Boston Social Forum: Significance, Achievements and Some Lessons Learned
analysis of the recent Boston Social Forum by two of its organizers
Boston Social Forum: Significance, Achievements and Some Lessons Learned
by Suren Moodliar and Jason Pramas
September 11, 2004
The World Social Forum (WSF) burst onto the global progressive scene in January 2001 with a 20,000-person happening in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Its mandate was to link up and strengthen disparate social movements against neoliberalism and militarism around the world by creating an open space for dialogue and debate, educating and strategizing, and music and performance. Under the banner "Another World is Possible," the event was pointedly held opposite the annual corporate love-fest in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum.
The WSF inspired progressive organizers around the world to follow suit and hold major (and regular) social forums on every continent-except in North America. Small, forum-like events were experimented with in various U.S. and Canadian cities, but none followed the exciting new model for activist networking created by the French and Brazilian organizations that founded the WSF process.
That changed in November, 2002 when a small group of organizers from two Boston-based non-profits, the Campaign on Contingent Work and the North American Alliance for Fair Employment, hatched an audacious plan to hold the first major social forum in North America to use the methodology of the WSF-right before the Democratic National Convention (DNC) which had then just been announced for July 26-29, 2004. It would be called the Boston Social Forum (BSF).
Twenty months later, from July 23-25, 2004, well over 5,000 people-brought to the campus of UMass Boston by over 70 progressive community, labor, religious and immigrant organizations-made the idea a reality. In the end, close to 300 organizations helped organize the more than 550 events held at the BSF!
Key to this success was the organizers' determination to: a) follow the World Social Forum Charter of Principles as closely as possible, b) point the way toward future U.S.-based social forums and contribute to a future North American Social Forum, c) encourage the spread of the social forum process right down to city, town and neighborhood level events around the Northeastern U.S. and beyond, d) build the event out of grassroots organizations, not individual-by-individual, to help spark a majoritarian progressive movement in the U.S., e) make the BSF a truly open and democratic space, f) engage the broadest possible set of progressive organizations and social sectors to organize and participate in the BSF, g) encourage progressives of all stripes to put out their best analyses of the present and their best ideas for the future, across the spectrum of human knowledge, h) encourage BSF attendees to network with each other across boundaries of race, ethnicity, sex, class, sexuality, culture and political line and begin to form alliances that could not possibly have happened had the BSF not happened, i) greatly increase the BSF's potential size and impact by holding the event opposite the corporate-dominated DNC, similar to the WSF's being held opposite the corporate-dominated World Economic Forum every year, and j) make the forum a lively event that prefigured the kind of society progressives would like to live in-a society where art, music and performance are not mere add-ons, but are instead integral to our movement.
*The BSF brought the World Social Forum process to North America in a big way*
While there have been a few social forums around North America in the last couple of the years, the organizers of the BSF were the first to engage leadership of the World Social Forum process at meetings in Miami and Paris, announce their intentions in a timely fashion, and get themselves placed on the official WSF calendar of upcoming social forums. They achieved this by cleaving to the WSF Charter of Principles, and also through both their track record as activists and the track records of the organizations they were able to bring to the table in the Boston area and beyond.
*The BSF connected the global movement to local movements*
With leadership from the largest Italian trade union federation, the Columbian labor movement, the Landless Workers Movement and the Workers Party from Brazil, the Korean democracy movement, the Canadian anti-corporate globalization movement, the British labor movement, the Japanese peace movement, the Indian peace movement, and many more on hand, BSF organizers connected large numbers of American activists directly to significant global movements against neoliberalism and militarism. These global movement leaders have now gone back home to inform their organizations of a new wave of progressive organizing in the "belly of the beast."
*The BSF was tremendously grassroots in character*
The BSF was created and built by grassroots organizations and activists of all kinds. Most were strongly rooted in the Boston area, and together they reflected the broad spectrum of humanity that makes its home there. The BSF organizing structure was extremely horizontal, and virtually all BSF events were "self-proposed" by progressive organizations from all over the U.S. and the world. BSF organizers aligned themselves with the "open space" wing of the WSF process (other wings of the WSF would prefer that the process move quickly towards the creation of some kind of global political party or shadow government and would organize the WSF in a more hierarchical fashion). BSF staff and volunteers viewed their job not as one of command and control, but rather to ensure that the BSF would be a truly open and democratic space. They worked hard to make sure that all factions from the broad left were represented, and free to debate ideas in a convivial atmosphere based on mutual respect and solidarity. They guarded against any attempt by any faction to dominate the proceedings, or close the BSF to full participation by the grassroots.
*The BSF bridged the racial divide to create a multiracial event*
BSF organizers were multiracial from the start and were able to ensure that over 20 percent of the 5000+ BSF participants were people of color. This kind of diversity is rare for large American progressive events, and made the BSF one of the most diverse progressive events in recent memory. Most organizers of color lamented the relative absence of their grassroots from the BSF (with the notable exception of nearly 1000 youth of color who participated in the Active Arts Youth Conference track of the BSF) but were pleased to recognize that most Boston area organizers of color were in attendance.
*The BSF bridged the immigrant/non-immigrant divide*
The ranks of BSF organizers included immigrant organizers from the get-go, and won the strong support of the major immigrant-labor coalition in New England, the Massachusetts Legalization Coalition, early on in the BSF organizing process. Almost every significant progressive immigrant community organization was represented at the BSF, and the BSF even put money into vans to various communities around Boston to ensure that immigrants could attend the BSF without running the risk of being stopped and searched while riding mass transportation to UMass Boston. Significant numbers of translators were available for Spanish and Portuguese speakers, and translators were also on hand in a number of other languages as well. The three major BSF events featured simultaneous translation in Spanish and Portuguese (and ASL for deaf participants), and several BSF workshops were conducted in languages other than English. The labor movement and the immigrant movement were able to conduct a number of events together, and stronger ties between the two camps resulted. In addition, numerous non-immigrant movements were able to interact with immigrant organizers-in many cases for the first time. Organizers of the track on immigration are planning to use the workshops prepared for the BSF in their ongoing community work.
*The BSF built strong connections between movements around New England*
The BSF encouraged the formation of regional organizing coalitions around New England that mirrored the organizing taking place in the Boston area. These coalitions held their own meetings in the months leading up to the BSF. Coalitions were formed in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Southeastern Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts. Following the BSF, some of these coalitions are moving directly into organizing their own social forums in Maine, Vermont and Connecticut-spreading the WSF process deeper and deeper into U.S. society with each event.
*The BSF posed the problems of the urban/suburban and poor/working class/middle class divides*
One of the key divides standing in the way of a truly majoritarian progressive movement in the U.S. is the split between largely people of color urban areas and largely white suburban areas. The BSF did its part to heal this rift by bringing largely white suburban groups together with large people of color urban groups in the same space for 3 days of intensive interaction. Much more work will be needed to truly bridge this divide, but the BSF pointed the way towards a common progressive agenda for both suburbanites and urbanites. Similarly, the BSF brought together anti-poverty activist groups, labor groups, and middle class peace and environmental groups in a very unusual way.
*The BSF concretely connected the labor movement to grassroots movements*
The heavy participation (during an election year) of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in North America, in a grassroots event like the BSF was a tremendous leap forward for relations between unions and other movements that have been troubled since the McCarthy era. Numerous other unions, and the AFL-CIO itself, also had representation at the BSF, and greeted the event most favorably.
*The BSF brought the independent left and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party together for strategic debates and discussions*
BSF organizers worked hard to bring progressive Democrats into the orbit of the independent left by getting significant numbers of them to turn out (and actively build) for the BSF. The logic was that the more Democrats the BSF could expose to the excellent left organizations and strategies that would be on display, the more it would be likely to pull their overall politics to the left. Or at least make them think more seriously about left politics as they were engaged in solid debate at the BSF. Given that social forums are meant to be a big tent for the broad left, BSF organizers figured that the "right edge" of that tent would be progressive Dems. It was also hoped that Democratic participation in the BSF would forestall any efforts by the local Democratic establishment to harass the BSF or even stop it from happening. The Kucinich campaign was extremely supportive-turning out campaign activists and DNC delegates to the BSF-even advertising the BSF on their main website for months before the forum. ProgressiveGovernment.org helped out a great deal as well, as did the Young Democrats by listing the BSF in their big guide of recommended events during the DNC period. MA State Representatives Patricia Jehlen and Byron Rushing, both progressive Democrats, also did great service to the BSF by joining our advisory board. Rep. Rushing's pointer that the DNC would be the largest gathering of people of color in Boston's history was quite important in reminding BSF organizers that avoiding a directly adversarial relationship between the BSF and the DNC would positively effect the perception of the event in communities of color around the U.S. The social forum as a gathering of civil society also provided a space for the multiple strands of the left-the Greens, various socialist formations, the libertarian left, progressive democrats, etc.-to gather and focus on the social aspects of building a movement, quite apart from immediate political imperatives.
*The BSF took itself seriously enough to get a Boston City Council resolution welcoming the forum to Boston*
At a press conference in March 2004 and again during the opening convocation of the BSF, Boston City Councillors Felix Arroyo and Chuck Turner (2 of the 3 councillors of color in Boston) announced that they had signed a resolution welcoming the BSF to the City of Boston. The resolution served four purposes. First, it followed the pattern of other social forums around the world in getting local government recognition that the World Social Forum process is an important political development that will have a positive impact on any community that it touches. Second, it provided important political cover with the local Democrat-dominated political establishment by demonstrating that political leaders from the Latino and African-American communities were behind the BSF-further solidifying BSF ties to those communities in the bargain. Third, the resolution was a public recognition that the BSF was going to be a large "convention" in its own right-and that it would benefit the local economy by bringing more visitors to the city. As it turned out, the BSF was the second largest convention in Boston in 2004-next to the DNC. Lastly, it signaled that the left was not going to be lurking in the shadows, keeping its politics undercover, but instead be open and forthright in demanding its place at the public table. Future U.S.-based social forums should seriously consider getting themselves recognized by similar resolutions in their communities.
*The BSF gave the peace movement, and other movements, space to strategize before the DNC, the RNC and the elections*
Although the BSF was a regional event, it took place right before the DNC, an event of national and international significance. Because of that fact it had a much larger level of participation by activists from around the U.S. and beyond-giving the peace movement, and other movements for whom the coming presidential elections require a strong popular intervention, the opportunity to plan their next move at face-to-face meetings. The peace-related tracks of the BSF included 1/3 of all the events at the BSF, making the BSF easily the biggest peace conference in Boston's history-and one of the biggest in U.S. history.
*The BSF had heavy student and youth participation*
The participation of large number of young people in the BSF was no accident. All of the key BSF organizers were student and youth organizers not so long ago, and felt that if the BSF process provided a welcoming atmosphere built on the dictum that young people are "equals with less experience"-not social inferiors to be ordered around like servants-then word would spread in student and youth circles that the BSF was cool. And when something is cool to young people, lots of other young people will get wind of it. Youth-led groups like Boston Mobilization and Critical Breakdown therefore moved easily into the ranks of BSF organizers-with the result that as many as one-half of all BSF participants were under 30 years old.
*The BSF encouraged new alliances between struggling social movements*
Many progressive organizations, particularly in the non-profit sector, have been hard hit by the ongoing recession in the U.S. and throughout the world. The BSF provided activists representing an incredibly diverse array of organizations the opportunity to interact with each other, and helped spark new alliances between movements that could help strengthen them through collective action in the months and years to come.
*The BSF injected new life and spirit into Boston's foundering progressive movements-and may help spread this spirit across the continent*
The BSF was a massive "shot-in-the-arm" for Boston area progressive groups-politically, intellectually, and spiritually. The BSF's call for a majoritarian progressive movement-even its raising the possibility of a new day for the American left-and backing up this call with over 5000 attendees made local activists feel like there's something new in the air. Something exciting. Something that they all helped make happen. And something that they're helping to spread among progressives around the country, and joining in building with progressives around the world. In addition to the majoritarian aspiration, the BSF reclaimed words long divorced from the left, "vibe" and "buzz." Through network organizing (see below), the BSF was able to reach people in a diffused and decentralized manner, with word spreading from person-to-person ("buzz") with messages tailored authentically and spontaneously by individuals ("vibe"), rather than from HQ to lackies.
*The BSF's "network model" of organizing proved capable of drawing in large numbers of progressives*
The initial BSF organizers utilized a "network model" of organizing. This model is premised on five closely related ideas, assumptions, and propositions. First, people in modern society aren't joining formal organizations of any kind-progressive or otherwise-in the numbers that they once did. So progressive organizations are in trouble because without a strong membership base, their finances are overdependent on foundations and wealthy donors to survive. This dependence affects their political independence and unfortunately often affects their political will. Second, it's important to set up a system of constant intercommunication and interaction between activists across progressive organizations and encourage them to work cooperatively towards broad common goals whenever possible. Three, it's also critical to find ways to reach out to the huge number of folks who are not part of formal progressive organizations but who may join progressive movements if they believe that they're vibrant, exciting and have at least the possibility of succeeding and building a better society within their lifetimes. Four, many people are part of informal and even latent networks that need to be identified by activists. And, fifth, in the final analysis, it may be more important to spread movement ideas than to try to get people to join specific organizations. Progressive organizations need to be encouraged to be less territorial in their organizing, and focus more on a huge movement than on their specific group. Using network organizing strategies, BSF organizers put on a large event at a time when other progressive organizers struggle to get 200 people to an event. The example of over 5000 people attending the BSF will be a powerful incentive for progressive activists to experiment with the network model of organizing.
*The BSF ran a big event on $200,000 raised mostly from the grassroots*
Over 60 percent of the $200,000 raised to put on the BSF came from BSF registrations, tickets to BSF benefits, and small donations. About 25 percent came from the Service Employees International Union, and about 15 percent came from 4 small foundation grants, and 3 donations from wealthy individuals. Contrast that fundraising profile to many of the larger WSF events-with large amounts of money coming from governments, large foundations and NGOs, and even from some corporations-and one can count the BSF as a real model of grassroots fundraising.
*The BSF made movement weaknesses clear and pointed the way to repairing those weaknesses*
Americans may not be joining organizations in the numbers they once did, but the existence of strong progressive organizations may be key to a strong progressive movement. As such, evidence of weakening progressive institutions should be taken seriously by progressive organizers everywhere, and BSF organizers found such evidence in all movement sectors.
Outreach for the BSF was like a sociological survey of the Boston progressive movement in many respects. Virtually all left-of-center organizations in the Greater Boston area were approached by the BSF outreach team over the course of 20 months of organizing. The results of this survey were disturbing. Almost all progressive non-profits-and vanishingly few progressive organizations are not non-profits-have been badly financially hurt during the ongoing recession due to sharp cut-backs in foundation funding since 2001. Few groups have enough of a membership base to do without such funding, and few groups receive enough alternative funding (from unions or religious denominations) to continue on without severe staff cuts or going under altogether.
Hardest hit have been progressive organizations of color. While Boston enjoys a solid cadre of organizers of color most of them have been forced to seek employment with white-led groups, or to attempt organizing in communities of color while on unemployment, or while working non-movement jobs (which is a difficult juggling act in the best of times, and these are not the best of times). Unfortunately, those who go to work for white-led groups are often the last-hired and first-fired employees-mirroring the general trend for workers of color in society-at-large.
Lack of strong progressive organizations of color has translated to a lack of a mobilized grassroots of color. Lack of a mobilized grassroots translates to a lack of political strength in communities of color. It's worth noting that the (generally white) commentators that have felt that BSF's people of color turnout of over 20 percent was somehow low have uniformly failed to take such developments into account.
In addition, the general financial bloodbath faced by the progressive non-profit sector has caused many of these groups to become more and more politically defensive. To refuse to take risks. To refuse to go on the offensive, even when excellent opportunities present themselves. A few non-profits have become so insular, and have moved so much into survival mode, that they were reticent to interact with the BSF even in the most cursory manner.
Also, while many of the non-profit organizations participating in the BSF have a long history of working in coalition; many did not. And, of those that had such a history, many were unable to integrate working on an event that is largely focused on ideas and movement building-rather than specific outcomes and organization building-with their day-to-day work. Although the staff of many organizations found the social forum process inspiring and motivational, many of the leaders did not know how to prioritize work that contributed to the movements' common good with the "specific, achievable and measurable" objectives of their immediate programs. Nonetheless, over the many months of planning, fundraising, and organizing the BSF organizations assimilated forum goals and activities into their own agendas, thereby both adding resources to the effort and drawing from the BSF. The most successful organizations were able to share speakers and other resources by discussion and negotiation with other organizations. Those who chose to go it alone were still able to attend and participate in the forum, but did so with less efficacy.
If there is any silver lining in the dark cloud of the crisis in the non-profit sector it is that some non-profits are reacting in a positive way-reaching out to forward-thinking initiatives like the BSF with open arms, and becoming more willing to work in coalition with all different types of organizations and networks towards broad visionary political goals.
Unions, meanwhile, are riven with healthy and long-overdue debates about how they can survive the corporate-driven onslaught of neoliberal policies aimed at their total extinction. Many of these unions are still in good financial shape and wield considerable political clout, even if their membership figures remain in free-fall, and their control of their respective labor markets is long gone. The space opened up by inter-union debates is allowing for progressive activists to engage with union leadership in ways which would have been inconceivable even 5 years ago. The BSF took advantage of this opening, and we fully expect that other social forums will be able to as well.
Progressive religious denominations for their part vary widely in their responses to the recession. Some put their heads in the sand and depoliticize--reverting to pre-1960s modes of religious conservatism coupled with modest efforts to deal with the symptoms of corporate globalization like feeding homeless people or grappling with gang-violence. But some religious groups rise to the occasion of life in the 21st century, and try to confront corporate globalization head on, marshalling their often considerable financial resources and powerful social ministry to mobilize their constituency to great effect. Such activist denominations played an important role in building for the BSF, and seem likely to expand such efforts to great effect in both the spiritual and material realms.
*The BSF saw performances, cultural events and movies as integral to its success*
The arts were not an afterthought throughout the BSF process that featured screenings of over 40 progressive films, and performances by over 100 artists-many of them at the BSF itself. Some of these filmmakers and performers were famous like Michelle Shocked, Billy Bragg, Jimmy Tingle, Barry Crimmins, John Sayles, Chris Cooper, and most were not. But in Boston, strong ties have been formed between the local art community and the progressive activist community that should bear real fruit in the years to come. One thing is for sure, activism in Boston is not going to be dull from now on. And without a strong movement culture, there cannot be a strong movement.
*The BSF used modern technology to great effect*
A decade ago, it would not have been possible to put on a large event like the BSF with only a couple of paid staff. Thanks to widely available cellphones and computers, cheap websites and listservs, and the omnipresence of email, it is now indeed possible to put on a large event much more cheaply and efficiently than ever before. Over 40,000 people visited the BSF website over the several months of its existence-many of whom were able to make fast online donations to the effort thanks to Groundspring.org. Thousands more were directly connected to the BSF effort via one of our 15 listservs, and much of the BSF organizing effort happened via email and cellphone conversations (allowing one of our organizers to have over 100 interactions on any given day at the busiest points of the BSF organizing drive). At the BSF itself, a specially-designed database was utitilized on 10 donated computers onsite to handle registration. Rented cellphones with walkie-talkie features allowed 12 key BSF staff and volunteers constant intercommunication wherever they were on the UMass Boston campus or anywhere in the Metro Boston area. Much of this technology was organized by volunteers from Tecschange, a Roxbury, MA grassroots progressive technology group that specializes in training neighborhood youth to build and repair computers for use by local non-profits. BSF organizers are happy to make the BSF database framework available to any future forum organizers, as well as to recommend scheduling software and other technology that might be of use.
*Lessons for future U.S.-based Social Forums*
The execution of the BSF taught its organizers many logistical and political lessons that should be instructive to organizers of future U.S.-based forums. For example, despite the aspiration to be a truly multilingual event drawing in many cultures, English, for the most part, dominated the BSF. Future social forums will have to ensure that programming and translation reflects the needs of New England's many immigrant communities and those of the many overseas allies choosing to attend the event.
Similarly, early in the organizing for the forum, calls were made by at least one community group for many decentralized community-based events to take place around the time of the BSF. Yet only one event-a play marking the 40 anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's participation in the DNC-actually took place, and it was initiated directly by BSF organizers. Future social forums, should consider putting more effort into such events to spread the forum process deeper into surrounding communities. This could happen in two different directions: more events in working-class communities of color and more events that reach out to the (predominantly white) suburban middle classes.
At the logistical end, the Boston Social Forum succeeded in attracting a large number of event proposals (well over 650) and eventually scheduling some 550. Mechanisms will have to be found to have a more manageable number of events. This may help solve another problem: many discussions barely begin before the social forum ends. Fewer events with more attention paid to the sequencing and coherence of events may facilitate more profound explorations of issues and lead also to practical outcomes. The program can be developed in stages with time/place assignments being handed out earlier for core events and greater emphasis place on encouraging additional proposals to be consolidated with earlier ones. Event presenters should also consider repeating events two or even three times during the course of a given social forum to allow more people to participate in conversations and debates on key issues.
The BSF's three daily convocations (large assemblies), while admirable in terms of the intellectual caliber and diversity of the speakers and issues, each became a long drawn out series of lectures-only occasionally punctuated by cultural interludes-primarily because convocations were the last events to be scheduled and BSF organizers did not have time to book more cultural events. Future forums will have to be more faithful to the original intentions of the BSF organizers: convocations that fuse cultural performances and visionary talks that point the way forward and help identify principles of unity, but are also exciting, entertaining and fast-moving.
The organizers of the Boston Social Forum benefited from the advice and support of activists and organizers from around the country and further afield. Similarly, activists from elsewhere in the US and Canada are now looking at the lessons learned in Boston are taking up where the BSF left off, spreading the WSF process to every corner of the U.S. and Canada. In doing so, forum-connected activists will link the continent up with an already vibrant global movement. Together, progressive activists around the world stand a real chance of building the kind of majoritarian progressive movement that can defeat the forces of runaway capitalism and militarism, heal the environment, and save the planet for future generations.
Suren Moodliar is co-coordinator of the North American Alliance for Fair Employment. Jason Pramas is networking director of Massachusetts Global Action (the successor organization of the Campaign on Contingent Work). Both were coordinators of the Boston Social Forum.
The authors may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The BSF website is: www.bostonsocialforum.org.
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