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North American Social Forum


Toward North American Social Forums: a panel discussion at WSF 2005

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Marc Becker and Thomas Ponniah


Activists from throughout North American gathered on Sunday, January 30, 2005 at the fifth annual World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil to share past experiences with organizing social forums and to discuss where we might take these projects in the future. Participating in the panel were Suren Moodlair of the Boston Social Forum, Janet Conway of the Toronto Social Forum, Jay Smith of the Alberta Social Forum, Víctor Rosado and Mike Menser of the New York Social Forum, Patrick Barrett of the Midwest Social Forum, Michael Guerrero of the United States Social Forum, Alejandro Villamar of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade, and Thomas Ponniah the co-editor of the first compilation of WSF alternatives: Another World is Possible: popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social Forum. The panel was moderated by Marc Becker of the Network Institute for Global Democratization (NIGD).

Suren Moodlair began the discussion by noting that the Boston Social Forum no longer exists. It was a group of people who came together to organize this one event on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, and then immediately disbanded. This would not, of course, preclude another group from converging to organize another social forum. It does, however, raise the issue of by what authority someone organizes a social forum. Suren also raised an issue that others would return to regarding the participation of communities of color in the forum. Based on past experience in Boston, the organizers knew that white activists would participate so they focused their outreach on organizing within communities of color. Suren closed by noting that social forums are profoundly subversive in their nature.

In the multi-cultural, social-democratic city of Toronto, Janet Conway described how their social forum represented a convergence of different groups, particularly drawing on a pan-Asian network. Conway noted two ways in which the Toronto Social Forum broke from traditional Canadian models: it was participatory, and it did not only include large organizations.

Unlike Boston, the Toronto Social Forum was a process rather than a single event that drew on the organizing efforts of ten public assemblies and continues with a new group elected to organize a second forum. This raises the question of institutionalization and structure, as the needs of an ongoing process differ from that of a single event.

In organizing the Alberta Social Forum, Jay Smith noted the importance of three main issues: how to incorporate aboriginal participation, the importance of communication, and struggles with continuity and memory as the process of the social forum is institutionalized.

Víctor Rosado described the New York City Social Forum as an intermediate social forum. The main issues with which they struggled were with privatization finding a public space in which to hold the forum, financing the forum, and a lack of participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—particularly in relationship to providing resources for organizing the forum. Víctor noted that the process of organizing and holding a social forum is radical and profoundly revolutionary, but it is precisely this attempt to dismantle capitalism that makes it so hard to organize such a forum in the United States.

Patrick Barrett shared the history of how the Midwest Social Forum emerged out of a twenty-year history of organizing a radical scholars conference in Wisconsin. The process has always been open and horizontal rather than top-down, but they have always struggled with color and gender imbalances. The goals of the meeting include fostering a dialogue between activists and academics, and presenting visions and strategies for the future, thus focusing on actions rather than problems). Barrett referred to Tariq Ali’s argument that social forums in the United States are important because there is no more important struggle than the one in that country. At the same time, activists in the U.S. face the irony of living in the most powerful country but also having the most disempowered citizenry.

After sharing these experiences, we moved to a discussion and proposals for future initiatives. One audience member urged that cultural expressions be built in as a central element of the social forum rather than as an afterthought. Others discussed how to improve outreach, noting that people will not come to us but rather we need to reach out to them. In this process, building trust becomes a key issue.

Michael Guerrero from Global Grassroots Justice (GGJ) who has been working on organizing a United States Social Forum noted that it is not a good time for such a forum because it would be largely white led. Rather, this is a great moment to go beyond race, class, gender, and racial barriers. Communities of color cannot be invited into the process, but it must start there with them providing a fundamental part of the process.

Last year, GGJ discussed the idea of a United States Social Forum with the World Social Forum’s International Committee, and plans are converging to hold such a forum during the summer of 2006. GGJ has launched a listserv and webpage at (external link) to organize this process.

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