SWOPista Marisol Archuleta recently sat down for an interview with her friend Walda Katz-Fishman, who just returned from the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal last week. Walda is a long-time activist and teacher, and founder of Project South, an organization, Walda Katz that unites social movements throughout the Southern United States. With Fishman her activities  in coordinating the US Social Forums and participating in World Social Forums, Walda has a valuable analysis of the peoples’ movements in the United States and beyond, and how they all intersect. Here she gives a simple, informative history on the formation of the World Social Forum as well as what happened at this year’s forum and how people can get involved in the global movement towards social justice.

Marisol Archuleta: Who are you? How did you get involved in the WSF?

Walda Katz-Fishman: My name is Walda Katz-Fishman. I am a scholar activist who teaches Sociology at Howard University in Washington DC. Currently, I’m teaching a class called The Sociology of Power. In general, I teach around social inequality within the areas of race, gender, and class. I was involved in social movements as a young person growing up in New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s and was very involved in the civil rights and anti-war movement. In the 1980s I was a founder of Project South, which is an organization that works towards racial, social and economic justice based out of Atlanta, GA. Through the Project South work, some of us participated in the delegation to the World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazil in 2003. While there, we built connections with folks like Michael Guerrero (former Executive Director at SWOP) and other grassroots organizations in the US. These grassroots organizations from across the US came together to form Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), which began to take organizational representatives to all of the subsequent WSFs since 2003. In 2007, Project South anchored the first US Social forum, which was in Atlanta, GA. I served on the national planning committees for both the 2007 and 2009 US Social Forums.

Give a general overview of the history of the WSF.

In the last part of the 20th Century, as the economic crisis began to worsen, poor people around the globe and in the US were increasingly being denied their basic rights. Then, in 1994, there was an important rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. The Zapatistas inspired a new kind of struggle, a struggle that originated from the bottom up.

A struggle that respected indigenous, peasant, and women’s voices. It was an inclusive movement for humanity and the earth. Then in 1999, we saw the Battle in Seattle, where different social movements came together to fight against World Trade Organization policies. The question was, what space can we create to bring together all the people in struggle in social movements of all the various issues?

The first WSF in 2001 was in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In Latin America at the time, there was a lot of struggle against neo-liberalism. During that time, The Workers Party in Brazil was in control in the city of Porto Alegre and was a welcoming host of the WSF. That first year, the WSF took as its call: Another World is Possible, meaning we can create a different world that is not capitalist, militaristic or repressive. The first WSF inspired social movements and grassroots organizations like SWOP to have their members link up and learn from others involved across the globe.  We began to coordinate our movements in the US with others across the globe and see the interconnection across the world and across the US. The Social Forum in Dakar was the 10th WSF.

WSF’s were held annually from 2001 until 2007. In 2007, the movements involved in coordinating the forum realized that coordinating such a large scale event annually is very labor intensive and costly and to have it every year was not realistic. So now the forum is held every other year. While more than half of the Social Forums have been in the western hemisphere, one was in India in 2004 and two have been in Africa, including this year’s. The strategy is to hold Forums in various world regions so the local movements in that region can afford to come to the forum

Was there a theme to this year’s WSF?

The theme was the new universality. What that means is that across the world, in local communities, among all working people, among women, youth, queer and indigenous communities, we are all experiencing the affects of the economic crisis, despite our diversity. We are all experiencing the exploitation of nature and climate crisis across the world. We are all experiencing war, militarization and violence against our communities.  We are all experiencing a crisis in jobs and wages, growing poverty, and a huge gap between poor and working people and the rich and  their corporations. These experiences are universal.

The other expression lifted up this year is around the question of women and the many ways in which women are violently attacked. This includes huge numbers of cases  of rape as a tool of war against women. There was also a forum on migrant issues. We talked to migrants in Senegal. It was amazing how the day to day reality of migrants in finding work and dealing with violations of rights to live and work was so similar regardless of region.

What are some notable things that have come out of this year’s Forum?

It was an incredible time to be in Africa, during the uprising in Egypt that brought down a 30 year dictator. One of the big things was peoples’ struggles have been finally breaking out and spreading all over Africa. When the fall of Mubarak was announced, the whole social movements assembly broke out into shouts and chants. There is a sense that we have turned the tide, that people’s movements are connecting and we are feeling our power. There is a big feeling of optimism and hope.

How can our readers get involved in the global movement towards social justice?

Locally. Through an organization like SWOP. It is hard to connect to this huge global movement as individuals. Many delegations in the global social movement are the coming together of organizations doing social justice work locally. So, find an organization in your community doing work that is important to you. Grassroots Global Justice has a website with info on the various social forums taking place in the future. In fact, there were 40 different social forums around the world that took place in 2010. Some were regional, some were around themes. Begin networking in your local community. Get involved locally to create the change globally.

Anything else you would like to add?

Our movement needs millions of leaders in this country. We should be about developing the leadership of our social movements and our local struggles so that local leadership can be there to answer the questions you just asked me. Local leaders are the glue that holds this process together. The Social Forum structure is horizontal, not hierarchical. It’s about having 1000s in New Mexico in communication with each other to coordinate and do the political education we need in our communities. It is visionary. If capitalism is the problem, what does our alternate society look like? How do we as individuals and local organizations practice modeling that type of society?