13Jul
rlevitow July 13, 2007 No Comments

Melanie Joseph Reports from the U.S. World Social Forum

From Melanie Joseph, Artistic Director, The Foundry Theatre:
Hi everyone, 
I’m recently back from the first ever U.S. Social Forum and I’m delighted to report that it was exponentially better than I expected.  Sunder is inviting a bunch of us who were there to come to Solas bar on E 9th street on Saturday the 21st for an informal download with anyone who would like to join us.  We’ll be there from 5pm to 9pm.  He will be sending out a separate invite but in the meantime, I wanted to share a couple of impressions while they’re still jumping around in my body. 
First off:  the whole event went off without a hitch — it was well organized:  things happened when and where they were supposed to happen; geographically, all the sites that housed the workshops, events etc. were easy to navigate, and other than the fact that Atlanta rolls up the streets at 10pm, the city was hospitable and helpful if a little perplexed by how many of us there were: more than 10,000 participants; about 85% were people of color, plus I’d say more than half were under 35.  There was a significant presence of indigenous peoples there – another  terrific surprise AND it there were women women everywhere. It was pretty glorious to be amidst a genuinely diverse grassroots gathering of people from THIS country  –  a first for most people there. I learned so much I’m still trying to get my bearings.  Sadly, there weren’t many artists present as far as we could tell.  There was a small film festival and there were performances at 7 Stages every night; Ralph Pena brought down the whole Ma-Yi playwrights lab, and Bonnie Metzger and Rha Godess were there along with Sunder and me.  But we didn’t run into any other colleagues. I remain hopeful that this will change perhaps for the next one (or for the next WSF in Jan 2009 that will be held in in Belem Brasil  — which is in the Amazon for heaven’s sake!)
There were about 900-some odd workshops, panels etc organized by the people who came (3 time slots/ day/ 3 days) and there were 2 large plenaries each night (programmed by the USSF organizers.)  
One of the framing devices (the first plenary) was parsing through the fall out from Hurricane Katrina.  It’s amazing how many issues are contained in the political and social disaster that that region of the country has become – race, immigrant rights, health care, gentrification, economics, endless human rights abuses,  corruption, international politics.  It was a brilliantly comprehensive place to begin this forum. One of the jaw-dropping things we learned was that there is by all accounts, a sanctioned slave trade of workers from Central and South America going on down there, made possible by a new “guest worker” visa developed from the principles of NAFTA.  These workers can actually be sold from employer to employer, and it’s legal.  So not only is there incredible black-brown racial tension as a result of all these workers coming up here and all the local unemployment; not only has there been a marked rise in homelessness as a result of busloads of workers being literally dumped out on the sidewalk because the ’employers’ who bought them didn’t exist in the first place; not only is the rebuilding in Mississippi only focused on new casinos so thousands of people remain homeless; but the levee repairs thus far only benefit white neighborhoods, the 9th ward is in exactly the same jeopardy as it was before.  The list goes on and on — BUT what was inspiring was to hear from all the incredible people working on these issues locally in the gulf coast – I am still gathering up all I found out and if anyone is interested, I’d be happy to send along more information as I parse through it all. 
There was a lot of knowledge sharing/popular education going on at the workshops — many of which were designed to help people better understand the various ways neoliberalism impacts local issues in their communities. I heard what might be the clearest analysis of the evolution of a “global city” — in this case Miami.  (this term is part of a recent field of geographical economics that’s looking at globalization on the city level — maybe 10 years old now).  It was an awesome overlay for understanding the ways NYC continues to evolve as a city for the rich and the poor.  So I was also really excited to come across a new alliance that’s just beginning to form called the Right to The City, that links local activists of color from around the country who focus on local, urban issues.  I attended a terrific workshop about this initiative where they connected the dots, city by city, between gentrification and zoning laws, and homelessness and ecological issues to the business of international banks and NAFTA and various other global institutions. Enlightening. Throughout the Forum it felt like there was a real groundswell of energy coming from framing change in this way i.e. taking on our own cities/neighborhoods/communities while building a national alliance of folks with a simillar focus.  Plus I couldn’t help thinking that the Right to the City process might be something artists could really take part in – especially given our own issues of affordable housing and work space, and the ways we’re used to gentrify affordable neighborhoods out of existence.  Here’s an article about their 1st meeting http://zmagsite.zmag.org/June2007/samara0607.html.  
More about this as time unravels. I attended another workshop in this vein organized by the Institute for Policy Studies www.ips-dc.org and The Cities for Peace campaign http://www.citiesforprogress.org about the proliferation of “municipal foreign policy” actions in U.S. cities. It explained how local communities take direct action on foreign policy initiatives – city councils passing resolutions against the war, in support of the Kyoto Accord, against the Patriot Act.  There were all these amazing city council people from Chicago, San Fran, Kalamazoo, Iowa City etc.  — I wish one of them would run for President!  IPS is planning to do a Municipal foreign Policy Training Day in about 6 months.  I’m hoping they will bring it here to NYC … I’ll keep you posted. 
I also met an amazing group of medical workers who are practicing social medicine here in the States — – and in NYC at Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Hospital!  I knew almost nothing about the growing movement of this health care approach.  It’s a hugely inclusive approach to health care that underscores its treatment methods with a deep sense of social politics and humanity.  www.socialmedicine.org   In fact there is a renowned international school of Social Medicine in Cuba and I met its first U.S. graduate who is now here in NYC and who I hope to invite to do a roundtable with us.  One of the doctors I met told me that at her AIDS clinics in Haiti, when people come they don’t ask for AIDS medicine, they ask for food.  The understanding is that the principal disease is poverty and medical treatment has to address this as well.  Doctors For Global Health is one of the org’s here and what’s cool about their mandate is that they include the right to art as a one of the factors of promoting a healthy community.  Their website is http://www.dghonline.org/   I am hoping to organize a gathering with some of these folks in the fall.  Stay tuned.
All this to say: I am under the cautious but secretly inspirited impression that there’s a future actually growing here in these United States — I’ve heard it said that there is a burgeoning grassroots effort already at work in this country — and judging from what I saw at the USSF, it’s much more powerfully poised than I even suspected or imagined.  
Of course I had a number of critical thoughts as well – some warning thoughts waft in and out of what I saw at this USSF but I am feeling they may be less of a stopping critique than fodder for the discussion of what’s next.  Point is, I feel a next — here.  Makes me want to stay for a bit longer in this city, in this country … just to see what happens.
Sunder and Bonnie went to a whole other set of workshops and had their own eye-opening experiences.  Hope lots of you will be able to drop in on the 21st for their impressions. Plus Sunder is inviting lots of people we met who are not artists so it should be an interesting crowd.  Hope to see you on the 21st.
xM
Melanie Joseph
Producing Artistic Director, The Foundry Theatre
www.thefoundrytheatre.org  (T) 1-212-777-1444  (F) 1-212-777-1441
140-142 Second Ave.  Ste 405 New York, NY 10003  U.S.A.
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