The Most Important Part of Going to the U.S. Social Forum: Coming Home

Source: Z Communications

The most important part of going the U.S. Social Forum is how we come home from it. This is true because the Social Forum is only valuable insofar as it helps us build a strong grassroots base at home that is capable of winning demands, gaining, power, and ultimately changing the way institutions work. If most of the value of the Social Forum will be realized back at home, we should approach the Social Forum with that in mind: We should be talking to each other now about how this massive event in Detroit will help us go home stronger than we were before. What skills and strategies can we pick up and take home to others? How can we ensure that the Social Forum injects momentum into the daily political struggles we are engaged in?

Another way to put this: it’s not too soon to plan your report-back. This is especially true given that these times require so much more than a report-back. 

Do those sentences sound contradictory? “Plan a report-back. It’s not enough to plan a report-back.” What kind direction is that? It reminds me of the period in 2002-2003 when the U.S. was planning to invade Iraq. My partner and I were heavily involved in neighborhood-based organizing and our two children (ages 11 and 7) were coming with us to lots of meetings and demonstrations. The invasion of Iraq started to seem inevitable and my 11-year-old tearfully confronted me. “Why aren’t you doing anything to stop the war?”

“I’m trying,” I said.

“No you’re not,” she responded. “All you’re doing is going to meetings.”

I couldn’t deny the accuracy of her observation. War was looming, and the adults around her appeared to be doing not much more than sitting around in living rooms and community halls talking to each other. Sure, we were organizing, reaching out to others, educating people about the consequences of war, planning demonstrations, connecting the war abroad with the war at home, etc. But it all looked like not enough next to the horror of war.

Today I rode my bike by another basketball court with another memorial for another murdered African American kid – teddy bears and candles in a circle at center court. Almost 100 people were killed in Iraq this week, 300 wounded, and untold more dying from indirect effects of war. The oil spill in the Gulf oozes on, laying waste to the life in its path. According to Bill McKibben, if that oil had made it through the pipeline to the refinery and then on to our gas tanks, it would have caused no less damage to the planet. Of course, as experts race to contain the oil flowing from the out-of-the-ordinary leak, billions of gallons of pipeline oil continue on their merry way to wreak their ordinary havoc.

With so much at stake, I’m writing about USSF report-backs? It seems like a terribly thin response given the monstrosity of events unfolding around me. Yet the report-back, like the Social Forum, could be a very robust response – so long as we conceive of it as a step towards building grassroots power. The value of any social justice event could be measured in exactly that way: is it helping us grow our movement? Is it helping us see our own significance in the struggle? Is it helping us develop relationships and allies across issues? Is it getting us closer to our short-term and long-term goals? Is it providing a contradiction to the children (and other onlookers) who can see how high the stakes are and are right to wonder if the meetings add up to anything?

Plan the Report-Back: A Short-Term Goal

Most activists who are planning to attend the U.S. Social Forum this year in Detroit are thoroughly ensconced in the overwhelming logistics of planning workshops, transportation, and housing. We are raising money, lining up buses, participating in planning meetings, and organizing people’s assemblies. Inspired by the message “Another world is possible; another U.S. is necessary” and motivated by the opportunity to share energy, vision, and strategy (not to mention party time – check out ) with activists from all over the country, many progressives are mobilizing significant resources in order to have a presence at the USSF.

No doubt the Social Forum will be engaging and inspiring. But most of us agree that the Social Forum is not an end in itself. We want the Social Forum to be a means by which we can build bigger, stronger, more unified social change movements. These movements, after all, will ultimately be the engines that power us toward this other world (the one that is possible) and this other U.S. (the one that is necessary).

Which is why coming home is the most important part of going to the Social Forum. It’s at home – and only at home – that we have the opportunity to build a grassroots base that will be powerful enough to mitigate the harm of oppressive institutions (in the short term) and replace them (in the long term). What can we do now to make sure the Social Forum services our needs back at home – back in the daily struggle that will be waiting for us after the long bus ride home from Detroit? Here are some suggestions (all gleaned, by the way, from fellow activists here in Boston; thanks to them for their wisdom).

1.    Put “report-back” on your planning meeting agenda. I know for many of you, it’s already there. But maybe the more urgent details of booking buses and lining up funding are taking precedence. That is understandable. But here you are, probably a highly functional coalition of experienced activists sitting in the same room together making plans! This is the perfect opportunity to stretch the benefit of this network- and relationship-building moment. The Forum has brought you together. How can the Forum keep you together afterwards?

2.    Integrate the report-back into your fundraising pitch. It should help your cause if you are showing funders that their dollars are supporting people to bring the lessons from the Forum home. And that the base of people who couldn’t go will still be able to benefit.

3.    Discuss with others what you most want to learn at the Forum. Ask what will most enhance your work at home. Going to the Forum with some learning goals in mind will help you focus when it comes to the staggering array of workshops and it will keep you accountable to the people from your organization who could not attend. You’re the conduit of Social Forum information, analysis, and inspiration. How can you be the most effective possible conduit?

So far, this is probably sounding pretty reasonable. Thinking about the report-back at this point makes sense, it could even aid our fundraising efforts, and it helps us build our organization by feeding it with the energy and know-how picked up at the Forum.

Making the Report-Back Count Toward Long-Term Goals

But wait, if you’re like me, you’ve been to plenty of report-backs, and you’ve left feeling enlightened and moved, yes, but also a little of that post-report-back let-down. Sure, the spirit of the Social Forum is alive briefly in the room, and this can provide no small antidote to the challenges of the daily struggle. But what happens next? What does it all amount to? Does the Social Forum get stored away as a great memory, one of those “events” that brought people briefly together and showed us a glimpse of something powerful and inspiring? Do you go back to the daily struggle newly energized but with no ways of institutionalizing that momentum?

It can be hard to take on that last question because the daily struggle urgently requires our attention; one crisis after another lands in our path. Each one of those crises is urgent. Each one includes lives hanging in the balance. Yet the consequences of NOT knitting ourselves together into some sort of larger movement powerful enough to truly staunch the bleeding and heal the wounds are obvious: the wounds keep leaking and our Band-Aids are exactly that.

So what if we viewed the Social Forum and the subsequent report-back as an opportunity to build a cross-issue movement back at home? What if, beyond seeing it as an opportunity, we actually gave ourselves a mandate – to use the steps leading up to the Social Forum, the Social Forum itself, and the aftermath as part of a movement-building process at home? How would that look in your city or region?

In Boston, here are a couple of goals that are emerging:

1.    that we think about how to merge the momentum from the Social Forum with the momentum already surging from local grassroots struggles,

2.    that we create a series of post-Social Forum mass meetings – designed not just to report back on the Forum but to continue building relationships across organizations and consider setting cross-organization priorities and strategies to win short-term goals, and

3.    that these meetings lead to a one-day conference that helps determine an ongoing way of relating to each other and building our movement by setting goals together, going through wins and losses together, and getting to the point where we could someday set long-term goals together.

Hmm. Could the work we are doing now – the meetings we are attending, the events we are planning, the campaigns and pickets we are organizing – could this work contain the seeds of a 2-year plan, a 10-year plan, a plan that gets us to the point where we are powerful enough to shut down our city? And then, of course, not just shut down the city, not just throw a wrench in the works, but can we be united enough, can we have enough solidarity, can we have strong enough relationships across our differences that we might also envision an alternative to the great mess that we’ve brought to a standstill? 

I say yes. We can do these things. We all just have to start. Now. With what we have. In the locations where we are at. One day you’re planning a report-back that plants the seeds for building a movement that can work together on short- and long-term goals, and someday you’re part of a powerful social force that is helping to determine what “another world” looks like. The reason you’ll get there is because you planned it. You started with an event, a campaign, or a struggle, and you saw it as much more than that. You saw it as a step in the long road that leads to winning.

Sound far-fetched?

I had a soccer coach who used to say, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So true. But it’s also a fact that random shots are rarely effective. Thus we should be willing to patiently move the ball up the field – with our team, keeping our eyes on the goal – strategic and daring at the same time.

Cynthia Peters, editor of The Change Agent magazine, is a Boston-area writer and activist.