“Another World Is Possible.” More work on privilege is necessary

July 5th, 2011

Email This Page Email This Page Filed under: — Laura Leone @ 12:29 pm

By Louise Dunlap

Twelve thousand people registered for the first-ever US Social Forum at the end of June, 2007. They made their way to an Atlanta of brown lawns and drooping greenery, where long-term drought replaced the rainy season, to an Atlanta hard hit by funding cutbacks for a public hospital and housing. We arrived to find a fully bilingual 103-page booklet listing 950 workshops with 500 more to emerge spontaneously. Workshops on everything from war to warming, from Katrina to mountaintop removal, from bad air to queer rights to indigenous sacred sites.

I was drawn to the Forum between last minute edits of my New Village book Undoing the Silence: Six Tools for Social Change Writinga book for activists who want to use writing more boldly to bring a new world into being.  Months before, I had dreamed of being with it at the Forum, where I knew grassroots people would gather across all the boundaries of nation, language, age, class, region, and ethnicity to declare that “Another world is possible”—if we can manage to work together.  I was heartened by what I found, but there were challenges.

Getting to Atlanta
To get there, I traveled by hybrid car through severe weather, crop-flooding and insect infestations and by overnight Amtrak through the back yards of cities encrusted with gang signs, scrap metal, and trees dead from herbicide “clean-ups.” I watched sunsets scored with contrails, saw the sad, hardened faces of young people in desert fatigue clothing, and sought out scraps of natural space for refuge. Stepping outside of where I live and work, I saw clearly what a frightening time and place we have created.  It was wonderful to arrive in that crowd of so many brothers and sisters seeking change, so many who didn’t look like me but shared the goal to work together for a better world.

The first day, I marched through 105-degree streets, behind a solid core of indigenous leaders, whose presentations I would follow throughout the week.  Behind us rolled a dozen positive souls in wheelchairs.  Day after day we found our way back and forth from the giant Atlanta Civic Center to hotel lobbies and other Forum venues throughout the city, choosing from hundreds of workshops and cultural performances and connecting with each other at row after row of literature tables, tents dedicated to peace or water or Africa, a quiet room for meditation and yoga at a local AIDS support program.

Workshops, networking, and ceremonies
My Undoing Silence workshop met in the African American Museum in Dr. King’s neighborhood, next door to a building that once held the country’s longest-owned African American press. Thirty-one people poured into an ever-widening circle in this remarkable space. Surrounded by images of activists who’d risked their lives to speak and live their truth, we came from a wide spectrum—from experienced journalists to a young activist whose first letter to the editor had been rejected.

I did most of my networking outside the workshops—except for sessions on Native American sacred sites and Venezuelan health care. In a plenary organized by indigenous people, speakers told of their struggles to keep nuclear testing and waste out of Shoshone lands; an Alaskan native told of melting permafrost and made us all shiver with her people’s prophecy that when the earth is about to be lost, a person will come from the north to lead us toward better ways.

The next morning I got out early for a water ceremony at the Indigenous Peoples’ tent in the deep shade of Atlanta’s Renaissance Park. Josephine Mandamid (Anishinabe), who walks around the Great Lakes singing to waters poisoned by mining and nukes, told us that when water knows you love it, it will return to life and health.  In her tradition, women are the keepers of water, along with Grandmothers in the sky who know the names of all lakes and rivers. Josephine then gathered up dozens of small water bottles we had brought from faraway springs and creeks at home, mingled them, sang to them, blessed them—urging us to listen to the flow of water and to bring these teachings home to our families. Already Atlanta was feeling the Grandmothers’ prayers. Every night of the Forum, magnificent storms arose, breaking the drought with thunder, lightning and floods of rain.

Can we work across difference?
The Social Forum process is surprisingly unfamiliar in the US. Built on World Forums held in Brazil, India, and Venezuela since 2001, the process honors grassroots solutions and cross-fertilization through listening, without aiming for formal recommendations.  The theme is always “Another World is Possible.” Yet even the World Social Forums, have been criticized for control by elites or large non-profit organizations with the funding to make things happen. Who’s on the planning team—the leadership—is key. The Atlanta Forum took democracy much farther than many progressive gatherings I’ve been part of over the years. So often I’ve seen an unintended takeover by white people—perhaps through “good intentions to help,” perhaps through thinking we know best, perhaps because white-led organizations have the invisible clout of better financing. Atlanta was different because a lead organizing group, Project South with African American poet/activist Alice Lovelace offered leadership and a decision-making core that kept these issues front and center.  In Atlanta, I felt confident that I was at last taking direction from leaders of color. The march, the streets, the Forum staff, the bilingual booklet, the conversations at tables all seemed to affirm this.

Because I had to miss the final day, I didn’t get to see for myself that, even at this Forum, the problems of privilege still reverberate.  The story reached me through other white activists who watched an all-too-familiar scene unfold at the final plenary. Seeking good ways to keep dozens of grassroots speakers to their two-minute limits, a supportive moderator gently took the mike from an Ecuadorian who’d used double his time. A large contingent of indigenous—who had been so central to the Forum—walked out and returned to take over the stage and show the hurt of this disrespect. It was hard for my white friends to assign blame: the moderator was African American (and later apologized). I have been searching the internet for discussions of this incident by indigenous participants and other People of Color but haven’t found them. Clearly (to me) the tight agenda was the problem, but who made this agenda, and whose interests did it serve? This painful conundrum is what we call in Buddhism a “dharma door,” a way to learn the hard, true lessons we are put on earth to learn.

What do I conclude?
This story confirms what I have been saying when people ask me about my next project after Undoing the Silence. What’s most important to work on now?  For me, the only way we can hope to stop war and warming and all the other threats grows out of this concluding drama of the U.S. Social Forum. The ”oneness” we seek is complex and challenging. To understand its dynamics and our own role in them, privileged people have to look back into our history in a way that moves us to action. Look back at how this country came into being, at who was destroyed and who benefited. Look back at what our need for power and control did to the earth.  All of us know this story in our heads. But until each of us works directly to shift the energy of our genocidal, earth-bruising history and finds ways to transform ourselves, we will be perpetuating our legacy.  We will continue to send troops to kill women and children in countries of color. We will continue to grasp at false solutions like ethanol, instead of radically changing our dependence on manufactured energy.  We must go to the root of the problem—the racist, eco-cidal root–even if we make embarrassing mistakes like the brave leaders of the USSF did.  Mistakes are inevitable because working together across the divides that are built in to our legacy is the hardest task the human race has taken on.  Can we learn in time?  In the crowds at the Social Forum, I felt the power of what is possible along with the challenge.
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Louise Dunlap is committed to offering Undoing Silence workshops to campus and community groups as we move toward the November 2008 elections and beyond.  This is the time our thoughtful and heartfelt voices can—and must—make a difference. She is currently planning a national and international tour hosted by peace, justice and environmental groups to bring every voice together in a call for real change. To learn more, please go to Louise’s website.

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