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Radical listening

Why a Social Forum? Why Detroit?

MT Photo: Travis R. Wright
The opening march makes its way downtown Tuesday afternoon.
MT Photo: Tera Holcomb
Clockwise from top left: Adrienne Maree Borwn, Lydia #Wylie-Kellermann, Elena Herrada, Marian Baker, Rich Feldman and Oyatunde Amakisi
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W. Kim Heron and Curt Guyette discuss the U.S. Social Forum on WDET. (MP3)
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Published 6/23/2010

With Thousands of marchers headed down Woodward Avenue toward downtown as we went to press, the second United States Social Forum got under way Tuesday at noon. It's the culmination of more than a year of organizing by a number of groups in Detroit — and the next step for the international network that has been meeting and organizing under the umbrella of the World Social Forum since the first gathering was held in 2001. This is only the second time such a gathering has occurred in the United States, following a forum in Atlanta in 2007.

Why make Detroit the focus of leftists, progressives and various likeminded types? 

And what might come from a gathering that features an anticipated 20,000 participants and more than 1,000 workshops put on by groups ranging from major unions to churches to the Sierra Club to Planned Parenthood to the ACLU to Oxfam to the Socialist Party USA?

Along with all those workshops, the forum will feature a handful of protests slated against businesses and institutions, and a lengthy program of cultural activities.

How did all of this come together, and what is the hoped-for outcome from all the networking and idea-sharing slated to take place here in Detroit this week? What will it mean for the city, and the broader movement as a whole?

In an attempt to answer those questions and more, we recently sat down with six of the event's key organizers:


Oyatunde Amakisi is a 39-year-old activist, mentor, artist, businesswoman and the Executive Director of the Detroit Women of Color, Incorporated. Producer of the annual Detroit Women of Color International Film Festival, she is the national chair of culture in the United States Social Forum and the representative of the Detroit Local Organizing Committee. After the social forum she will also lead the Detroit Progressive Library and Community Theater.

Rich Feldman is a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (boggscenter.org) and the Detroit City of Hope (dcoh.org). Feldman, 61, spent 20 years on the assembly line at the Ford Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne before becoming an elected union official. He has been active with the labor committee of the USSF, the disability justice committee of the USSF and outreach committee.

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is part of the Jeanie Wylie Community, an intentional community on the southwest side of Detroit focused on urban agriculture, sustainability and hospitality. Wylie-Kellermann, 24, is working with Word and World, which is putting on a series of workshops, cultural events and actions surrounding the idea of Sabbath Economics. She is also working with the Faith and Spirituality Committee.

Elena Herrada is a second-generation Detroiter, daughter and granddaughter of autoworkers, and a grassroots activist and local historian of her community's history. She is a former president of a cafeteria worker's local, and spent several years negotiating contracts for labor unions. She has worked with United Farm Workers and was deeply involved in the launching of Centro Obrero (The Worker Center) in southwest Detroit. Herrada is currently an adjunct faculty member at Marygrove College in the Master of Social Justice program.

Marian Baker was a founding member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Panther Party in Detroit. She is co-chair of the National Welfare Rights Union (NWRU) an organization of, by and for the poor in America, and was president of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization 1982-1989. She has been particularly active in fights to stop water and utility shut-offs to the poor for nonpayment. 

Adrienne Maree Brown is the Executive Director of the Ruckus Society — a nonprofit group involved in, among other activities, organizing protests and training protesters — and is a national coordinator of the U.S. Social Forum. Brown, 31, grew up primarily in Europe — her father was in the military — and has lived in New York and Oakland, Calif., before moving to Detroit in September. 

What follows is a condensed transcript of our two-hour conversation with some of the local leaders about the road to Detroit and what may lie ahead in the next several days — and after.


Metro Times:
Why Detroit?

Marian Baker: Detroit is like ground zero for us. When you look at the question of unemployment, we have one of the highest rates in the nation. When you look around, it looks like bombed-out Iraq. It is a question of housing, it is a question of jobs. Our economic situation continues to worsen. People need to understand the effects of this economic crisis. And, here in Detroit, we have concrete examples for people to see.

MT: That is the Detroit the outside world is most familiar with — the Detroit that, over the past 30 or 40 years, has been devastated. But there's also a flip side.

Adrienne Maree Brown: When we were going through the selection process, there were a lot of places that are in crisis, but very few of them have a peoples' movement like the one that Detroit has. That was a point that continuously came up. For example, there are all these bombed-out buildings, yet there is also this huge gardening and urban agricultural movement. People need to see things like that, because one of the things that we keep hearing is that what's going on in Detroit is what the rest of the world has to look forward to — not just the destruction, but also the solutions that are coming out of Detroit.

Rich Feldman: Historically, in Detroit, with its legacy of both the labor movement and the black power movement, there is an intergenerational continuity regarding this struggle. What we've seen in Detroit since the early '90s, along with the deindustrialization that has been going on for decades, is this amazing amount of grass-roots organizing taking place. What's been going on here challenges all the vision that the news media puts forward that this is all about the end of the auto industry. This is the end of an epoch in human history. But it is also the beginning of the hope of how people will live for hundreds of years to come.

In the short-term crisis, we can see how people have been able to come together in Detroit to talk about how does work become a human right again, because there aren't any jobs. How do we redefine education? There is an amazing amount of resistance, whether it is struggling against the brutality and viciousness of the kids being killed, struggling against the utility shutoffs and the pickups by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] in southwest Detroit, struggling against the closing of the schools — with all this going on, Detroit represents a chance to talk about redefining the future. 

Oyatunde Amakisi: Detroit is a place of hope. What doesn't get emphasized are the positive things that are happening. Young people, elders, people who have never been involved in movement-building are now becoming a part of this process. Even artists are coming together to make sure that this is beautiful and that it reflects the best of our city. People who would have never worked together are now working together because it is critical to survive. 

MT: How did the actual selection process work?

Brown: The national planning committee of the U.S. Social Forum, which at the time was made up of about 52 organizations that were deeply involved in the 2007 forum, in 2008 started looking at different cities. After a process of talking about places and interviewing folks, it got narrowed down to three cities: New Orleans, El Paso and Detroit. A journey was made to each of those three cities, and it was so clear that Detroit was the city that was really ready to have the forum. In New Orleans, people were still rebuilding their homes and didn't have the space and capacity to host something like the forum, although I think we could find ourselves in New Orleans in the future. In El Paso, something this big, 20,000 people, the movement there wasn't ready to take that on right now. But the meetings we had in Detroit, folks were, like, "Oh, yeah, we're ready. Are you guys ready for us? Here's what we want." So the decision-making process was easy. 

Baker: There were at first five organizations that selected to work together to be the anchor organizations for this U.S. Social Forum. They were the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Centro Obrero de Detroit, Michigan Welfare Rights, Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice, and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. We began to work together to try and work out some of the basics. Eventually, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice decided that, at this particular time, they should back out. The other four organizations stuck together. We're forged a collective that did not exist between the four organizations before. 

One more key thing is the role being played now by organized labor. I've been messin' with organized labor for years, this is the first time I've seen organized labor in years trying to step forward and try to become part of this particular social movement, not only endorsing it but getting into the thick of it.

Feldman: The UAW has not been involved in a social movement since the struggle against apartheid. So that's 25 years. With the upcoming election of vice president Bob King as president and with Jimmy Settles and General Holyfield as vice presidents, as well as just a number of folks in the membership, the UAW is putting on workshops. We're excited to be participating in the event in the demonstration around Chase Manhattan Bank around foreclosures and supporting the struggles with farm workers. It's amazing, the energy within the UAW is truly exciting. 

MT: So this is from the top down at the UAW?

Feldman: It's all legit and it's coming at a wonderful, coincidental time — a week after the UAW convention.

MT: Can you talk a little bit about what happened in Atlanta, the site of the first Social Forum like this to be held in the United States?

Baker: Just being there, and seeing the outpouring or people who have never been involved in organizing or movement-building was tremendous to me. Being in that poverty tent, and seeing folks be able to connect their day-to-day struggles to the global situation was an insight as well as a joy. On the way up there, we had a ball on that bus, because we were able to educate. On the way back, people were enthusiastic. 

MT: Were there any lasting impacts on Atlanta?

Brown: I think that one reason we approached Detroit somewhat differently is that I feel like we came and had this huge event in Atlanta and, even though the intention was there, I don't think we had any experiential knowledge about how you would help build things up locally. So some of the stuff we are doing with this U.S. Social Forum is new, in terms of starting with the question of what does the local community actually really want and need. We're not going to be able to meet all of those things, but I would definitely say that the groups that came out of Atlanta were, like, you know, we worked really hard and what did we get? This T-shirt.

But there were few huge coalitions that came out that process. The National Day Labor Organizing Network was one. There were a lot of folks around the country who were doing that work but who hadn't necessarily crossed paths or come together to formally say, "We're all pushing for the same thing."

Amakisi: Afterward, one of the things we want to do is try and get a building together that the anchors and other organizations that have been a part of this process can have, like a social justice village, because we are going to continue our work, and we are looking to bring other institutions in. In addition to that, we are asking people from all over the country to bring books with them, because we are going to have a progressive library. We are going to have an aquaponic garden and also sell fish, which will allow us to both provide jobs for people as well as safe food. All these different groups and people who are working in the community, we are going to be coming together to continue this work. We're even going to have a progressive theater, because they can't afford the huge rates a lot of these theaters around here charge. 

MT: How do issues of immigration and internationalism figure in? 

Elena Herrada: Detroit didn't used to be a destination for immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, until after NAFTA. So we're like a community that had sort of been assimilated for years and years. We come from immigrants from the turn of the century, when Ford was recruiting. We come from the people who came to work in auto, and all these years later we're finding ourselves with people who came to work at auto parts suppliers, illegal, undocumented, in the factories where workers used to make a lot of money. So we are kind of looking at the beginning and the end of auto in a sense. We came from the people who came in the beginning, and we're standing up for the people coming at the end. 

We have Border Patrol around here now. We never had Border Patrol until after Patriot Act II in 2003. There is a whole new realm here, and we didn't have a relationship to that struggle before. There is an Arab community here, there is a Mexican community here, there are those of us who have been here forever, there's this international bridge, and there're all these people coming at us. 

An important part of the social forum to me was something I've seen where other poor people live. In places like Cuba where poor people live well but they don't travel. Detroit is like that. We wanted for Detroit to have a whole bunch of company, to have thousands of people come and have a big party, have a big discussion, all kinds of things that normally would never happen because people can't travel. 

Brown: What is happening right here in our back yard is happening to the majority of the people around the world, which means that we have to have conversations that connect locally, regionally, nationally and globally, because the system is not working for the majority of people. 

Feldman: And because of the 30 years of community work — both in theory and practice — that folks have been involved in, a new kind of Detroit is emerging. We don't know what the next 100 years will be like. But this group that has been coming together and the amazing work the anchors have done in keeping folks together and pushing forward have created a space for this conversation to take place about how Detroit becomes an example of the future rather than just an example of the end of the industrial empire and the end of a certain way of life. The jobs aren't coming back. The American middle class is not coming back. So something else has to be created. And we know that in Detroit. 

MT: How does all this look to the young people involved? 

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann: I do think that Detroit is seeing some pretty amazing work around the intergenerational movement. I think about urban gardens, and I think that is a pretty amazing place where you are seeing intergenerational work. You are getting people out of their houses. Younger people, older folks and everyone in between are coming together and saying, "Who has skills? Who has energy? How do we do this together?" I think that is a real job we have for Detroit, and I think it is our responsibility to make sure we are getting young people from Detroit to the social forum. As much as we talk about hope and community in Detroit, that is not what [Emergency Financial Manager] Robert Bobb is hoping to get into the academics of Detroit Public Schools. That is not what is being taught. So this is an opportunity for a different type of schooling. 

Brown: There is going to be a huge youth tent village. Folks are biking in from all over the country. There's also going to be an ongoing youth space that's going to be in the basement of Cobo Hall. Youth have done their own entire process, taking in their own workshop and cultural proposals, and they will be doing nonstop programming down there. 

MT: In terms of the youth aspect, is it the older generation trying to recruit young people into it, or are the young people a driving force that's pushing this forward?

Brown: It is both. But the youth movement is moving itself. Anytime we are in a meeting and someone will say to the youth, "You guys are the future," they will turn around and say, "Now, we are now. Right now." They are definitely a driving force.

I think this youth space is going to be one of the groundbreaking components of the forum, and it really speaks to the self-organization of the process.

Feldman: It is an inclusive movement. Two things have occurred that I think are significant. One, it's been an amazing discussion to watch at the DLOC [Detroit Local Organizing Committee] meetings, at the organizing meetings, the discussion and interrelationship between all the movements and folks, whether they are coming from a class analysis, whether they are coming from a sexuality analysis, whether they are coming from a national identity analysis, whatever political views, whether they are queer or disabled, there is a discussion taking place that hasn't taken place at the same table — ever. 

MT: Why is the forum putting so much emphasis on culture and arts?

Amakisi: Culture is the tool to bridge all of these movements together. It is a way to really open up people's minds in a way that they are not open to a lecture. They are not necessarily going to come to see you speak at a podium. They may or may not come to a protest, but when you give them a song, through rap and hip hop, young people are like, "We'll listen to that." They're going to listen to Dead Prez, they are going to listen to listen to folks like Sonny Patterson, they are going to listen to the Mango Chili Peppers, which is a collective of LGBTQQI artists from many different backgrounds. 

We are going to have cultural tours when we bring the people to our city to say, "This is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History — beautiful, this is Tyree Guyton's exhibit — wow." 

But everybody can't come here. Because of economics, physical challenges, passports. So we will have Detroit Expanded, which will have streaming video and video on demand, where people can actually go online and see what is happening here and relate and interact. There's going to be people going to churches and mosques and coffeehouses and old people's homes, so that they can get together and watch what is happening but also interact with each other, as well as interact with us here. 

We are going to have hubs in Osaka, Japan. We are going to have them in Venezuela and Honduras and Cuba and Brazil. We are going to have them in South Africa and Kenya, and El Paso, Texas, and San Francisco and New York City. It just keeps building and growing. 

MT: There was a mention of the faith and spiritual community's participation a bit ago. Could we talk about that some more?

Wylie-Kellermann: The faith communities are organizing for this forum much more than in Atlanta, and I think that is really crucial. There will be a sacred space tent on the river behind the post office where there will be constant interfaith prayer services focused on the issues the social forum is looking at. And they are proposing workshops and cultural events and actions. 

So there is a lot of work happening through the faith communities, and I think that is really important for a couple of reasons. Most movements are born in the sanctuary and lead to the streets. That's part our history that we need to be looking at. And they offer sacred texts that are stories of communities working for justice. And that is really important to honor. I think it is important to realize that, in a movement, there needs to be time for silence and community and intentionality, no matter how you name it, whether it is prayer or something else, it has to be intentionally thought through and that is one tool the faith communities can bring. 

At the same time, I think that we need to get our faith communities there and then hold them accountable. It is crucial to say, "You know what, churches, you are absolutely part of the empire today. What are the ways in which you are racist and homophobic and patriarchal and a part of the wars that are going on all over the world?" 

MT: We recently saw the movie Battle in Seattle, which, although fictional, seemed to provide a fairly realistic look at the dynamic that existed within the left during the huge World Trade Organization protest that took place in 1999. And one of the interesting things that was explored was the tension between those advocating peaceful civil disobedience and the more anarchistic-minded who wanted to be out there smashing windows and things like that. Are you dealing with that kind of thing as well?

Brown: We definitely have had those conversations. There is always the meta-conversation of what is violence, which is a great theoretical conversation to have. But I feel like the conversation that we've been having in Detroit has been very tangible. There has been an action protocol that folks have put forth that says we will be engaging in nonviolent actions, that we have people who are undocumented, and we have people who are poor, we have people who cannot risk arrest being involved in almost every one of these actions. And, so, that's why so much emphasis has been put on the actions coming out of Detroit having a really strong solidarity around what's happening while at the same time having negotiations over where we will have civil disobedience, where do we want to raise the stakes. But even in that, how do we do stuff that is dignified and really brings across the purpose and point of the work? But Detroit is an action city. People here aren't afraid. The Social Forum would not be functional here if there were not a huge action component. 

MT: So, where does the line get drawn?

Brown: I think the line is respecting the local community. That's what the request has been over and over and over again. There are local folks here who are going to have to live with the results of these actions that we take. And so the idea is, don't just come and do an action in Detroit, come and do actions with Detroit. Do it with the local community. I think that changes the tenor of it. Now we'll see how mature our movement is. Those who are really mature, no matter where they are coming from, they will be really excited about responding to that invitation. Those who are not yet in that place will not respond to that invitation. Then we'll have community safety and security mechanisms in place so that we can make sure that are folks are taken care of.

MT: What does that mean?

Brown: We have a lot of folks who are volunteering to make sure that if we have undocumented folks, if we have poor folks, if we have other folks, that everyone is safe. We have folks who will be doing conflict resolution on-site. 

Everything is designed to make sure everyone comes through this experience in a safe, powerful political way. This isn't Battle in Seattle. We're not here to shut down the World Trade Organization. We're coming together to build a movement with each other. So the entire spirit of this is one of collaboration, growth and movement rather than confrontation.

MT: Has working with the police been part of the process?

Brown: Yes, the police have been involved in community safety meetings. And there's a group that's being hired called Threat Management that does amazing work. The whole idea is we want to reduce the violence. They are not armed. And then we have a bunch of volunteers coming. It is something we've been thinking about. Historically, it's something the forum has been critiqued about — different ways of managing security, different ways of responding to civil disobedience. The group I work with is the Ruckus Society, and there're a lot of groups in the forum process that have tons and tons of experience dealing with on-site conflict, dealing with groups that want to splinter off and do different things. We're feeling fairly prepared to deal with it.

MT: How has it been going dealing with the police?

Baker: I've been sitting in on some of these meetings, and the police have been listening. They've been encouraging us to follow the proper procedures. And we always put on tape anything we didn't like. And we struggle back and forth. And we've come to a conclusion on certain things. But they've been quite respectful at those meetings.

MT: Do you think they are going to be prepared to deal with what's coming?

Baker: That's a question we'll deal with when the situation happens. But at least we've tried to work along with them, and vice versa. But we didn't want to negate any of our principles. And they have their job to do. But at least we have been trying to have a civil kind of way to work with it.

MT: We've talked about the nuts and bolts aspects of this. But what about the psychological importance of having this many lefties all together? How important is an event like this to help people involved in the struggle to keep going?

Feldman: I'm laughing because, for all of us, every day we're getting e-mails and phone calls from people saying, "Hey, I've got 10 folks coming. Where can they stay?" They are coming to Detroit to learn history, and they are coming to Detroit to make history. It is not any specific initiative or specific workshop or discussion; it is the networking, it is the relationships, it's the spirit, it's the murals they'll see, it's the tours they will go on. It's the folks at Hart Plaza, the poetry. I've told UAW folks who've spent so much time in the plants getting their butts kicked, right, I mean, that's all we've experienced, I say, if you come here and all you get is a sense that there is a world out there that is dreaming, that is creating another 21st Century American Dream, and looking forward, that's what it is all about. Because then you can go back home and say, "I'm part of something. I want to create change." 

Herrada: Plus, we live for struggle. It doesn't wear us down. It invigorates us. Most of us who are doing this, we were born to it, basically. Our parents, in many cases, were born to this. This is what we do. So it is very exciting to have so many people coming around who are thinking about the same things and trying to figure things out. I haven't seen anybody claiming to really have any answers. Just seeing everybody saying, "Yeah, how about this? And how about this?"

Brown: I moved here in September after coming here to visit eight or nine times a year for three years. I moved for love. And the thing I tell people is that, every time I'd land in Detroit, I'd look around and my jaw would drop at the abandonment that I would see. And then my jaw would drop again at these arrogant, in-your-face organizers who would say, "We got it going on." And I'd be like, "What are you talking about? Everything is falling apart. I don't get it." But the longer I stayed, just hearing people say over and over again, "We have to do love, be love, practice love, practice solution." That deeply shifted my frame of what organizing means to me. That is a transformation that I want many other people to go through. So people can come together, they can come thinking they have solutions, they can come thinking they have something to offer.

For more information about the U.S. Social Forum and  full schedule of events at Cobo Hall and other locations, see ussf2010.org.

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