My US Social Forum experience in brief

From June 21st to the 26th, I traveled to Detroit with 9 youth and 2 adults to attend the US Social Forum (USSF), a gathering of between 15,000 and 20,000 social justice activists from all over the country and beyond. I actually started writing my blog reflections about the experience as soon as I was on the plane home, but as usual I started over-thinking it and just stopped writing. So, instead, I think I’ll just share some of my reflections in bullet points, before I start forgetting everything.

-The trip was exhausting! Because I went in my co-director role at Seattle Young People’s Project, serving as an adult chaperone for 9 young people (ages 12-19), I felt like I was constantly checking in with youth, texting someone or another, helping people find workshops, staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning debriefing the experience with the other adult support people. It felt more like work than any kind of trip. However, the good side of this was that I loved it! I really treasured the opportunity I had to really think about supporting teenage activists as they were having this one-of-a-kind experience. It was special to think about their experiences, to listen to their questions, to hear their frustrations, and to reflect back what I was observing from them. It felt like popular education as it was originally theorized: a process of dialogue and reflection where themes are presented, contradictions are unearthed, and new learning unfolds as that new experience clashes with the worldview that the student brings to the table. Though I can’t say that I slept well each night, I did go to sleep very, very happy. I felt really alive.

-Speaking of youths’ frustrations, the USSF has a lot to learn about being youth friendly. Youth were continuously frustrated by the inaccessibility of workshops, intimidation about asking questions (even being laughed at when asking someone to break down the meaning of neoliberalism), the lack of attention to all-ages party spaces throughout the week, and the sorry state of the designated “youth space” which youth said was relegated to a smelly basement (though I never saw it). I’ve heard similar but unique critiques about the ablism of the forum, as well as numerous instances of transphobia (particularly around the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms) but I don’t feel like I know enough to go into detail about it. Google it and I bet you’ll find some brilliant pieces of reflection.

-This was my 3rd time in Detroit, and ironically it was the time that I felt most disconnected from the realities of the city. I spent almost all my time in a very heavily-policed and well-developed area of downtown, and the sheer number of activist folks everywhere gave downtown Detroit a very surreal atmosphere. Many people expressed frustration about this, and made comments about how people should have left downtown to talk with “real Detroiters” and I hear that…but at the same time I was annoyed by how often this came from other white folks, who I felt were kind of falling into some exotification of local folks. As I’ve described it to my friends, it felt almost like some kind of racist petting zoo, with radical white folks talking about walking up and hugging random black people all over town, and asking people for their life stories because they are “so much more interesting than what’s happening in workshops.” I wondered how many of these folks would do the same thing back in their home towns, with the folks of color there? Because of the heavily policed and fair-like atmosphere, it just felt off, the level of entitlement to people’s stories and struggles that I saw people displaying. But maybe that’s just me.

-But speaking of Detroit, the plenary event on the first night of the forum was fantastic! A panel of some Detroit movement elders (including one of my long-time revolutionary stars, Grace Lee Boggs) talking about the history of Detroit as “a movement city” was really powerful. Listening to the discussion of the Detroit uprising of ’67 (I believe), and of movement history before and since, I fluttered my eyes and told my comrades from Common Action that I was in heaven. And I was. I love hearing people talk about their revolutionary experiences, especially when they are older and they still identify as movement people.

-This really hits at something that I’ve been learning about myself generally. I’ve got a big, sappy place in my heart for themes related to aging. I think and write about my own aging a lot (and I will continue to do so, I imagine). The movies that most often make me cry are crap like “The Notebook” or damned “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” not because they are that good, but because they show old people reflecting, making legacies together, and dying. So, watching old radicals reflecting on their contributions to not only a general revolutionary movement, but to the movement in a specific geographic location…it was almost too much. I started crying a bit right in the plenary. It brings up such vivid imaginings of who I want to be at 80 or 90, if I make it…of how I want to contribute and listen and share with my younger comrades in whatever city I end up being committed to.

-As for the workshops, well I spent a lot of time helping young people go to their workshops, and so I missed a number of slots, but almost every workshop I went to was excellent: meeting youth organizers from Mississippi talking about leadership transitions; watching anarchists and other radical scholars talk about movement-based research; a mind-opening workshop about building a leadership pipeline for youth to transition into the social justice movement, as an alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline; a workshop on transformative organizing that integrates whole-body, somatic approaches to personal change to great, structural movement-building thinking; a workshop with some really interesting new-school Marxist type folks about revolutionary approaches to reform; a workshop on US Solidarity with ALBA and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela; an assembly on a youth-led national student bill of rights campaign…and more. All of these workshops, every single one, was engaging and exciting to me, and I was left with dozens of questions each time.

-This was one of the best parts of my experience (alongside my reflections on youth support): how intellectually electrified the whole thing made me feel. To be honest, as my infrequent blog posts should show, I’ve been in a real political rut. Very busy with work and organizing, but not really inspired or motivated. Just plain down, to be real honest. And one of the consequences of that is that I don’t actually read very much or engage much with current movement discourses. I read maybe seven or eight books a year, that’s all! For me, that’s really sad. But the interesting thing is that at the forum, I was amazed by how fluid and sharp I was in all of the discussions. Even in more tough-vocabulary Marxist discussions I was so happy to so quickly follow all of the exchanges, but also to quickly think about it, process it, and have handfuls of questions at all times. I was just brimming with questions! It was great!

-Many of those questions are potential topics for future blog posts: questions about the relationship between reform that engages the State and the building of revolutionary alternatives; questions of the efficacy of transformative justice organizing within our movements; the role of parties and cadre organizations in building the US left; the role of the city and citizenship as primary revolutionary sites of struggle; the question of community, spirituality, and the search for a political home…and oh so much more!

-But a big highlight for my trip was the personal connections I made in Detroit…almost entirely with people who I already knew: an absolutely heart overflowing hour+ with my brilliant old friend Chris Dixon (thanks, Chris!), a euphoric discussion until 4am with 3 comrades from Common Action about class struggle, transformative justice, and the church model of organizing; late-night debriefs and confessions about race, age, identity and vulnerability with my fellow adult support people…I just felt so connected with these people who I’m organizing with and who I have known for awhile.

-In short, for my organization the USSF was a solid experience that will pay off for our organizing. For me personally, it was even better: a vital refresher that came at a perfect time, a time when I’ve been doubting more and more who I am in relation to movement work. It was a great reminder of just how comfortable I am thinking about revolution, social movements, strategy, theory, and down-to-earth questions of change. It’s like since I was 14 my mind has become finely tuned to this stuff (which is pretty much the case), and I had really missed it. So it was great to feel it again.

There, now I wrote that, all in a half-hour. Here’s hoping this quick post keeps me writing here again.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

1 comment

Thanks so much for this awesome overview and reflection, Jeremy. My time with you in Detroit was a major highlight!