The United States Social Forum launched in 2007 based on the successes and excitement of the World Social Forums. The year 2010 is being marked by various regional events like the US Social Forum to take the place of the World Social Forum. So the fact that Detroit was chosen to host the US Social Forum (USSF) is very exciting.
As exciting as it is, it also happens to enable numerous aspects of privilege. As over 10,000 people converge on Detroit, people often to refer to the city as “ground zero” for the economic crisis. The weekend before the USSF, Young People For (YP4) held their regional training at the Renaissance Center for their Midwest fellows. I attended the opening event with alumni and partners to meet the new class of fellows. Like the World Social Forum, YP4 is breaking their national training into regionally based events. Many of the fellows noted that before they came to Detroit they had thought of the city as a place NOT to visit. With a view over the riverfront, looking across at Canada, many mentioned that they had no idea Detroit was so beautiful. Others commented that they had no idea Detroit had a downtown and tall buildings.
These large convergences of people bring Detroit into a brighter light and change the perceptions of many. There are plenty of things to be worried about in Detroit, but not just because it is “Detroit.” Likewise, as the city fills with activists and radicals of all shades, the majority of Detroit residents are unaware of what is even happening. YP4 Director, Rebecca Thompson, informed us that many of her family members in Detroit and friends had no idea that the USSF was happening the next day. I’ve worked with a few local Detroit organizations that canvassed some neighborhoods to let people know about the USSF, but the impact was minimal at best. How can this happen? How can residents of a city, businesses, and even some government not know that 10,000 people are coming to their city to infuse it with new ideas, people, and solutions to social problems?
This could be a result of the slightly disorganized activities of the USSF organizing committee. I won’t go into the stories that I have heard of the power struggles between organizations working to put this event together, but it is worth noting that thoughtful improvement can be made. A thought that occurred to me the other day was: What if the USSF was organized with local groups tackling specific issues host a topic and organize like-minded groups across the nation so that this conference is less focused on talking and more on building potential solutions that Detroit organizations can use and others can take home?
After hanging around, surveying the organizations tables with my girlfriend (Nichole :-D), we headed about 2 miles away for the march. We were a bit behind and stopped in the shade to watch the chanting crowd go by. At the length of almost 8 city blocks (or more) it was an incredible sight to see in a city often referred to as a “ghost town.” And yet privilege came out again as local Detroiters asked, “What is going on?!” and the Detroit Red Cross asked me, “Do you know what all these people are doing?” YP4 staffer, William noted that if this was in DC, everyone would know with posters, twitter updates like crazy, and just the general buzz.
Unfortunately residents of Detroit are not as privileged to be as connected as those in DC. Likewise, residents, in the case of the USSF, have not been a focus of organizing or informing. This has become a common theme that I have noted within government and other activities to rebuild Detroit. Focus on the people who are actually in Detroit! The activists who come for this weekend may hold some new ideas about the city, but in the end they will leave and what will be left for the city of Detroit?