Javiera Benavente's Reportback on U.S. Social Forum

By Javiera Benavente

On June 22-26, 2010 the 2nd US Social Forum took place in Detroit, MI, and brought together thousands of people from around the country (and beyond) to participate in a movement-building process that distinguishes itself by focusing on creating space "to come up with peoples' solutions to the economic and ecological crisis" we face in the world today.

Modeled after the World Social Forum process that began in Porto Alegre Brazil in 2005, the USSF is grounded in a belief that social, political and economic transformation are not only possible but necessary, and that they must be embodied by a "multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational, diverse, internationalist movement."

While at the forum, I spent most of my time connecting with folks who are actively engaged in integrating art, culture, and creative practice into their efforts for social, political and economic transformation. After the five day gathering, I returned home feeling affirmed and inspired by the creative ways people all over the country are resisting oppression and injustice and transforming this culture-bit by bit.

Here are some of the creative people and projects that I encountered during my five days in Detroit this summer.

I had the opportunity to participate in the USSF on behalf of the Arts & Democracy Project, which was one of several organizations involved in organizing a Creativity Lab at the forum along with Alternate ROOTS, Art2Action, Animating Democracy, Leftist Lounge/Culture Clash, MAG-Net, & the Movement Strategy Center/Art is Change. The Creativity Lab was dedicated to elevating our collective understanding of the role of creativity in political and cultural transformation.  Using an open space format, folks were invited to explore and experiment with a variety of creative practices-visual art, music, theater, dance, spoken word, and dialogue-as a way to express what was being discussed at the Social Forum. Hundreds of people made their way to the Creativity Lab and participated in a variety of self-organized activities including making giant puppets and visual media for art actions, demonstrations, and cultural events with groups like Matrix Theater, Ruckus Society and Culture Clash. While the Creativity Lab provided a designated space for art-based creative expression and action, creativity abounded in non-designated spaces throughout the forum. Groups like the Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Son Mudanza were among the most visible and regular cultural interventionists at the forum, enlivening the hallways of Cobo Hall and streets of Detroit with their infectious and inspiring music.

The Creativity Lab sponsored several workshops that focused on a variety of art-based and culturally-based tools and approaches for progressive social change.   Among them was a workshop on Creative Organizing by Ricardo Levins Morales.  A visual artist and founding member of the Northland Poster Collective, Ricardo has been collaborating with the labor unions, community-based organizations and people struggling for social justice for decades.  He frames his work as "medicinal art," because its purpose is to diagnose and heal whatever is keeping a people from knowing their power and acting on it.   The art of storytelling is the medicine that can change peoples understanding of their situation -past and present-and what is possible in the future.  However, Ricardo is clear that art alone can does not create social change.  It is the act of people coming together to understand their collective problems and acting together to create the world they want to live that leads to political and cultural transformation.  Art and storytelling are simply tools that enable people to access their power so that they can do this.

I participated in two other workshops-not affiliated with the Creativity Lab-that affirmed and expanded my understanding of the important role that the imagination and storytelling can play in creating the conditions for political and cultural transformation.

The Compass, a Chicago-based collective of artists and activists dedicated to exploring alterative cultures in the Rust Belt and Corn Belt regions of the United States, offered a workshop about their project "Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor."  The MRCC is an attempt to challenge the dominant capitalist/corporate narrative about the aspirations, needs and values of the people living in the Midwest.  Part mapping project, part storytelling project, part project of the imagination, the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor invites people to remember the radical cultural history of this region, learn about and make visible the ways people in this region are creating political, social, economic and cultural alternatives in the cracks and fissures of capitalism, and imagine the Midwest that they want to live in.

Long-time global justice activist, Starhawk offered a workshop on Vision-Based and Solution-Based Organizing with collaborators Lena Miller from Hunters Point Family and Lisa Fithian from Alliance of Community Trainers.  This workshop reminded me that in order for organizing to be sustainable over the long haul, not only do we need to resist injustice and inequality but we also need to articulate our vision for the world we want to live in and advocate for concrete solutions to the problems we face.  Having a clear vision for the kind of immigration policy we want, for example, can help sustain our energy and focus when we are resisting injustice policies such as Arizona's law SB170.  A clear vision of what we want can also help us build partnerships and alliances with others who share our vision-thus strengthening our ability to organize for change.  While our vision for the world we want to live in can seem far away in a distant future we may never experience, this workshop also reminded me that we are creating that world in small and not so small ways everyday-through the relationships we build, the stories we tell, and the solutions we craft to all kinds of problems that we face.