,” said one of the organizers. “If we can do this in a few months with few resources, imagine what we can do in a year!”
“What we saw is that people are ready to engage and confront the edges that have kept us apart,” said Guilloud. “We're building a movement that is democratic,” said Guerrero. “Building from the bottom up is slower and harder, but it will pay off.”
The U.S. Social Forum is starting with grassroots groups, communities of color, and indigenous groups. “These are the groups with the least resources, usually the last to be brought into a process,” Guerrero said. “If we didn't start here, these would be the hardest groups to integrate later.”
Other groups from the peace movement, the global justice movement, the progressive political movements, and so on will be invited, too, to a process that is open to all.
“It will change this country. I know it will,” said Lovelace. “This is part of a long-term process to work together and to envision what transforming this country and this world means.”