USSF: We Saw Another World in Atlanta

Since 2001, tens of thousands have been gathering at World Social Forums. The United States has been slow to catch on, but on June 27, it finally happened.
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USSF opening day march
Stilt walkers at the opening day march, with signs about what is possible and necessary.
Photo by Sarah van Gelder

It was a moment organizers in the United States and in many parts of the world had been waiting for. After years in the planning, the United States joined a global movement of movements that comes together under the banner: Another world is possible.

The United States Social Forum (USSF) was led by people of color and representatives of grassroots organizations, some of whom count their members in the thousands. Instead of drawing crowds with superstar speakers and performers, the participants were the stars. Those who are accustomed to being excluded were at the center, and those who were used to being silenced were heard.

The USSF “is a milestone for the emerging planetary citizenship that is converging through the World Social Forum process,” said Cândido Grzybowski in a web posting. Grzybowski is director of the Brazilian organization IBASE and one of the founders of the World Social Forum. “It is encouraging to witness the transformation of the North American political culture itself and of its popular base, which is infused with inspiration, initiative and courage.”

Urban Youth Movement
Rashad, Troy, and Roosevelt of the Urban Youth Movement, a group that relocated to Atlanta from New Orleans.
Photo by Andy Davey

Between 10,000 and 12,000 people came to Atlanta to talk about war, peace, human rights, living wages, jobs, energy, climate justice, Katrina, immigrant rights, poor people's rights, and new approaches to economics.

Organizers of the USSF drew on their experiences attending the World Social Forums to prepare for Atlanta. “We saw the power that comes from opening up a space in which all the issues and all the different movements can converge,” said Genaro Rendon, co-director of the San Antonio, Texas, based Southwest Workers Union.

To get people to Atlanta, organizers from many parts of the country organized caravans of cars, vans, and buses. The People's Freedom Caravan was among the largest. Each stop of the Caravan's six-day journey from Albuquerque to Atlanta was hosted by a different local group. In Albuquerque, the attention centered on Native American sacred sites and immigrant rights. In Houston and San Antonio, it was pollution from oil refineries and an Air Force base that was harming the health of those living nearby. In New Orleans, Freedom Caravan riders helped clean up a public housing project and learned of the struggle of Katrina survivors to return home. In Jackson and Selma, it was the movement for living wages and efforts to find and prosecute those involved in the murders of civil rights workers decades ago.

Freedom Caravan
Freedom Caravan riders at the Valero plant in Houston, remembering those sickened by the plant's pollution.
Photo by Sarah van Gelder

Local activists from each stop joined the Caravan; by the time it reached Atlanta, this Social Forum on wheels was 500 people strong.

From Possibility to Reality

The opening march was led by native peoples, followed by stilt walkers, giant puppets, bicyclers, and marching bands interspersed with delegations from across the country, each highlighting the issues and hopes for a better world that brought them to Atlanta.

There were nearly 900 workshops in dozens of venues, and 14 “solidarity tents” centered on Native Americans, Africa, youth, democracy, health, peace and justice, water, the solidarity economy, and other topics. There were giant plenaries, a ceremony led by an Ojibewe water-keeper to recognize the sacredness of water, a “family reunion” for formerly incarcerated people and their friends and families, a film festival, a youth encampment, a children's social forum, and concerts and parties that ran late into the night.

The genius of the social forum model is its self-organized quality. All those who register have the opportunity to propose workshops in advance of the forum and to organize activities in the solidarity tents. Participants, rather than forum organizers, determine most of the content of the forum and lead the workshops. By allowing all to have their say, and by being rigorously inclusive, many of the power struggles that divide diverse coalitions are avoided and the focus stays on building a better world.

USSF Photo by Brooke Anderson
Indigenous leadership and culture had a strong presence
Photo by Brooke Anderson

Nonetheless, conflict happens. On the last day, at the People's Movements Assembly, indigenous participants took offense when the microphone was taken from an Ecuadorian indigenous man before he was finished speaking. The People's Movements Assembly process allows participants two minutes each to make a proposal in front of the entire group. The indigenous group asked for, and received, 15 minutes to work through the issues raised by the incident with speeches and a drum circle.

“I hope the audience understood how we stand in solidarity around someone who has been wronged,” said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We have cultural practices around bringing back dignity, and the drum is a central part of that.”

“We're trying to build unity, but there are going to be differences,” said Cindy Wiesner, a member of the National Planning Committee. “We have to learn to navigate conflict and listen, but also stand for what we each believe in and for what's good for the whole.”

A Historic Moment

What difference did the Social Forum make? What is possible now that was not possible before? Most apparent was the inspiration people took from witnessing the strength, diversity, and youth of the crowd, and the passion people bring to making change.

photo by Barb Howe
Black Workers for Justice gave a workshop on how to organize in so-called "right to work" states.
Photo by Barb Howe

“People were in awe of the ways people all across the country and across the world are doing their work and trying to figure out how to build an alternative to what is,” said Wiesner.

Many went home with plans to host local social forums and to build on newly formed collaborations:

  • A dozen domestic workers' groups from California to Maryland founded a national network.
  • A U.S. Solidarity Economy Network formed out of a group that had organized a series of workshops.
  • The recently formed Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) introduced a ten-point platform for media justice at the USSF.
  • The Right to the City coalition, made up of groups working on gentrification and displacement, went public.

“The USSF did what many conferences and other types of movement and sector gatherings have tried—provide not one big tent, but a visionary meta-frame within which a variety of allied formations could set up camp,” Malkia Cyril, director of Youth Media Justice, wrote in her blog.

The USSF “ignited a prairie fire of optimism within the progressive left, the sheer size and diversity of which has not been witnessed in this country in decades,” Celeste Lacy Davis of the Funding Exchange wrote in her blog.

“The time is right,” said Jerome Scott of Project South, one of the USSF organizers. “When you look at the average American's economic situation, it is bad and getting worse. ... The American people are getting to the point where they know that fundamental change is absolutely essential.”

For some, the welcome they received at the USSF was a revelation.

“To come to a gathering where we meet non-native people who are so appreciative and thirsty for communication with us, many didn't know how to take that,” said Goldtooth.

“Gatherings like this will be more frequent,” he predicted. “We're all children of Earth, and we need to start respecting the sacredness of Mother Earth and working together.”

What's Next?

The National Planning Committee has called for another U.S. Social Forum to be held in 2010 and it has endorsed the World Social Forum International Council's call for a global mobilization culminating on January 26, 2008.

There will be a Social Forum of the Americas in Guatemala in October 2008, and another World Social Forum, most likely in the Amazon region, in 2009.

Sarah van Gelder. Photo by Martha van Gelder
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES! Magazine.


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