Cindy Wiesner on the US Social Forum

Organizing Upgrade

Harmony Goldberg interviewed Cindy Wiesner for Organizing Upgrade in February 2010.

Let’s start with a reflection on the last US Social Forum (USSF).  What were the major accomplishments of the last forum in 2007?

First, it was important that we imported, integrated and adapted the Social Forum model from the global movement to the United States.  Sometimes, movements in the United States work in a chauvinistic way and try to tell the rest of the world what to do.  In this case, however, we were able to learn from the World Social Forum process that was developed by social movements since 2001 in the Global South to strengthen our movement building work here in the United States.  More than twelve thousand people came to the first US Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007 which was organized around the theme that not only is another world was possible, but that another US is necessary.  In our generation, the USSF was an incredibly diverse 5-day gathering in terms of representation of people who are often marginalized both in society and in the left.  We also had a breadth of political ideologies present and most sectors of the progressive and left movement.  And overall everyone brought their best selves forward.  That does not mean that there was not struggle, difference or opportunism. But the way the National Planning Committee of the USSF modeled different ways to deal with movement contradictions was impressive. We collectivized problem solving in the way that we dealt with the multiple flares and fallouts: we self-reflected publicly when we were wrong; we challenged people gently but clearly; and most importantly we held the importance and integrity of the whole event at the forefront of our actions.

The Social Forum is introducing a new methodology on why and how people need to come together. It invites us to unite under key principles of diversity, inclusion, democracy, plurality, transversal integration of issues and thematics to name a few. It is a 5-day event that encourages convergence of social movements to deeply engage with each other and to cross-fertilize our work.  The organizations and individuals that participated in the first USSF were incredibly transformed by the experience of that gathering; it began to break us out of the silos that we had been stuck in for the past twenty years.

A number of alliances were either launched or formed at the first US Social Forum.  People often talk about the inspiring launches of the Right to the City Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance that took place at the 2007 Forum, but there is a whole laundry list of other formations and collaborations that were born or took a leap there. For example, the Solidarity Economy Network utilized the last Forum as an opportunity to start a dialogue on alternative economic models in the US, and they convened the first Solidarity Economy forum a year later.  The organizing process towards the last Social Forum also helped to cultivate a stronger relationship-building process among organizations in the Southeast; from the Southeast Social Forum process  (which happened in North Carolina one year prior to the USSF) that laid the groundwork for ongoing Southern Strategy meetings hosted at the Highlander Center. There were also important dialogues that started at the last Social Forum among the queer left and the Black left, dialogues where organizers strategized about bringing a more radical lens to the work and developing stronger organizing in their communities. We also had the largest Family Reunion of former prisoners and their families at the USSF. There are countless examples of movement building processes that occurred: the Freedom caravans from the Southwest to Georgia; having International companer@s present and participating in the debates about what’s next; and countless tents and spaces that were created for people to attend and learn about different issues and communities.

Can you give a brief update on the state of the organizing towards the next social forum?

We are nearing 100 days from the start of the second US Social Forum, which will be held in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is the perfect site for the next Social Forum. Like New Orleans, Detroit represents the impact of government abandonment of our communities.  In Detroit, we see more than thirty years of deindustrialization and more than thirty years of government abandonment and complete disregard of a city that is more than 90% African American. It is ground zero of the economic crisis and corporate collusion with the auto-industry bailout.  But Detroit is also a site of true resilience; there are so many inspiring examples of how communities have responded to exploitation and abandonment by creating alternatives.  For example, there are no major supermarkets in Detroit. Knowing that their communities needed healthy food and fresh vegetables, community organizations and food justice movement in Detroit have built more than 300 community gardens.  They’ve taken a “dual power” approach, understanding that we need to more than just fight the government and the corporations, but that we also need to begin to create alternatives. Detroiters have a deep and long history of workplace organizing: militant strikes; a strong dissident UAW rank-and-file movement; the very inspirational history of black workers in DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) challenging not only the auto factories but also the white led unions. It is also the home of Grace Lee Boggs and the incredible work Detroit Summer has been doing with youth leadership and organizing. It is going to be very powerful for people to come to Detroit and see that legacy and the current work on alternative models.

The National Planning Committee of the USSF is working to make some key advances in the organizing model of the Forum. The strength of the social forum model has been that it is an “open space,” that it’s a big tent where you can encourage self-organized participation and leadership from different sectors of the movement. But there has also been self-reflection about the limits of the model both internationally and nationally. People have been saying that we need more than just open space, that we need to come together to have a real conversation about where our movements are at and to figure out a way to work more strategically against neoliberal policies and practices.  We need to ask ourselves: Have we been able to interrupt privatization?  Have we been able to stop these trade agreements?  Have we been able to protect workers rights and increase environmental rights? We’ve seen global capital act very smart and adapt to changing conditions; we also need to be flexible and strategic in our work. The hemispheric movement against the Free Trade Area of the Americas won, but the US created new strategies around pushing their agenda through regional and bi-lateral agreements between countries in Latin America and the U.S.  In this USSF, we are trying to figure out how to respect the diversity of the movement and how to uphold that concept of the open space but also to find a way to have movement take a sober look at where we at in terms of relevance and power in this country. We need to ask ourselves:  What are our visions for moving forward? What alternatives do we need to create, and what campaigns do we need to build to be clearer around the failures of capitalism?  Clearly, that vision can’t be dictated by the Social Forum’s National Planning Committee.  So that’s where the different veins of the movements, the organizations and collectives have to come together and be prepared for that kind of conversation this summer in Detroit. What we’ve been encouraging people to figure out is, “How can your movement come to the Social Forum with a plan? How can you come to the Social Forum with some self-reflection about where you need to grow, what are our limitations as a movement? How can you use the Social Forum to gain new insights and new political alignments?”  That’s the opportunity. People shouldn’t just come to the Social Forum to showcase their own work; people should utilize the space to do that strategic alignment work with each other. We may never get full unity on strategy or even on tactics, but can the US movement act with a little bit more cohesion? Can the movement come to see itself as moving in generally the same direction? Can we increase our militancy on the streets to fight the state and the right? Can we practice not only the language of what we are for, but continue to grapple what it means to create alternative models in a capitalist country?

Organizations and movements should come prepared with some clear political interventions that they want to make.  For example, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance – an alliance of grassroots organizations rooted in working class and communities of color around the United States – will be promoting the idea that we need a stronger internationalist approach to our work.  Our member organizations have been deeply transformed by participating in past World Social Forums where we have learned so much from our compañeras and compañeros from the Global South – from the landless peoples movements in Brazil and international feminist organizations to the experiments with democratic governance in Bolivia and Venezuela.  So we’re working to make sure that the US Social Forum is not U.S.-centric and that we can push ourselves to think on a global level while simultaneously working locally.  We’ll be doing that by organizing discussions and debates with grassroots leaders from the US along with our International allies representing social movements, we want to have discussions about building power and creating alternatives, articulating demands with a global vision and practice that is grounded in our mass work.

We also want to promote the voices and leadership of the people who are directly impacted by neoliberalism here in the United States: low income tenants, excluded workers, working class youth, immigrants, queers and communities impacted by gentrification and so on. It is important to keep shifting the paradigm on who are the experts; frontline leaders not only have the lived experience but also are critical and conscious forces that bring forward the vision.  We feel like we really succeeded in promoting those voices and actual presence at the last Social Forum, and that’s something that we want to be very intentional about continuing to bring to the social forum process. This is not to say that left intellectuals are not key; they absolutely are. But we want to expand the notion of who are the visionaries, tacticians and strategists.

Can you describe some of the events that will take place at the Social Forum to give people a sense of what it’s going to be like?

We’re experimenting with some exciting new technologies.   At the World Social Forum in Belem, there was something called “Belem Expanded.”  So we’re doing a process called “Detroit Expanded.” People who can’t actually get to the Social Forum can submit workshops under “Detroit Expanded,” so that there will be Social Forum activities happening all over the US and even internationally. We’re figuring out ways to use technology so that we can have videoconferences with other people in the US and with people around the world.  “Detroit Expanded” will multiply our numbers and the reach of our dialogues and exchange.

The People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) will also be an important process.  The PMA comes out of the World Social Forum process where different social movements felt the “open space” principle of the Social Forum was not enough but also wanted a process where they could come out more of a clear critique of the dominant economic system and put forward ideas for collective action. So they created the “Social Movement Assembly” as a space where movements – like indigenous peoples movements, youth movements or the women’s movement – could deliberate and actually propose concrete action.  For example, the largest simultaneous global action in history – the protest against the Iraq war in February 2003 – came out of a Social Movement Assembly.  People were able to organize in their own countries and their own communities around the war, but they were united by that shared call to action. So in Detroit, we are “upgrading” the Social Forum model to include a PMA process within the Social Forum before, during and after.  At the USSF, we’re asking groups to have strategic discussions within their sectors and/or regions throughout the four days of the Forum so that we can have that level of concrete output during the People’s Movement Assembly on the last day.  For example, the anti-war movement could think about using that process to gain some collective agreement on a joint action, whether it’s around Afghanistan or Iraq or Palestine. We will not get 100% strategic unity, but at least there can be some level of common action coming out of the USSF. If some sections of the anti-war movement could begin to have conversations now and then use the Social Forum process to gain some level of unity towards a proposal, then they could put out a call to the broader movement during the PMA.  Then people who aren’t always up in the anti-war movement can go home and say, “Hey, there’s going to be a national day of action around the war on this day with these set of demands.” That would be a way to that the anti-war movement could gain a higher level of support and buy-in from other movements.  That’s just one concrete example of what the PMA process is set up to do, but there could be People’s Movement Assembly process where different movements could come forward with resolutions and statements around the economic, environmental, political and cultural crises.

What is the long-term trajectory for the US Social Forum?  Do you think they should continue in their current form, or do you think we need something else?

To be clear, I am now going to speak from my own personal perspective.  I think that the Social Forum process is a very useful tool and vehicle. I think it is the most powerful one we have in the US for now. The organizing process itself has been an important way to learn how other people work, to build trust and unity even though we might come from different political backgrounds and use different political frameworks and different language There is no other space that actually pushes people into interaction with such a broad and diverse grouping of organizations and movement sectors. We sometimes do more colliding that coming together, but this part of the struggle of learning how to work together and build trust (or to be clear you don’t actually want to work together).  It gives us a way to see who is in motion, who is accountable to a base, to hear peoples’ political analyses of the moment, to learn about peoples work.  This year, the USSF is going to be particularly crucial. It will be a year and a half since the economic bubble burst and the global crisis began. It will be a year and half since Obama got elected and the visible resurgence of the right-wing.  Movement forces really need this moment to come together to assess the impact of all those transitions, to talk about where we’re at and where we need to go from here.  We need to honor the value of that kind of space for dialogue and strategic reflection.  We don’t have that on a national level.

But I’m not convinced that we should have permanent Social Forums or that they necessarily have to happen every three years. They take an immense amount of time, energy and resources to plan, and we need to be clear that we’re putting that energy in the right place. Ultimately, the biggest question is that we are in a race against time with the economic crisis and the ecological destruction that the globe is facing.  I don’t know if we can continue having a process for the sake of process.  I think that the future of the Social Forum needs to be dependent on its strategic value to the movement in the US and globally and I think that the movement needs to mandate that this process and space is needed and help support its ongoing development. And, if it is the case that people want to keep the Forum process going, then the movement in this country needs to help resource this process and support the organizations that are taking up the work to maintain and lead it.  But we cannot keep doing this without the explicit investment of the people most impacted by all multi-dimensional crises both here and globally.

The first Social Forum showed us that we could come together, that all of the people who are often marginalized in left and progressive spaces – people of color, working class folks, immigrants, young people, queers, disabled folks – could lead a massive movement-building process.  We need to meet and exceed that qualitative goal, but the challenge for the Detroit Forum is to answer the question of “What’s next? And how do we get there?”  Maybe we need another Social Forum in 3 years, but we need to be mindful that nothing is permanent and that the only reason that we should do another Social Forum is if it has a purpose and helps advance the movement. It’s important for us to keep grounding the lessons and values of Social Forum process with a clear political purpose and meeting our overall objectives. I want to share the NPC’s overall goals for USSF 2010.  These were updated from 2007. These are our benchmarks, the visions that we hold all of our work accountable to:

  • Create a space for social movement convergence and strategic discussion
  • Advance a social movements agenda for action and transformation
  • Build stronger relationships and collaboration between movements
  • Deepen our commitment to international solidarity and common struggle
  • Strengthen local capacity to improve social conditions, organizing and movement building in Detroit

The Social Forum should not be a carnival of workshops or activities. It can actually become a place where our organizations and movements can come to understand ourselves as having collective power and most importantly, take action. We can see that model so clearly in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Last year, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance was honored to be invited to a discussion with presidents from some of the ALBA countries – Evo Morales, Huge Chavez, Fernando Lugo and Rafael Correa- that had been organized by the social movements at the Belem World Social Forum.  Morales and Chavez said to the audience, “We are nothing without you, the social movements. We are only here because of the work that you have done in this last decade – electing us, pushing your left agendas.  You are the ones making sure that we’re pressing forward and building alternatives to neoliberalism and US imperialism, that we all in our different roles are making that other world possible.”  To see that tide turning in Latin America and the Caribbean has been very inspiring. That’s not to say that there’s not problems or issues in those countries, but people and movements have been able to make significant changes in the economic and political systems that they live. And that didn’t happen because one left leader got elected.  Social movements have been working for decades to make that possible.  And now that work is started to manifest, both at the level of national elections but at the level of really powerful changes in people’s daily living conditions and social relations. Those social movements were clear that they were working to construct that new world and that it does not end with a left leaning elected official. They have fought for that world to come into being, and they are starting to win.  We need to be that audacious at this next US Social Forum.  We need to bring bold questions, but – even more importantly – we need to start putting forward bold solutions.  Our communities, the land, our international companñer@s are demanding it.

Another World is Possible!

Another US is Necessary!

Another Detroit is Happening!, help build the road to Detroit. June 22-26, 2010

Cindy Wiesner, is a queer working class Latina originally from Hollywood, CA. A community activist and organizer for the last 20 years. She has organized with HERE (Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union) Local 2850 and POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights). She worked as a trainer and organizer for GenerationFIVE. Has served on the boards of the Youth Empowerment Center, Women of Color Resource Center and GenerationFIVE. Cindy was also the leadership development director at the Miami Workers Center and currently is the political coordinator for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ). She represents GGJ on the National Planning Committee of the US Social Forum and also on the Hemispheric Council of the Americas Social Forum and the International Council of the World Social Forum.