An atmosphere not unlike a summer youth retreat filled the halls of downtown Detroit’s Cobo Center at the end of June as activists, advisers, community organizers, and plenty of people whose hearts just plain beat for social justice came together for the U.S. Social Forum.
Among the participants were several alumni of the School of Social Work, some of whom helped organize the forum itself and others who were instrumental in bringing more people to take part.
Starting with a peaceful march down Woodward Avenue on June 22, the forum offered four days of workshops, plenary sessions, displays, and networking opportunities on all kinds of social justice topics. Forum organizers described it online at ussf2010.org as “a movement-building process… a space to come up with the peoples’ [sic] solutions to the economic and ecological crisis.”
The action wasn’t limited to Cobo Hall and Hart Plaza, which were the main spots; some events took place at nearby Wayne State University and other local sites. Before it ended on June 26, with a rally and march to protest the Detroit incinerator, thousands came to be part of it. Attendance estimates were near 15,000.
2010 SSW graduate Jaimie Philip, MSW, was involved with the USSF from the very beginning. In the fall of 2008, she was co-coordinator of the Social Welfare Action Alliance (SSWAA) and was working to tell people about the social forum “when we didn’t even know if it was going to happen in Detroit,” she said. But she knew some people and had some information from previous social forums, and the SWAA did an event at the School of Social Work as part of the MLK Symposium in early 2010 to show the potential of having the social forum in Detroit.
“I grew up in Detroit and I know that there’s definitely a lot of obstacles and a lot of difficulties that people in the city encounter each day. But I also know there’s a lot of resiliency, a lot of hope,” Philip said. Bringing it to her hometown, she thought, would help address injustices and could boost the organizing that’s going on, too.
“We know it was very intentional that Detroit was chosen,” Philip said, but at the same time, she recognized that issues from Detroit are happening elsewhere and wanted to bring that common ground to other people’s attention.
Philip works as the training coordinator for the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, where she had her field placement. Her job at ROC Michigan puts her in contact with employees and employers focusing on improving conditions for workers, and is part of the reason she just moved back into Detroit.
Philip and fellow 2010 School of Social Work graduate Joe Donlin helped organize the forum itself and were in charge of raising awareness within the School and Washtenaw County. On the Forum’s first full day, Donlin was running between Cobo and Wayne State, trying to make sure two busloads of Ann Arborarea attendees got where they needed to go.
During the Forum, groups of people gathered outside workshop rooms, sitting on the floor in circles and contributing thoughts and ideas for the ones taking notes with markers on giant sheets of white paper. It looked in some ways like any modern brainstorming session, but the dress code was more casual than suits and the ideas weren’t marketing solutions or corporate slogans.
“It’s a process about people creating the change they want to see, not expecting it from other people,” Donlin said of the way the Forum worked. “This is a process that brings people from all over the world to envision and then create.” People could take time to analyze and reflect about the change they wanted to see, he said, and the people in Detroit in June were simply people with ideas and passion, no famous names or politicians.
Donlin said what he found unique about the social forum process is that historically oppressed or marginalized groups were at the forefront. “To have people who are most affected by social justices at the center is change [already],” he said.
Philip said a highlight for her of the Forum was a social action as part of the Dearborn Andiamo restaurant workers’ campaign, including a lawsuit to recoup wages and fight alleged discriminatory treatment. “We were able to give people the chance to come out and support these workers,” she said, and Andiamo closed the night of the protest, which included—she related with a laugh—a “song and dance” that was a choreographed version of pop singer Lady Gaga’s song “Bad Romance,” using the words “Bad Restaurant” instead.
“That’s the impact that it had,” Philip said of the Forum. “It’s having a direct impact on things that are going on here locally. That’s another illustration of how the Social Forum was working to support and highlight the local organizing that’s going on in Detroit.”
It was busy but not hectic, participants agreed, with a youthful energy that belied the ages of plenty of participants. Many were young adults; many more were middle-aged and older adults. All were there to learn from others in communities undergoing revitalization, said Mina Hong, MSW/MPP, a 2009 graduate of the School of Social Work who works as a project manager for racial justice organization New Detroit. She and others from New Detroit put on a workshop on the first day of the Forum.
Still, she said, “I was interested in the Social Forum way before I started at New Detroit.” She was cocoordinator of the SWAA with Philip in 2008–09 and worked to raise awareness of the Forum. “It seemed like the place to learn from other people. For me, the highlight was the eagerness of everybody to learn from each other. That’s rare. Usually when you get thousands of people together, [somebody] wants to dominate,” said Hong.
On the main floor of Cobo Center, tables filled with groups small and larger, talking and visiting and sharing, and sometimes just taking snack breaks. Across the hall, the gym offered tables of vendors and displays from organizations sharing their messages. From booksellers to t-shirt sellers, universities (including the School of Social Work) to jewelry makers to groups dedicated to freeing prisoners, reforming business, cleaning up the environment, and spreading grassroots advocacy—there were rows of things to see, buy, and talk about.
At one of the lobby tables, 2010 SSW graduate Alexandra Luck, MSW/MPH, sat with Ann Arborarea teens she had brought to the forum. The U.S. Social Forum happened at just the right time for her to attend, she said. Although she planned to move to Massachusetts the next week, she was working as a youth program adviser at the Neutral Zone in downtown Ann Arbor during the week of the Forum. “The Social Forum is all about social change, and I’m in Ann Arbor right now, and I thought that was too good of a coincidence for me to pass up,” said Luck.
At the Neutral Zone, according to Luck, people are specifically interested in social change and youth organizing. She was involved in a group named Riot Youth, set up to support LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered) teen issues. “A lot of the youth in Riot Youth already have a strong drive to create social change,” Luck said, and she wanted to connect them with organizers so they could see what’s out there. Many LGBT teens are more aware of social issues than other teenagers, Luck said, so it seemed a good fit for them to come along
Luck herself was looking for information on ways to combine her interest in youth organizing with what she said is a long-standing hobby of the creative arts, specifically theater. The morning she was at the Forum, a puppet group was performing, and the teens with her were happy to take off in pursuit of the show after their brief conversation in the lobby.
On top of the workshops, performances, and vendors, and although there were people from various groups sharing their literature and passing petitions to sign or offering stickers to wear, plenty more attendees were just talking with one another and sharing ideas and experiences.
Philip said she loved the atmosphere there. “Running into people [you knew] or complete strangers, you could strike up a conversation with them. . . and just overhearing the kinds of conversations that were happening around me [was] very powerful,” said Philip, adding she got excited knowing all that energy was in one place.
For the future, she’s hopeful the commitments from the Forum continue and people continue to move forward on the projects they’re doing together. “This is much more than [an event or conference],” Philip stressed, saying people don’t want to lose the relationships they made there. “I’d encourage people to find out what happened,” she said, “and see how they can connect with the post-Social Forum.”
For more on the Andiamo lawsuit, see the Michigan Daily article from Feb. 18, 2010, or the Dearborn Press & Guide article from Jan. 16, 2010. For more on the USSF-related action, see the June 24, 2010 blog post on Metro Times.
—Hillary Whitcomb Jesse is a freelance writer and editor based in the Ypsilanti area.