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Local progressives find space at Social Forum

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Ask each of the dozen or so individuals from throughout the Carrboro community why they attended the U.S. Social Forum and you’ll likely get a dozen or so variations on a common objective – to help create a space for change, gather inspiration, rejuvenate, rejoice, join forces, connect. And many, if not all, among those are also likely to reveal having come away with a sense of something gained, some sense of, “This thing that we’ve got – it’s big.”

That is, precisely, how one local attendee, Ruby Sinreich, defined it – the “this thing” that she describes being a movement, or, rather, a movement of movements, for a more just, peaceful and equitable world in which to live.

This first-ever U.S. Social Forum – which was held in Atlanta from June 27 to July 1 but is, in practice, an ongoing pursuit – is an outgrowth of the World Social Forum, which was held initially in January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and each year since in locations throughout the world. The spark that ignited that first World Social Forum was a rebuttal to the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of the leaders of major corporation, presidents, prime ministers and intellectuals. Some 10,000 progressive-minded folks representing themselves and organizations and movements concerned with workers’ rights, the environment, the treatment of the less privileged by the powerful and a whole lot more came together for a few days to talk to one another, listen, and plan.

The U.S. Social Forum is designed to “provide space to build relationships, learn from each other’s experiences, share our analysis of the problems our communities face, and bring renewed insight and inspiration.”

It is further designed, as defined on its website, to “help develop leadership.”

Our next generation of community and global leaders were in attendance.

No waiting
Take Michal Osterweil. Osterweil is working on her doctorate in UNC’s department of anthropology, studying this “movement of movements.” She’s also very active here in this community, helping build support and energy around Carrboro Greenspace, a movement to preserve one of the last greenspaces in the downtown Carrboro area and to promote community activities on the property, toward facilitating a “sustainable and livable future in Carrboro and beyond.”

Creating space is, for Osterweil, a vital pursuit.

“Considering the major ecological and political problems we face today,” she says, “I think that one of the most effective ways to build the infrastructure and cultural capacities and awareness necessary [to realize change] is to have positive spaces in which other ways of … living and consuming are possible.

“And it’s not just something we’re waiting for – waiting to defeat some sort of system – to achieve.”

Rather, the building of that infrastructure, the construction of those cultural capacities, is well in motion.

Witness Atlanta.

Ruby Sinreich is a longtime local citizen activist, a member of the Rogers Road Small Area Plan Task Force, she runs OrangePolitics.org and is a communications coordinator for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international, interfaith organization dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice.

Sinreich traveled to Atlanta with “a whole posse” of co-workers from throughout the country. She was struck by the diversity of the event, an impressive array of languages, cultures, occupations and impulses – representatives for farm laborers, urban day-laborers, Latinos, African Americans. Sinreich mentions, as an example, the Miami Workers Center, an organization that advocates for low-income communities and low-wage workers. “These guys had been working months to get buses of folks up there.”

“One of the coolest things,” she says, “was that I heard so much about the importance of joining causes – a lot of people making connections.”

That’s in keeping with the spirit of the World Social Forum. But Sinreich and others noted some unique aspects of this U.S. gathering.

“A lot of people talked about how many of these [gatherings] are disorganized.” This one, she says, was well managed and very accessible. She noted an impressive number of translators throughout the event – all by way of inclusiveness.

Sammy Slade, a Carrboro carpenter and self-described “active citizen, agrees: “There was a very conscious effort to be as inclusive as possible. “The workshops, especially, provided spaces that were very conducive to interaction.” He attended workshops on global warming and livable economies, among others. The Fellowship of Reconciliation hosted a workshop called “Grassroots Civilian Diplomacy,” which explored the belief that “ordinary people have the capacity to break down walls that political leaders are unable to overcome (and sometimes create).”

Osterweil circulated a publication she had produced in which various groups had been asked to describe, in her words, “what it would mean to win” – to allow them space in which to discuss the nature of the work they do.

“We have to reflect upon the activism that we do. It’s been really tough, especially since 9/11. What activism means today and how it’s effective today is a really big question. And I think there’s so much fragmentation and even sectarianism among [groups on the Left] that we need some space to think a little better and talk to each other and engage the different approaches.”

Thus the Social Forums.

The alternative
Criticisms of both the World and U.S. Social Forums arrive from both the Right and the Left. Anti-capitalism isn’t, after all, everyone’s cup of tea.

Judith Blau is a professor of sociology at UNC and chair of that department’s Social & Economic Justice program. She also serves as president of the U.S. chapter of Sociologists without Borders, which has held sessions at the forums on scholar activism. She points out that while many of her colleagues in academia consider the Social Forums to be anti-U.S., anti-West, they represent, to her mind, “an alternative to liberal rights.”

“You and I,” she says, “can vote, but that’s about all we can do. Elsewhere there’s a feeling that we’re entitled to health care, economic rights – but that’s not part of the American tradition.”

“We’ve always shared a planet,” Blau continues. “But since neo-liberalism, the acceleration of free trade … Internet traffic … we’re increasingly aware of our

She tells of a group of Ethiopian farmers who spoke at the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, which she attended, declaring their opposition to the World Bank’s agriculture policies and support for indigenous farming practices.

Those in attendance clearly recognized a kindred spirit, Blau says, with these farmers. “We’d known this abstractly, but now we knew it concretely.”

Another criticism of the forums is that they don’t promote a plan of action.

Some say, Osterweil acknowledges, “‘You’re just coming and talking and feeling good and having fun. Where is the outcome?’”

She says that one of the real strengths of these gatherings is that it helps engender “productive disagreement … in order to work through things.

“For me, that’s why the Social Forums are so important. Because they don’t necessarily already have an answer about how it is we’re going to change the world, but rather they’re about having different folks coming from so many different cultures and traditions of activism [building] strategies for changing the world.

“Some people believe we have to come up with a formula, and say we need to unite and say this is what needs to come first, this is what needs to come second … And I don’t really quite believe that yet. I think we need spaces in which we can learn about why people organize in so many different ways.”

Larger spaces apparently will be increasingly in demand. Osterweil, too, was impressed by both the size of the turnout and the magnitude of the energy in Atlanta:
“You just felt like, ‘Oh my god; we have such a strong movement. I had no idea that so many people were doing this kind of work in the U.S.’”

The question then follows, says Osterweil, “How do we build a different world; how do we build different worlds — plural.”

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