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A Strange Homecoming

Reflections on the First US Social Forum

by LAURA CARLSEN

Attending the U.S. Social Forum held in Atlanta, Georgia June 27-July 1 was an adventure. The first social forum for the United States, it was also one of the first in a series of regional events aimed at decentralizing the mega- World Social Forum that started in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Short on preparation and organization but long on enthusiasm, the event stirred the interest of activists all over the world. Many wondered what kind of grassroots energy could be mustered to seriously confront the many threats posed by Bush administration policies-including unilateral force, preventive strikes, climate change denial, homophobia, and rollback of women’s rights.

It was a strange sort of homecoming for me. After many years of living and working in Mexico, I was curious to see how movements for social change in the United States had evolved over the years. I had heard the sweeping generalizations: the egotism and materialism of the eighties "me generation," the identity politics and cultural expressions of the nineties, the horror and frustration of the war in the new Bush-dominated millennium. During the years of living abroad, I had followed citizen efforts for social change but been far from the frontlines of organizing.

The 20-year hiatus proved an interesting lens with which to view the movements represented at the forum. Many of our movements in the past were based on solving problems in faraway places. The abuses wrought by our government overseas made them morally our issues. The Central American solidarity movement during the dirty wars and the anti-apartheid movement helped us better understand the world and make connections albeit in a somewhat removed way.

Not so today. In many ways, globalization has domesticated the abuses long felt overseas. Although the war in Iraq continues to be the defining feature of the current administration, U.S. communities are now also under attack. Through climate change, the planet itself has shrunk to a single, ominously threatened ecosystem.

The slogan-"Another World is Possible. Another U.S. is Necessary"-captures this reality. The issues discussed at the first U.S. Social Forum did not revolve around utopian visions of a better society. Rather, they expressed the urgency of people fighting for survival-to survive as who they are in the face of intolerance, to preserve communities threatened by hate, to maintain basic freedoms, and assure basic needs.

The forum proved a crash course in the state of U.S. organizing. I saw apparent advances and reverses. There was little explicitly feminist organizing. The critiques of power, patriarchy, and sexism that once seemed central to understanding social change have not been forgotten, but they have yet to gain a central place in our organizing and analysis. The response to major government offensives against reproductive rights, repeal of affirmative action programs, and attacks on Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Transsexual people have been slow and piecemeal. As women have devoted their energies to other causes, the profoundly transforming perspective of gender justice has sometimes taken on a secondary or supplementary role in organizing work (and as a foreign policy analyst, I count myself as guilty).

Strong and vocal women were prominent at the forum. They brought with them an integrating vision-of heart and mind, of daily life and public policy, of family and community-to their struggles and imprint them with a feminism that may not say its name but makes its presence felt.

Strength in Diversity

Far and above the greatest change and the greatest strength of U.S. movements today is their diversity. The forum demonstrated diversity in ages, sexuality, colors, nationalities, and politics.

The many cultural expressions also showed a welcome diversity in our way of "doing politics." Gone are the days when political events were synonymous with men making speeches. In the esplanade of Atlanta’s Civic Center, the drums of Mexican danzantes competed with the drums of traditional Korean music-and both decry free trade. Hip-hop connected the desperation of life in Indian reservations and city ghettos with the joy of youth and a deep new current of resistance.

Workshops on storytelling drew hundreds of young people who know that it’s not enough to analyze oppression, that what’s happening today is found in a million real-life stories, that tears are an essential part of the dynamic, and that a fundamental task for organizers is to learn to tell these stories artfully.

Stories abounded in the forum. A path of abandoned shoes with names pinned to the tongues led to a kiosk hung with the biographies of young and old Iraqis killed in the war. A young woman cried as the hope of living without the fear of deportation receded once again into the murky depths of Washington politics.

A plethora of issues compete for our attention but there is no question of the validity and need for work on all of them. Forum participants reflected a great respect for the efforts of everyone. As someone who works on Latin American issues, I was told by one participant almost apologetically: "It’s so important what you do. When we get this damn war out of the way …" "This damn war" was a dark presence in every corner of the Forum-not as a sign of our failure but a call to renewed action.

The U.S. Social Forum revealed the heroic acts of community defense and organizing that regularly occur throughout the country. Although still lacking the coherence to construct another world, the determination and values found in these movements offered much hope.

LAURA CARLSEN is the director of the Americas Program at www.americaspolicy.org in Mexico City, where she has been a writer and political analyst for more than two decades.