US Social Forum aims to help activists blend strengths

by ERNIE SUGGS, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On Wednesday, about 10,000 grass-roots activists will meet in Atlanta for a major forum that will feature close to 1,000 workshops and, it's hoped, a lot of understanding.

Understanding, that is, of what they do and of who they are.

"We want to show that we are not the marginalized sector of the crazies across the street," said Stephanie Guilloud, one of the organizers of the U.S. Social Forum. "We are your neighbors. I think for a lot of folks, when we are talking about activists, there seems to be a sense that we are complainers. But we are putting forth a vision that affects us all."

The U.S. Social Forum, the first in the United States, begins Wednesday with a march from the state Capitol to the Atlanta Civic Center, the site for the bulk of events at the five-day conference.

Organizers are expecting participants from all over the country to come talk about such issues as immigration, poverty, housing and police conduct.

Alice Lovelace, an activist and poet who is also the USSF's lead organizer, said the participants will include, among others, "Native Americans, domestic workers, school teachers, youth, hip-hop artists, environmentalists, labor leaders and people who work on immigration."

Lovelace said the main purpose of the forum is to get activists to work together. In theory, the forum would help a singularly focused housing activist learn how to "break the isolation" by learning how racism, education and police conduct fit into his cause.

"This will allow all of them to get together and become better educated about each other. We want to see how do we improve the world for human beings," Lovelace said. "We cannot devise a strategy to move forward until we hear how these issues impact the lives of everyday people."

Tufara Waller-Muhammad will travel from New Market, Tenn., to attend the forum and talk about civil rights. Waller-Muhammad is a cultural program leader for the Highlander Research and Education Center, which has been a training ground for several civil rights leaders.

During the civil rights era, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy trained at Highlander. Rosa Parks credited her time there with shaping her thinking before she sparked the Montgomery bus boycott.

"We bring together grass-roots leaders to train each other," Waller-Muhammad said of the mission of the Highlander. "We believe that each person has a piece of the pie and when we bring people together, we get the whole pie. One of the things I am looking forward to is intergenerational dialogue around some of the civil rights work."

But while she is looking forward to meeting people from across the country who are working on civil rights issues, Waller-Muhammad is also eager to meet people outside of civil rights to see how their goals match.

"We, as people and citizens of this country, are supposed to direct the way that politicians act. We are supposed to have a direct effect on politicians and decision-makers," Waller-Muhammad said. "People are still violating civil rights. Like the attack on voting rights. There will always be work to be done."

Planning for the forum has been going on for three years, Lovelace said. "It took a year to educate people to what it was," she said. "Then we had to figure out if we could do it."

When the forum begins Wednesday with the march, it will have a different vibe than most people might be used to. True to its mission, the grass-roots forum will be organic. Registration is only $20, and about 50 groups helped organize the event. Along with big downtown hotels, some workshops will be held in area churches, libraries and museums.

Several of the Forum's 950 workshops will focus on immigrant and Hispanic communities; women's health issues and leadership; the Iraq war; farm workers; and police brutality.

But anybody who wants to put on a workshop can simply add one as part of the forum's "open spaces."

"This is an open forum," Lovelace said. "We exist only to provide the space for it to happen."

Organizers are also hoping to make a difference. Both Lovelace and Guilloud are aware of how the grass-roots movement can be perceived as nonexistent or nonchalant.

"I think we want to beat that perception, because that is a way to marginalize voices of the grass roots," said Guilloud, program director for Project South, a leadership development organization. "We are pushing for change that is broad and connected. The goal is to shift us from a reactive stance to a position of strength and vision."

Waller-Muhammad, who said she has been a social activist for half of her 34 years, said the conference will make an international statement that activism is strong in the United States.

"We who believe in freedom cannot rest," Waller-Muhammad said. "If we stop standing up for justice and freedom, who knows what will happen to the world?"

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