Two years after a massive and unwieldy convergence of labor, environmental, and social activists shut down the "Seattle Round" of World Trade Organization negotiations in 1999, the first World Social Forum (WSF) convened in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in part inspired by the Seattle protest.
"What American activists did on the streets in Seattle, international organizers brought inside a building and opened a space for dialogue and strategizing," according to Gustavo Codas, who served on the first WSF planning council. Seattle provided momentum to a new movement, led by the international community, to confront the devastating effects of globalization on marginalized peoples.
The World Social Forum—timed to balance the media's coverage of the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos, Switzerland—has continued to convene annually. It has given birth to several continental and national social forums, and this June in Atlanta, for the first time, a social forum was held in the United States.
Organizers of the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) faced widespread public ignorance of the World Social Forum, exacerbated by lackluster mainstream press coverage. Alice Lovelace, USSF national lead staff organizer, said, "We knew it would be impossible to organize [USSF] without a lot of work. People needed to practice the process. … The idea of convening for five days with no agenda and no star speakers was totally baffling to people."
The USSF displayed a vibrant and vital collection of U.S. progressive campaigns and stances. Local food sovereignty advocates compared notes, socialists debated the finer points of worker-owned production, and Dennis Kucinich-for-president supporters passed out T-shirts just outside the forum grounds.
COLORFUL EXPERIMENTS in democracy accented the forum, as more than a thousand grassroots organizations participated. Dozens of them—from the American Indian Movement to San Antonio-based workers' rights advocates Fuerza Unida to the Muncie, Indiana volunteer group MLK Dream TEAM—participated in a five-stop bus tour dubbed the "People's Freedom Caravan" from Albuquerque to Atlanta in the week leading up to USSF.
Like the tour, the forum itself created a space to connect across racial and ethnic lines. The "eternal colonies of the U.S."—indigenous, black, and Latino communities of the South—"can't reach a point of liberation [without] more strategic unity," noted Rubén Solís, a national planning committee member.
It took six years after the first world forum, and eight after the Seattle protests, to pull off this first U.S. forum. However, the delay in organizing the gathering did not diminish the familiar American temptation to ramp up the rhetoric. In an initial workshop reviewing the planning of the forum, USSF national planning committee member Jerome Scott said, "No one else can stop the U.S. empire but us." The truth and temptation in Scott's statement reveal a latent tension: Drastic changes in America's muscular policies would alter the equations of justice around the world, but there is much to be done in every country, and every effort committed to this global movement is important.
Surely there is much work to be done in the U.S., but a humble and pragmatic recognition of our limited ability to influence the country's—and the world's—direction allows us to ask the international community for help. Taking the lead from the rest of the world in anti-globalization activism would be a refreshing lesson in limits for many people in the United States. We can also learn from global activists' head start of several years in creating spaces to design creative social change strategies across cultures, languages, and wide-ranging experiences of marginalization.
Perhaps the broad scope and color of the movement on display at the U.S. Social Forum will help participants identify more closely with the international activist community. It may well be that just and sustainable solutions to society's intractable problems will surge from the world's marginalized people and ideas. And the nondirective and global approach of the social forum model challenges us. After decades of "teaching" democracy lessons abroad, with very limited success, it's appropriate that we are now the students.
Colin Mathewson is the communications/media intern at Sojourners/Call to Renewal.