Grassroots activists at the World Social Forum

[On April 2, 2006, Sergio Reyes (SR)(right) interviewed (from left to right) Malena Mayorga (MM), Kaveri Rajaraman (KR)and Eli Beckerman (EB) for a community television program to be broadcast in Somerville Community Access Television on the occassion of a planned report back in that city.]

SR -- Greetings. It's a pleasure to be sharing this day with three delegates to the World Social Forum 2006, which took place in Caracas, Venezuela last January. They went as members of the Boston Delegation. However, we have to say that the Boston Delegation was understood to be a wider, metropolitan area of Boston. Indeed we should have called it the Massachusetts Delegation to the World Social Forum. Our interviewees are residents of Somerville, or have been residents and continue to work with groups in Somerville. What we are going to be talking about today is the connection between the WSF in Caracas, Venezuela and the work that can be done on the grassroots in our cities, in particular, in this case, in the City of Somerville.

Welcome to the program to all of you and let's start with our friend Malena Mayorga, who is also working with Centro Presente with refugees mostly from Central America.

What was your experience at the World Social Form, and did it actually fulfill or even satisfy your expectations of what you were to find there?

MM -- Well, some expectations were satisfied and some weren't. The expectations of the concrete work, for example, of going and getting certain kind of structures in place in order to continue that transnational solidarity work --and not just solidarity but the concrete work of struggling for our rights, then there were some connections made but maybe not enough of the concrete work. On the other hand there are some expectations that were very much satisfied. I went to document what was happening throughout Latin America in terms of social movements and I did learn a lot about that, and I heard a lot about that and now I am working on editing that in order to show people here. I learned from people that came all over Latin America about their organizations, their social struggles and also I gained a lot of hope, because it is not that we are working in isolation but there is this kind of work happening throughout the entire continent. So, some things were satisfied and some weren't.

SR -- Kaveri Rajaraman is a student at Harvard University and a resident in Somerville, active in progressive causes. What was your experience at the World Social Forum?

KR - There were two major reasons why I was very interested in attending the WSF. One was to visit the WSF the other to visit Venezuela. I think that my expectations of going to Venezuela and learning about the government there, the social movements there, that aspect of it was very, very well fulfilled. I also felt that I made sort of amazing groundings in terms of getting contact with people who are involved in various peoples movements there, specially with my interest with corresponding social movements in India. But I do feel that there is a need to forge stronger connections, goals toward which both of these countries, India and Venezuela should be working towards, and solidarity with other countries, in issues of social justice.

With respect to the WSF itself, I think that we went there looking for answers for specific questions. For example there are lots of exciting things happening in Latin America, such as this idea of pan-latinamerican unification, of this new kind of socialism that people in Latin America talk about so much, and we went to many of the conferences in the WSF looking for these answers. At first we thought that it was just because we didn't find them, but then I was very happy to see that people were not specifically putting them out there in the conferences, that the [Venezuelan] government was not talking about answers to these questions because the hope was that this concept of 21st century socialism would emerge from the people consciousness, from lots of grassroots activism and participatory democracy, the ideas of what people really mean by socialism and want from socialism would come from the bottom up.

SR -- Our friend Eli Beckerman is active with Somerville/Medford United for Peace and Justice and many other worthy causes for social justice.

What was your sense of what you saw at the WSF? -- And, we must say that in most cases this was the first time for people. We must also say that this was the first time for a delegation from Massachusetts, from the Boston Area to go as such to the WSF, and this is already the Fifth WSF, before there were 3 in Brazil and 1 in India.

EB -- For me the experience of going down as part of the Boston Delegation had three powerful parts to it. One of them was to finally be able to witness what the Social Forum was and what it means to have something like 80,000 progressives from around the world being together in one place, sharing conferences in hallways and meeting each other and really being able to share that experience with people from around the world and that sort of started off the Social Forum. It kicked off with this march and just seeing everybody represented from the different Latin American countries, since this Forum focused on the Americas, and it was clear that was where most people were from, so, that was one part of it.

Another powerful part of it was to witness what was happening in Venezuela right now, which is pretty amazing and it was very important to see that.

And the third part was doing this in a joint way with other people from the Boston Area, and the existence of the Boston Delegation and the organizing that they did, just for simple things like helping people to find [less expensive] air fares, booking hotels and all that, that make it a lot easier to make this trip. Over the course of doing that and sharing this experience in Venezuela with people from the Boston Delegation, I think that there was tremendous solidarity. Then coming back to Boston and seeing people who went with us and seeing new friends and new allies in the struggle for social change here at home.

SR -- Well, this is a general view, of what you saw there, what your expectations were. However, I think there is a practical question that we have to ask ourselves whenever we participate on these international gatherings. How do we make connections between what other activists like us are doing in the rest of the world and how do we make that an action point when we come back to our own homes. Where you able to make some connections that could at least lead to potential joint work with people that participated in the WSF or activists in Venezuela with whom you had an opportunity to interact a lot? - Anyone.

EB -- For me, I realized afterwards that part of that problem were the intentions of going down there and I know that was not something that I was intending originally, to build some sort of network that would help in collaborations down the road. It was something that I was not actively pursuing when I went down there and when I came back it was a regret that I had, that I wasn't trying to do that and I thought of things since then that I wish I had been pursuing that. If we talk about doing another Boston Delegation it would be nice for that to be part of the goals of it.

SR -- Well there will be another opportunity because the next WSF is going to take place in Nairobi, Kenya and is going to happen also in January, of 2007. It has been made clear by the Boston Delegation organizers that we will continue to work in that direction and we are going to have another delegation going to the WSF. So whatever we have learned now it will be useful then. However, you see that there at this moment a flourishing of world social forums. There is going to be SF coming up in the neighboring state of Maine; then a social forum in the Border (US/Mexico) in the month of May. Another SF is happening this month in Brazil. What is it that people see in the structure of the social forum; what is it that it might be useful in that model to implement locally for grassroots organizations?

MM -- Before answering that question, thatís actually connected to the previous question, which I would like to answer as well. I think that I did make some connections that could lead to some concrete work, however, not at the level that I would like. I think that in some of the discussions we had in the Delegation previously, we did talk about creating structures that would really bring together movements from many different places and work on concrete issues. However, that I donít think happened. But on the very initial level of connecting with organizations that work, for example, on immigration issues, which I happen to be working on here, there were some connections that can lead to work there. My other job is actually in womenís health, and I did talk to midwives who work in rural areas of Colombia, and then connecting them with the midwives who work in the Birth Center here. So at that level, some connections did happen, but not at the more structural level that I would like to see. In terms of your second question, what does the social forum bring or how does it feed the work that weíre doing locally, it does it in different ways. One, is certainly learning Ė what are people doing in other parts of the world? The experience, of course Latin America, the people in Latin America have their long history and intense history of struggle. So how can we learn from that experience and that struggle and bring it here? So I think thatís one of the things. And also working together on things like creating an international law that respects peopleís rights when theyíre migrating or workersí rights or that type of thing. The connections that can be made to work on those kinds of international structural changes.

SR -- However, maybe you can just address this particular issue. The WSFs have a very specific structure, a very specific way of operating. Let me just give an example, very quickly. That is that no state, no head of state, no political party, or even large structured unions, can actually be represented or actually exercise their power there. This is a grassroots effort, and as we think for instance of the Maine SF coming up, or as we talk in a little while about the possibilities here in our own state of SFs, can you explain a little bit why is it that this structure might be useful locally to move forward some of our agendas?

KR -- I think that there are 3 specific ways in which the structure of the World Social Forum permits certain kinds of local organizing. One is in the anti-imperialist movement. Basically, many countries in the world are suffering from the effects of imperialism, and the problem is that right now when a group of people are in some ways being repressive towards you, within your own country, you have some political redress, some legal redress, because currently, laws and political structures function only at a national level.

However, with globalization, increasingly, the people who are creating effects in your country can be from another country, who are not politically accountable to you. The structure of the WSF being specifically about grassroots organizations and not about political parties permits people to try and create international standards and international laws by which they try and force countries around the world to live up to a certain model of behavior. And so I agree with you that one of the major goals that the WSF should be concretely trying to implement is using its international structure to try and come up with standards of behavior internationally, for how countries can treat one another, for how companies in one country can treat people in another country.

The fact is that the anti-globalization and anti-imperialist movement has been carried out by grassroots groups in a number of different countries and this is a big opportunity for them to network and to work together against larger forces, dominating forces, that have power and money.

Secondly, in the general issue of organizing labor, regardless of whether youíre in a first world country or in a third world country, there is a similarity in terms of how activists who work for oppressed communities. There is a similarity in terms of the problems they have to deal with, in terms of the experiences that they have coped with, in terms of the organizing strategies and tactics that they can discuss with one another. So in terms of a general world view of people who are economically and socially oppressed dealing with the people who have power over them, and trying to create an equitable society. Thereís a lot of scope for mixing there.

The third is the media. One of the big things that I got from Venezuela is that there were many small, sort of semi-anarchic media groups. Some others were, in the case of Venezuela, fortunate enough to be state-sponsored, that were actively pursuing the goal of getting the ďvoice of the peopleĒ, to use a nebulous phrase, to get that to be something that could be communicated beyond the powerful, organized media structures that exist. I think thatís another very useful thing to do because with organized corporate media thereís a huge monopoly on information, and so thereís a huge amount of disinformation currently in the world about the actual nature of struggles in other countries, and this is a very useful way to get across information.

SR -- Thatís all nice and well. However, President Chavez, addressing the closing ceremony of the sixth World Social Forum, said that it is time that we go beyond this process of open-ended discussions of a forum, being extremely democratic, doesnít allow, for example, for statements coming from the WSF itself. However, every group that participates there has the right to actually issue statements in their areas. Now President Chavez said that itís time that we move towards the formation of an anti-imperialist front once and for all. How do you react to this when here locally we are still working with the model of the WSF, which is wide open, where sometimes itís difficult to come up with practical actions. What do you think about this Eli?

EB -- Well I think that thereís something very powerful about the WSF being sort of divorced from ideology, and thereís also something very ineffectual about that at the same time. Itís designed, I think, to be sort of non-committal in this way that protects against co-optation. I think in some ways itís very important to be cautious about that idea, that you can have a movement, and once it starts to have some traction and make some change, that itís taken over by people with a very specific agenda as a way of ending where the momentum is building. At the same time, there sort of isnít the luxury to sit back and not have concrete action come out of these things. So I think itís a very important question for us to take up. What you see a lot of the time is that once you start saying exactly what it is you stand for, itís harder to have everyone on the same page. And we see it with the anti-war movement in Boston. Once you start bringing in your particular message, and not being able to leave that out of it, you start to have division, and you start to divide against each other and argue against each other as opposed to building something together. I think itís a very complicated question but I think it needs to be answered.

MM -- I would add to that that I don't think there's a contradiction between the forum being very grassroots and concrete work coming out of it. I think it can be something that's really the voice of the people that participate, where nothing is dictated from above, and concrete work comes out of that - I don't think those are contradictory things.

KR -- I just have a quick addition which is that I think there's- I fully agree with Chavez in this statement. I think that I can understand why the World social Forum wouldn't want to make a statement against imperialism for example -

SR -- or against war

KR -- or against war, even though I'd say a majority of the grassroots activists there are engaged in struggles that are highly related to this, or even socioeconomic justice. But certainly I think the World Social Forum needs to have a more organized way in which individuals from within the Social Forum can build specific efforts with respect to one another. There isn't even something as simple an anti-imperialist world-wide email list, or something like that - of course it would be spammed, but even some tool with respect to major important struggles. There isn't even a loose organizing tool as of right now. It ends up being a forum where people can go and educate themselves as much as they want to, but - it's a hard thing to arrange, it's expensive, and for a lot of people it can end up just being an enjoyable experience. I think there has to be more of a sense of responsibility with the World Social Forum - one is going there with a serious intention to participate in world-wide movements towards socioeconomic justice. I think there has to be the formation of some alternative lines along which activists who attend the World Social Forum can organize with one another in a more centralized way.

SR -- There is no doubt whatsoever that all of the members of the Boston Delegation who participated in the World Social Forum recently in Caracas came back with a lot of knowledge, and if not knowledge, inspiration and insight, about the need to build a different kind of world, a different kind of society. And understanding that there are a tremendous amount of people who think the same in the world, it is possible to do. Now, do you think that, in winding down this program, do you think it's possible that we develop locally these kinds of discussions, this committee of social forums? Let's hypothetically think of this idea. Somerville for instance is a small city in Massachusetts. However, there are many progressive organizations that are working here on many different fronts.

Sometimes you can see them; most of the time you can not, actually. But there are people who are definitely against the war. There are people who are working for divestment from Israel, for instance. There are people working for immigrant rights. There are people doing all sorts of good progressive things. Would it be possible to have a social forum in Somerville successfully so that it would be actually be - a little bit different from the World Social Forum, because it would be a smaller group of people - that we can actually come out with actions for social change?

MM -- I think not only is it possible, I think it's necessary, and I think it might be somehow more manageable to actually come out with concrete actions out of a smaller scale forum. I also think it doesn't need to happen once a year or once every few years, but on a more daily basis, where, I know in the organization I work at, Centro Presente, we have forums, it's not necessarily bringing people from other organizations, but from the community, where we dialogue continuously, almost weekly. So I think that between organizations, between movements, we need to have that happening constantly. So it's a constant renewal, and analysis, and action.

SR -- How do you see this possibility?

KR -- Yeah absolutely, I think ultimately a social forum is only limited by how hard it is for people to travel to get there. So for example, I think that, there was a Boston social forum, a couple of years ago; it wasn't held last year to my knowledge. But we should definitely - I mean, I don't think it would necessarily be that hard to organize the forum per se, if it was a day-long forum and if we just have a loose organization of people working on a few different things - on a few different specific issues. I have been an anti-war, labor rights, feminist, queer rights activist in Boston for two years now, and I learn about new groups working on all of these issues every single day, and I am amazed at how much work there is being done in several different small pockets. I think there is a huge amount of scope for organizing together because there are a lot of really good events that have been organized by these specific groups and they don't attract the kind of mass mobilization they could.

SR -- What is your take on the possibilities of social forums?

EB -- I think Kaveri's point is very interesting and very, very crucial to this is this idea that there are a lot of people and a lot of groups who are doing all of this work and together those groups might have a sort of critical mass to feel like they were building forward momentum where the reality of it is, you know, when we each focus on what it is, if it's a single issue, or if it's, you know, one very clear issue, there feels the necessity to address this issue, these are all very important issues, but at the same time if we worked on these things in a unified way and pooled our resources and didn't reinvent the wheel each time and were able to put the narrow side of what these individual issues are aside, in order to build, not necessarily a structure, but a forum to address how we create this change for all of these issues. And I really think that when we're working on these things in a divided way we are working against each other. And there has got to be some way of getting everyone who cares about the people of our city together in one room or one building and hearing from what all of the different issues are and thinking about ways of networking and collaborating and really gaining the strength necessary to move things forward.

SR -- And I understand there is also going to be a reportback from the World Social Forum, and possibly all of you are going to be there, at Somerville. Can you give us more information on that, Eli?

EB -- Well, on Sunday April 23rd at 6 o'clock at the Welcome Project we are going to have a reportback from the World Social Forum in Venezuela and an international potluck dinner, and we really wanted to do, instead of just a show and tell of what the experiences were, try to figure out how all the things we saw happening in the forum itself and in Caracas, how they relate to what's going on in Somerville and how we can change the way we organize in Somerville and bring back some of the lessons into our organizing work here.

MM -- What is the time and address?

EB -- So, the Welcome Project is at 530 Mystic Avenue. It's going to be from 6 o'clock to 8:30. We are going to have film from Caracas and there should be great food and great spirit.

SR -- And this is near what station?

EB -- There are buses that get to the Welcome Project. It's not near a T stop at all.

SR -- Well, we will have more information, posted at what has been the Boston delegation's web page, and we'll put that up on your screen in a minute. I just want to end the program with kind of a little game. If you think in just one word, just one word, you would describe your experience at the World Social Forum, what would that be?

MM -- Hope.

SR -- Very good. Kaveri?

KR -- Exhilarating.

SR -- Eli?

EB -- Solidarity.

SR -- Very good. And there you've got it. Thank you very much for your attention, and we hope to have you present at the reportback of the delegates from Somerville who went to the World Social Forum in Caracas.

Thank you.