US Social Forum: We Will Build a New World from the Ashes of the Old

Settling into the conference.  We get up late but I manage to catch most of a morning workshop led by an environmental network of youth—so sweet to sit in a circle with all these beautiful young people, again, so very diverse, and hear them make connections between the social justice issues and the environmental issues.  Lots of great little moments—I run into Jim Haber, an old buddy from San Francisco who now lives in Las Vegas doing interfaith organizing around the Nevada Test Site and peace and justice issues.  He’s asking me if any of the folks in the Bayview are interested in making the connection between the funding cuts for social issues and the war—when a black woman of about my age who is sitting at a table taps us and points at her button, which says “A million a day”.

“That’s why I can’t get a job,” she says.  “We’re spending a million a day on those wars.”  She goes on to talk about the oil spill, tells me how her heart was wrenched by those pictures of the oil-drenched pelican.  This is why it’s hard for me to get anywhere on time—there are so many great side conversations.

I run into Shea Howell who works with the Boggs Center and Margo Adair, my old friend from Tools for Change in Seattle.  Margo, her partner Bill and I will be working together on our upcoming Earth Activist Training in Bellingham, which will have a special focus on social permaculture.  We go out to lunch with a few others at the Cass Café, way up on Cass Street—another local business which has excellent food.  Rich Feldman, from the interfaith committee, has hooked me up with a projector for our workshop—and between him and Shea, they also hook me up with a ride to go get the projector, the computer, and all the other pieces.

We show our video of the permaculture work in the Bayview—which you can see for yourself at:

All the technology works perfectly—which was the only part really worrying me.  Lena talks about Hunters Point Family, the agency she started when she was only twenty three.  When I was twenty-three I was travelling around on a bicycle mooning about the drug-addict boyfriend I’d just broken up with and trying to Find Myself.  She created a program for girls, Girls 2000, to help be a safe haven from the violence around them, to build their skills and self-esteem and to provide the resources that might be lacking in their homes.  Lena is an impressive speaker—she’s honest and passionate and people respond to her sense of vision, the same vision that drew me in to help support their work with the gardens.  Then Jasmine talks—and she is awesome, too!  She has such an engaging, confident, radiant personality—she tells us about coming up in the program herself and now being a Case Manager for the girls.  She runs the Girls Group and she’s young enough to be kind of a big sister to them, and she genuinely loves them.

I talk about our Earth Activist Trainings and how we came to be involved in the Bayview.  One part of EAT’s mission statement is “To bring the knowledge and resources of regenerative ecological design to communities with the greatest needs and fewest resources.“   When a friend introduced me to Lena, and I heard her vision of the Bayview becoming the ‘green jewel in the crown of the Emerald City”, I knew we could support that work.  We talk about what has worked well in our collaboration—a strong, shared vision is the beginning.  Respecting the community—coming in with questions, listening rather than slapping down ready-made solutions, employing that permaculture principle of thoughtful and protracted observation—all that is key.  And most of all, something that has come clear to us through our late-night conversations as we’ve talked about the workshop, keeping the goal firmly on capacity building for the community, on transferring knowledge and skills even when sometimes that means sacrificing efficiency or immediate results.

Then we open it up to questions and discussion.  Aresh, who started Homes with Gardens in the Bronx is there and talks about some of the legal issues in New York and their efforts to defend community gardens.  Shea talks about some of the Detroit Summer gardens and offers to take us to see them.  A young woman who is organizing against mountain-top removal coal mining asks some thoughtful questions.  All and all—a great time!

The evening, like everything, is double-scheduled.  I catch some of the plenary, to hear Grace Boggs, an amazing organizer now in her nineties.  She and her husband, Jimmie Boggs, who is now dead, have been the center of much of the creative and transformative work here for decades.  She and other great organizers from Detroit talk about the movement history of the city.  The point they make, over and over again, is that Detroit is a strong center of resistance and resilience.  With all that’s happened to the city, Grace says, “we continue to come back with something new.”

I walk over to the Doubletree to meet up with Lena at the Green for All reception, hosted by Alli Starr and Ash who do great work in inner city Oakland.  I run into some other old friends—like Gerardo who took our social permaculture course a couple of years ago, and is running a program for inner-city Latino and black youth which mixes arts and rites of passage and cultural identity.  David Korten, the writer who has written A New Economic Agenda, The Great Turning, and When Corporations Rule the World.  He’s talking with a young man from Zimbabwe who is involved in democratic, sustainable development.

When we get chased out, finally, I end up back at the plenary sitting next to Jim Haber.  We decide to go out to the Anchor Bar to hear David Rovics and Anne Feeney, and walk out in the rain.  The bar is crowded and noisy, but I decide to have a beer—mostly out of fear that my bad ears, which make me want to avoid noise, and my tendency to fall asleep if I imbibe even the smallest amount of alcohol, together are turning me rapidly into an old fuddy-duddy who never does anything fun.  So, warding off fuddy-duddyness with beer in hand, we squeeze into the back room.  Up front a man with a guitar is singing a country-rock version of Solidarity Forever and everyone is standing and singing.  Someone grabs my hand and holds it up—Dave whom I met on the Gaza Freedom March.  We’re all singing together, the whole crowded room, crammed with old comrades I’ve marched with so many times and with so many people I’ve never met but who have nonetheless been marching together, whether we knew it or not.  We’re singing that old song that raises the ghosts of so many marches and strikes and struggles, and I’m happy.  “We will build a new world from the ashes of the old,” we sing, “Solidarity forever.”  I believe it.

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