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News :: DNC : Organizing
Another Boston and Another World are Possible: Gearing Up for the Boston Social Forum
26 Jun 2004
From July 23-25, 2004, the weekend immediately preceding the Democratic National Convention (DNC), 3,000 progressive activists are expected to gather at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston for the Boston Social Forum (BSF) . Part of the World Social Forum (WSF) process, the BSF will consist of three days of panels, workshops, assemblies and networking. The organizers of the BSF have several goals--to showcase the ideas of the left while the mainstream media’s eyes are fixed on Boston, to allow activists to network, to help bridge some of the divides on the American left, and ultimately to begin to find a way out of the crisis the left faces in this country.

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles the Boston IMC collective is doing on the various organizing campaigns leading up to the Democratic National Convention. The first article in the series was on the Boston DNC Coalition.]
Another Boston and Another World are Possible: Gearing Up for the Boston Social Forum
by Matthew Williams

From July 23-25, 2004, the weekend immediately preceding the Democratic National Convention (DNC), 3,000 progressive activists are expected to gather at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston for the Boston Social Forum (BSF). Part of the World Social Forum (WSF) process, the BSF will consist of three days of panels, workshops, assemblies and networking. The organizers of the BSF have several goals--to showcase the ideas of the left while the mainstream media’s eyes are fixed on Boston, to allow activists to network, to help bridge some of the divides on the American left, and ultimately to begin to find a way out of the crisis the left faces in this country.

The initial idea for the Boston Social Forum came from organizers with the Campaign on Contingent Work (CCW) and the Boston-based national network of which it is a part, the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE). Knowing that the Democratic National Convention would draw many progressives to Boston, the organizers decided to take advantage of this to continue the World Social Forum process in New England. Started in 2001, the WSF is meant to counter the slogan of the powers-that-be that “There is no alternative” to the on-going wave of corporate globalization and militarization. For the past three years, the WSF has been held at the same time as the World Economic Forum (WEF)--the latter an unofficial gathering of the world’s political-economic elite where they can map out their plans for the world economy and politics. Held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, 2002, and 2003 and in Mumbai, India in 2004, the WSF has served as a global forum for progressive activists to meet, network, debate and strategize on how to counter the plans hatched at WEF and build a better world that meets the needs of people and the environment, not the political-economic elite. In contrast to WEF, the slogan of the WSF has been, “Another world is possible.”

Jason Pramas of CCW said that he and the other initiators of the BSF knew that the DNC would in many ways be a divisive event for US progressives--some would be coming to attend it, while others would be coming to protest against it: “When something like this happens, a major political event or corporate-backed event in your backyard, you’re usually presented with two options--you can either protest or not protest. That didn’t seem like enough of an option in this situation. While it’s perfectly legitimate to protest all the bad things the leadership of the Democratic Party has been involved with, the grassroots of the Party is basically progressive and a lot of the people in activist groups are still part of the Democrats.”

By bringing people from across the American left together, the organizers of the BSF hope to bridge these divides and others through a space devoted to dialogue. Pramas said, “The good thing about the Social Forum is that it doesn’t require any body to agree. It requires that everybody to show up and put their ideas out there, and to debate and to discuss and to get know each other. [. . .] In essence the Social Forum is a very simple thing. We’re trying to construct a framework into which all sorts of different communities and constituencies can come and give their best analysis of the present--which is what leftists are good at--and then do the thing we aren’t so good at, say what our visions for a better world are.”

The BSF is emphatically not meant to be a counter-convention to the DNC. This will allow groups like progressive labor unions that are still tied to the Democratic Party to share the same space as independent leftists and third-party advocates, so that they can begin to address the obstacles all wings of the left face. Pramas explained, “Because we’re not a counter-convention, labor doesn’t view the BSF as a threat. We’re not messing with the Democrats, at least in the short term. The left is this country isn’t really in a position to mess with the Democrats in any real way--either to steal their thunder or even to protest them effectively. We don’t have that unity. At the BSF, we’re talking about the future. We’re saying to the unions, look you’re in trouble. The entire progressive apparatus of non-profits and unions is collapsing, right now. We are loosing in big way to the forces of neoliberalism and capitalism. In that situation, we just can’t move forward unless we reorganize things and that’s a long process. And labor if it’s smart needs to be part of that process. And labor shouldn’t have any problem coming to the Social Forum and saying what its ideas and visions are.”

In addition to differences over electoral strategy, the BSF’s organizers hope the BSF will also help address other divisions and crises that face the American left. Suren Moodliar of NAFFE said, “These days much of the progressive end of the political spectrum is organized as non-profits. Because of the on-going economic crisis (euphemistically referred to as a recession), this sector is in serious financial difficulty. Now that these organizations are needed the most, they have the least capacity. These groups are forced to pit their concerns against each other as they try to get the state legislatures to fund their programs at the same time they are loosing staff who do the advocacy work and provide their constituency with services. These organizations need to get to together and identify common concerns. The BSF will be a safe, noncompetitive space for them to talk about this.”

Finally, the BSF’s organizers hope the BSF will go a long way to dealing with the lack of attention the ideas of the left receive. For one thing, Moodliar said the BSF will create a space where, “People working on diverse issues can learn to explain their ideas to each other and from there, to the rest of society.” Additionally, 14,000 people from the mainstream media will descend on Boston for the DNC and the BSF will hopefully be big enough to also attract their attention as well. Moodliar explained to me, “At the BSF, progressive organizations will have the opportunity to showcase their analyses of the present and their prescriptions for the future,” countering the charge often made by mainstream pundits that the left has no alternatives to offer.

When they began organizing the BSF in November 2002, CCW and NAFFE took advantage of their existing networks. They are both community-labor networks supporting those trying to organize temps, day laborers, independent contractors and other workers with “bad jobs” who cannot join traditional unions. This meant they had a diverse range of contacts in the progressive community, with particularly strong ties to groups representing labor, immigrants and people of color. According to Pramas, this gave them certain advantages: “This was a multi-racial effort from the beginning. You can’t just walk into Roxbury, Mattapan or Dorchester and say, hey, we’re going to do this big thing and everyone should participate. It’s been tried over and over. It’s part of the reason people get edgy even if they know you and you’ve got a good track record over the years.” They also had already dealt the divide between labor and the middle class left: “The people like me who are organizing this are from the labor movement. We’re labor-community groups, we’re hybrid groups, so we’ve already straddled that divide.”

Hoping to involve some of the pitfalls associated with traditional efforts at coalition building--such as sectarianism and small groups with no significant constituency having as much weight as large, grassroots groups--the BSF’s organizers did not just call a meeting, but set about strategically networking. Pramas explained, “The Social Forum was built organizationally. We went group by group for a reason because we’re looking for folks that work with specific constituencies, that have a track record, that have been around.” To be part of the basic BSF process, groups have to meet a few simple criteria: They can not be political parties; although political parties will be allowed to set up tables at the BSF, they are not allowed to organize events. Groups involved with the BSF must also be progressive and reject both corporate globalization and militarization. Any group that meets these criteria can organize a workshop or other event at the BSF.

The conditions to be part of the core Planning Committee are a bit more strict though, since the groups on the Planning Committee are expected to be pull their weight in terms of contributing to the logistical effort: in addition to agreeing with the BSF’s vision statement, they must meet two of three conditions--having staff, having fund-raising expertise and having a solid track record of organizing for social justice. Given the nature of the BSF, the core organizers with the Planning Committee are mainly from the Boston area, but there are also coalitions across New England planning activities for the BSF. Additionally, Boston-area groups that do not meet the criteria for joining the core Planning Committee can still become Allied Organizations and participate in the many Working Groups planning the individual event “tracks” at the BSF.

These thirty-three tracks represent specific issue areas around which workshops and panels are being organized, including broad areas such as the Economy, the Environment, Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Rights, Global Justice, Media, Peace, and Women’s Liberation, as well as ones on more focused topics such as the Black Congressional Caucus’ Fund the Dream campaign (to move money from the military budget to social welfare programs) and Jobs & the New England Economy. With all the people expected to attend and the space at UMass the BSF has reserved, at any given time there could be fifty workshops and seven panels simultaneously. Three other conferences will actually be happening within the larger BSF conference--an international peace conference, an anti-water privatization conference, and the annual Active Arts conference, which usually draws 1-2,000 youth of color on its own.

The organizers are making an effort to branch out beyond the usual things leftists focus on. Jonathan Leavitt, who was hired specifically to do fundraising and outreach for the BSF, said they are specifically trying to, “include cultural resistance--theater, music, art--as part of these events. Usually, in this country, that’s not respected and integrated in by some of the bigger progressive organizations.” The BSF will feature things like the hip-hop performances of the Active Arts conference and the Beehive Collective, a radical group that educates through art. Pramas said, “We’re also trying to include all areas of human knowledge, including those the left usually cedes to the right or at least the center, like Faith and Science & Technology,” which will have their own tracks at the BSF.

The goals of the organizers of the BSF are to get people talking, to encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas and to foster networking, all in a grassroots, anti-authoritarian atmosphere. Moodliar said, “To encourage meaningful networking, there will be convergence zones by identity, by geography, and by political interest. For instance, there will ones for people of color, for people from Maine, for people making progressive documentaries. These will be open networking space where people can meet others with similar interests. This is a departure from and hopefully an innovation in the Social Forum process.”

Despite all the effort they are putting into the BSF, its organizers are being purposefully vague in their hopes for the outcome of the BSF. They have no goals to produce a ten-point plan or a formal coalition for either New England or Boston. Suzy Husted, who like Leavitt was hired specifically to work on the BSF, said, “One of the things I’ve been trying to really hard to do is to not think about what’s going to come out of this long-term because I’ve been involved in day-to-day organizing and it’s very difficult not to project your own visions onto what you’re working on. I very much want there to be some sort of serendipitous and spontaneous atmosphere for what comes out of the Forum. This isn’t our event, this isn’t any one person’s event, it’s not the Planning Committee’s event. What the event will be is what the participants make of it--and that’s 3,000 people we haven’t met yet.”

****

To learn more about the Boston Social Forum or to register visit their website at http://www.bostonsocialforum.org or contact them at info (at) bostonsocialforum.org or 617-338-9966. For more information on the World Social Forum, visit their website at http://www.worldsocialforum.org .

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles the Boston IMC collective is doing on the various organizing campaigns leading up to the Democratic National Convention. The first article in the series was on the Boston DNC Coalition (http://boston.indymedia.org/feature/display/21690/index.php ).]

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Comments

Puff Piece
12 Jul 2004
This article is a puff-piece for the Social Forum. For an analysis of what the Social Forums are really about, this piece from India, where the WSF 2004 took place, will set it straight:
http://www.rupe-india.org/35/howandwhy.html
Re: Another Boston and Another World are Possible: Gearing Up for the Boston Social Forum
16 Jul 2004
Why is that so many people on the left, when they read a position they disagree with, simply dismiss it either as rubbish (or in this case a "puff-piece") or a sell-out? That attitude seems less than constructive to me. This hardly seems like a puff-piece to me (granted, I'm biased, since I wrote it), just saying how wonderful the BSF is going to be. I spend quite a bit of time talking about the organizing strategy and philosophy behind it, which--whether one agrees with it or not--should be of interest to other activists and organizers. Intelligent people of conscience can have principled differences over matters of vision, strategy, and tactics. We could all benefit from a constructive dialogue around these issues. Engaging in such a dialogue seems more in the spirit of the participatory democracy we're all striving for--with its respect for diverse opinions--than simply dismissing a position one disagrees with.

I'm well aware of the criticisms made of the World Social Forum--that it's dominated by reformists and that radicals have often been marginalized within it. Those are serious problems, but I don't think they make WSF worthless. I think the response many radicals have taken, of organizing their own forums in conjunction with the WSF, makes a great deal of sense--we can still support the positive aspects of the WSF while offering a concrete, constructive critique of its negative aspects.

I didn't feel like these issues applied to the BSF though. It was clear from my interviews that at least some of the core organizers are anti-authoritarians. No, they're not about to mask up and join a Black Bloc any time soon. I'm gessing that--like many anti-authoritarians and other radicals--they are more of the mind that they can better spread radical ideas and practices by working with community groups with a broad grassroots base, building trust, and gaining an audience that way. I certainly lean towards that approach myself, thus my sympathetic coverage. There is an honest debate here to be had about the best way to promote radical ideas, but simply dismissing others' ideas isn't going to get us very far.
Re: Another Boston and Another World are Possible: Gearing Up for the Boston Social Forum
19 Jul 2004
There are lots of criticisms to be made of the World Social Forum. And I'm sure, once it is done, that there will be many of the Boston Social Forum. That's part of how we learn--we do an event, we make it as good as it can be, and then afterwards we dissect it and see what it can be.

But I agree with Matt Williams here--to anonymously dismiss this article as a puff piece and to link to an unsigned article from 2003 is not constructive or impressive. Let's look at the article he links to and consider its relevance to the BSF.

The BSF has been aware of the problems with the World Social Forum, and has been careful to avoid some. For instance, the article criticizes double standards at the WSF around the participation of political parties. The BSF has been strict about the rule that political parties may not be on the planning committee and that office-holders or candidates, while they may appear at workshops, may not address the whole Forum at convocations. This has led to some stress and animosity from parties of the left, who justifiably want to participate. But the BSF has stuck to its principles.

There are also things in this article which simply aren't relevant to a local social forum. The article quotes a well-respected leader saying that the World Social Forum has been taken over by Social Democrats. It spends eight paragraphs on ATTAC, a French organization. But a New England-oriented event hardly needs to worry about being taken over by European social democrats!

The article spends considerable time critiquing the governing structure of the WSF. But besidse giving its blessing and listing the BSF on its website, which organizers appreciate, the WSF International Council certainly hasn't been involved with planning the BSF!

As Matt W says,his article on Boston Indy lays out a lot of the organizing strategy behind the BSF. One could offer various criticisms there, but there is no mention of that from Andy. I'd urge everyone to come to the BSF, take part in an event that has been over a year and a half in the making, and see what you think. Hopefully, you will come away both critical and inspired, and we can continue to move forward together.
depression
04 Jun 2006
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