Practicing Deep Democracy–Reflections On The U.S. Social Forum

In late June, thousands of activists gathered for the second U.S. Social Forum in an all but left for dead city (Detroit, with its beautiful architecture and boarded up buildings)–to march, confer, create, help and collaborate in what was the largest exercise of deep democracy that this country has ever seen. Many of you have asked me to share my thoughts about the USSF, which I attended and participated in and the following are a few thoughts about what what I took away from the experience. Opening March

It is impossible to fully describe the social forum process to someone who has not attended such a gathering.  It is a participant driven event, in this case with more than a thousand panels and sessions and at least as many organizations and many, many more individuals. The forum is organized with a horizontal structure that promotes the equal value of all participants.  The downside of that is a certain amount of peaceful chaos, the upside is collective empowerment. The number of participants has been pegged at 15,000.  That seems high to me, but 10,000 would not be a stretch.

Far more importantly and something that absolutely must be stated loudly and clearly, is that perhaps the greatest strength of the forum and what truly makes it both possible and successful, is the diversity of the participants.  Starhawk made this eloquently observation about this crucial point,

“Too many times I’ve sat in meetings having the same conversation, over and over again—where are the people of color?  The answer is not to go comb the streets, dragging in random people to make our group look more diverse.  Nor is it to stop doing what we’re doing, if it’s the work we’re called to. An effective answer  involves drawing a bigger circle, like this Forum has done, that includes all of our multiple movements and issues within it as allies, and if we have resources or skills or connections, saying to our brothers and sisters, “We’re on the same mission—how can I be of service to you?””

Perhaps this graphic from a pamphlet called So That We May Soar that was distributed by by Coil LA/Another Politics Is Possible depicts the vision of the USSF best:


I spent most of my time on gender justice issues and had the wonderful opportunity to listen to and share time with a wide cross-section of activists from all over the world. Our time together brought much needed support, feedback and inspiration.

Although I did attend the first USSF in Atlanta, this was the first time that I participated actively in the Peoples Movement Assembly process. As a general rule I’m not particularly

The PMA process

The PMA process

good at long participatory position statement writing and will confess that a good part of my attending the Gender Justice PMA was because I thought that I should and it involved promising myself that if it got to be more than I could deal with, it was okay to leave after the first few hours.

I stayed. What I participated in and witnessed was deep democracy in action, every voice that chose to speak was heard and considered with respect and four and a half amazing hours later, a document that synthesized what had been said resulted and was presented to the closing PMA the following day. Unlike the U.S. Congress, no one had to worry about being re-elected, there was no back-stabbing, pork barrel legislation and certainly no lobbying or corporate contributions. In other words, democracy, the actual kind.

There were the predictable problems of a gathering of that size, don’t ask about the logistics of getting to all the venues or the heat or the bathroom lines, but the organizers, the people who did the very hard work to make this happen deserve major kudos, not just for getting it done, but for showing us all that, despite all the issues we face today, there is a common ground at the intersection of all that matters and it is indeed possible to get there.

There has been much good reporting (albeit not by the MSM) as well as excellent commentary about the USSF, here are a few links:

Perhaps it is all best summed up by this message to the USSF from Leonard Peltier:

“I encourage you to find unity in your various causes, because all of your struggles are linked. Actually, you don’t just find unity, you create it—each of you individually. Create unity within your specific organizations. And between them. Link your efforts and find ways to network and maximize those efforts.

Making change has never been more important. Make the most of every second, for time is growing short, as so many prophecies have foretold. Educate others about the realities you are struggling for and against. Especially focus on educating the young people who will further your efforts tomorrow. Know that your sensibilities are a gift from Creator intended to wake up and shake up the world so that we may improve how we treat the Earth and each other.”

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