USSF 2010 What Did We Accomplish?

US Social Forum: What did we accomplish? How far do we need to go?

by Michael Leon Guerrero

The second United States Social Forum (USSF) last month in Detroit, Michigan was a significant achievement for progressive movements in the U.S. Roughly 18,000 people representing 1,800 organizations attended. Just as its predecessor in Atlanta in 2007, the USSF embodied the rich diversity of ages, races, gender identities and cultures of an authentic peoples movement.

A Renaissance of the Grassroots Organizing Sector?
There are some important outcomes that we can already begin to identify. The USSF process has highlighted an emerging identity of a grassroots organizing sector that has been in motion for generations. These are community and worker organizations that build upon the legacy of the civil rights, anti-war and Third World movements of the 1960s and beyond. They have been engaged in the difficult, essential task of building a social force for progressive change, community by community, workplace by workplace around a basic set of progressive values. They survived the past 3 decades which were defined by Reagonomics, U.S. military expansion, right-wing media and vastly more powerful corporations that have assaulted worker rights and wages, stripped environmental regulations, ravaged  public services and budgets, and commodified almost every living thing on the planet. For a generation they saw their communities get poorer, while the rich got much richer.

Yet these grassroots organizations managed to hold their ground and build strong local institutions and community-based power, developing grassroots leadership within poor and working class communities. They built coalitions, networks and alliances to achieve greater scale and impact, but the sector has still remained largely fragmented and lacking in overall identity. Overcoming these limitations has been one of the biggest contributions of the USSF process over the last 7 years.

Groups like Southwest Workers Union, SouthWest Organizing Project, Miami Workers Center, Causa Justa/Just Cause, Labor/Community Strategy Center, People Organized to Win Employment Rights, People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, Project South, East Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and many others stepped up into leadership of this effort, committing enormous amounts of time and resources to building a broader movement. In the process they have advanced the conversation about movement building, overcome historical political differences and established a new basis for political unity.

There are now important new national movement formations like the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the Push Back Network, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Right to the City Alliance. They join older, more established national networks like Jobs with Justice (JwJ), Indigenous Environmental Network and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) that have also anchored the USSF process from the beginning. Several of these networks have convened a process called the Inter-Alliance Dialogue (IAD) to develop a process for more effective coordination and mobilization .

Notable developments at USSF2 were the Excluded Workers Congress, convened by NDWA, JwJ and NDLON, that brought together workers who are not protected under U.S. labor laws. Farm workers, taxi drivers, domestic workers, day laborers, restaurant workers, workfare workers, workers in “right to work for less” states in the South and others are beginning to shape a common vision for a renewed labor movement and a new framework for labor laws, rooted in human rights. Peace and Justice groups like Peace Action and Iraq Veterans Against the War came together with communities fighting U.S. military bases in places like Guam (We Are Guahan), Korea (Nodutdol) and  the Hawaiian Independence Action Alliance, as well as community-based coalitions like the 25% Campaign in Massachusetts which is calling for diverting 25% of the U.S. military budget to address social needs.

Many organizations convened on immigrant rights issues. NNIRR held its national gathering on the eve of the forum. A strong delegation was also organized from Arizona in the midst of the struggle against the racial profiling law SB1070. 

Climate Justice was a central theme of the USSF with groups like Movement Generation Ecology and Justice Project, IEN, Communities for a Better Environment and many others organizing workshops and a large assembly to found a U.S.-based Climate Justice Now network – joining a growing chorus of international voices demanding bold action by national governments to reduce global carbon emissions.

Internationalism Revisited
The USSF2 highlighted the fact that a new progressive peoples' movement in the U.S. will be informed by the international community. Pablo Solón, the Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations came to the USSF to present the Cochabamba Accords. This document was developed by social movements and the Bolivian government in April of 2010 – a peoples' response to the back-room deal created by the Obama administration in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen deal once again hands over the reins of climate change policy to the corporations who benefit most from a profit and carbon-based economy. Cochabamba is a declaration that saving the planet ultimately rests in the hands of the people, not in the markets, stock exchanges or corporate board rooms. 

The Andean nations are also promoting the concept of “Buen Vivir” (Living Well or Well-Being) as a fundamental principle for a democratic society. As Miguel Palacín of the Coordinating Committee of Andean Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) explained at the USSF2, “We don't want to live better. We want to live well, and everyone should have the right to live well. This means we must protect the rights of all people, Mother Earth and all living things on the planet.” 

Dignitaries from social movements throughout the world attended the USSF – hailing from India, Brazil, South Africa, Senegal, the Philippines and many other nations. Powerful, international grassroots alliances were represented including the World March of Women, Via Campesina, CAOI and India's New Trade Union Initiative. Colleagues from Haiti, Honduras  and Palestine (with Jamal Juma joining one of the plenaries via videoconference) were present to make clear that the plight of their communities continues, as does the peoples' resistance and organizing. They helped contextualize the conditions in the United States within a global reality, and the US-based organizing within a growing, global peoples’ movement. 

A Peoples' Agenda
A key development in USSF2 was the prominence of the Peoples Movement Assembly (PMA). Organized by Atlanta-based Project South and the Southwest Workers Union of south Texas, the PMA gathered political statements, declarations and resolutions for action from nearly 50 grassroots gatherings organized throughout the country in the year leading up to the USSF. Another 50 were convened at the forum itself. The results were synthesized in a late evening assembly and presented on the last day of the forum. The outcome provides a foundation for a peoples’ agenda and an action calendar for the next year. 

The preamble of the Detroit Peoples Movement Agenda begins:
We can build a better world. Working together, we can create a world that respects the human rights of every human being, nurtures creativity and health, promotes unity, solidarity and peace, and uses resources in a way that protects the earth and affirms life...

It also includes a vision for greater unity to build the movement:
Each one of us must dig deeper to understand each other's culture and history and to build respectful relationships across difference...We can realize our dreams to treat each other as equals and to build alliances and relationships across our commonalities and differences.

The document goes on to synthesize feedback according to the 13 issue tracks developed for the forum. All of the resolutions are posted at: A number of key national days of action were also collected by the PMA process including national mobilizations on July 29, the day that SB1070 is scheduled to take effect in Arizona, a call by the IAD networks on August 29, commemorating the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and calling for Quality Jobs, Immigrant Rights and Climate Justice. A national march for jobs on Washington DC is also planned on October 2, and international actions on the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan October 3-7. 

Redefining Philanthropy
The role of philanthropy in our movement is a subject of intense debate. GGJ has been working with organizers and allies in the funding world to better understand the foundation landscape, current funder strategies and its impact on our movement. Because of the dependence of many of our organizations on foundation dollars it is clear that we cannot continue to relate to philanthropy in isolation and competition with one another. We need to develop collective strategies to organize resources on a movement scale while also developing independent, grassroots models to sustain organizing.

In light of the challenges created by the recession, allies within the funding sector played an essential role in mobilizing support for the USSF in 2010. Of the roughly $1 million raised to organize the first forum in Atlanta, 60% came from the movement (organizational contributions, registration fees, passing the hat collections). There were also enormous in-kind contributions by organizations that anchored the planning process that were not accounted for. In 2010 this percentage was reversed. Out of an overall budget of $1.5 million philanthropy will account for about 60% of those dollars. Grassroots organizations and unions that carried the first USSF on our backs in 2007 were not in a financial position to do so this time around. Some of the core foundations that sustained the forum included Jessie Smith Noyes, Solidago, Ben and Jerry's, Surdna, Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, French American Charitable Trust, New World Foundation, Needmor and Wallace Global Fund. 

The Funders Network on Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG) convened a Funder/Movement process over the past three years to mobilize funder support for the USSF. Since the Battle in Seattle, FNTG has been convening and educating funders around the social forum process and the wider Global Justice Movement and mobilizing support for U.S.-based groups to connect with our international counterparts. Funders also convened their own PMA at USSF2, committing to work within their own institutions and with others in philanthropy to bring increased funding to the grassroots organizing sector of the social justice “ecosystem” through more effective communications, coordination and leveraging.

On the Horizon
We made tremendous strides in Detroit. There is a growing sense of unity and what could be the roots of a powerful peoples' movement – new national formations, international relationships, the foundation of a peoples' agenda, a calendar of action for the next year.  But the growth and maturation of the grassroots sector is far from reaching its potential. There was a deliberate effort by USSF organizers to reach out to the Midwest region in particular, but the strength of the movement geographically still rests on the two coasts with the Plains states and large sections of the Midwest largely absent. USSF organizers from the beginning were clear that the USSF had to be built upon the leadership of people of color and Indigenous organizations. It is also clear that there is still much work to be done building with poor and working class white communities. They are increasingly disenfranchised, unemployed and homeless, and ultimately key to building a peoples' movement in the U.S.

The progressive grassroots movement in the U.S. also is confronting a number of strategic dilemmas. As organizer and scholar Bill Fletcher, Jr. pointed out in his post-USSF commentary: “The diversity of the USSF... presents certain challenges. Though the USSF, and its multiple constituencies, represent a clear alternative to the evil represented by the Tea Party movement, what it does not contain is a coherent direction in order to contest for power.”

Unfortunately the balance of time is not in our favor. On the one hand we need the time to continue to strengthen relationships, build movement infrastructure and continue to define a peoples' agenda. Yet we are two years away from one of the most defining National Elections in generations. The Obama election in 2008 was a peoples' victory, but the administration has not necessarily been the peoples' administration. We continue to lose political ground in key areas, and we are likely due for another “movement moment”. As the stimulus money from last year is spent down, census jobs are cut and overall job growth is coming to a grinding halt, it is likely that we face another severe economic downturn. Obama will be forced to decide whether to fabricate a new stimulus, thereby deepening the deficit or opt for the real solution - redistribute wealth by taxing the rich and ending U.S. wars and occupations. But the latter is not likely to happen as long as the administration is beholden to global capital. 

Of course this drama plays out amidst the backdrop of the most severe global ecological crisis that human history has known. Whether the balance of time can be shifted in time to prevent even more devastating climate disruptions will also depend on the strength of a peoples' movement built on a global scale.

Given what we are up against on the Right, the re-election of President Obama in 2012 will be core to advancing progressive initiatives in the coming years. But those initiatives will only advance if Obama is responding to a progressive social force. So we must build a vibrant, independent peoples movement, squarely rooted in progressive values and committed to long-term systemic change, but that is large enough in scale, aligned enough strategically and resourced adequately to effectively contest for political power locally, regionally and nationally.

Whether we can do this within the next two years is unclear. It would mean that there would have to be a stronger alignment not just among the grassroots organizing sector, but with other key sectors particularly labor, policy groups and philanthropy. 

The project we embarked upon through the USSF is the project of our generation and for those that follow. Our vision has to be long-term, but our action is required right now. 

And, we should take a moment to celebrate the USSF. It inspired us and challenged us. It provided a window into the beauty and complexities of the thousands of communities organizing for another world around the country. It proved once again that we can share political space on a mass scale, engage and work through historical differences, develop tactical and strategic alliances and create new practices for relating to each other. It captured the many forms of expression of the peoples' movement through art, music, theater, film and story-telling. It represents an important cultural shift that could transform movement building in the U.S. and our relationship to the world. It was a peoples' victory and an important milestone in building a peoples' movement.