With a theme of “Another World is Possible; Another US is Necessary,” the first ever US Social Forum ignited a prairie fire of optimism within the progressive left, the sheer size and diversity of which has not been witnessed in this country in decades. For veteran and virgin social justice advocates alike, the week-long convergence of activists, academics, simply curious locals, and impassioned global sojourners in the city of Atlanta this summer should have helped to shatter a longstanding, paralytic myth that the American left is dead. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that this historic convening validated a claim I’ve been known to repeatedly make (often to the response of raised eyebrows and other expressions of disbelief): the push for progressive systemic change, which has been incubating for a generation within the belly of a reform-driven movement agenda, is now about to burst forward as a reborn people’s movement in America.
By now, I’ve read several post-USSF critiques offered by a number of fellow-travelers who, in analyzing all the detours and limitations of the convening, might deem my optimism unfounded. However, before arguing the minutiae of what the Forum did and did not achieve, let’s be clear about what the USSF was, and was not, intended to be. Based on the model of the World Social Forum, the US Social Forum was, first and foremost, an openly democratic platform for consciousness-raising, vision-shaping, strategizing and linking among the organized (and not -yet- organized) sectors of the American and global left. In its conception, the National Planning Committee intentionally planned for a massive demonstration of organized elasticity. That is, the Forum was to result in a largely spontaneous, free-form “movement building” process in which no one party, organization, or big name celebrity would be able to seize control of the outcome. Instead, and in their own words, USSF organizers sought to “provide a process to build a powerful movement in this country based on the organized voices and experiences of those from the grassroots most affected by US and global injustices.” From where I sit, this rather broad and fluid objective was completely nailed. Let me give you a few reasons why.
For starters, the USSF revealed that age-related leadership whining sessions are slowly being replaced with intergenerational strategizing and direction summits. Baby Boomers are finally beginning to retire their longstanding complaint that the succeeding generations are not stepping up to the plate and, as such, are now beginning to voluntarily cede space at the leadership table. Conversely, those next generations are now moving beyond a sulking, “let us in” type posture. As such, they are testing their own ideas and putting their own feet to the fire. Heck, from what I could see, there are many who are building their own tables! To be certain, the USSF was overwhelmingly dominated by Gen X and Y’ers who clearly possess the requisite energy, drive and brain matter to form a new spearhead for the social justice movement.
Further, if the Atlanta convening was an accurate reflection of who will comprise the new people’s movement in America, it will also be heavily multi-racial and multi-national, proudly queer and transgender, bravely indigenous and immigrant, both urban and rural. New faces and voices should, and must, reflect the new challenges of our time. In addition, the insistence of the Forum organizers to vest the power of this new movement building process in the base is a move at once bold and correct. Undoubtedly, intellectuals and professionals have enjoyed a long period of leadership of the reform movement. However, a movement shift towards the struggle for real systemic change, should also signal a shift towards more balanced power- sharing between grassroots activists and movement ideologues. In any event, I suspect we are to see much more diversity in movement leadership than that in the old left paradigm.
Moreover, it appears that the new left is now striving to develop a framework of mass mobilization issues which intersect — instead of compete – and which include several which would have been marginalized less than a generation ago. Thus, despite the steady presence and/or revitalization of some traditional campaigns, e.g. anti-war, economic rights, quality education and health care, the USSF also showcased the new and burgeoning mass movements of the new millennium, such as environmental justice, queer justice, media justice, immigrant rights — even “rights to the city” (i.e. anti-gentrification and poor people’s displacement struggles in the Gulf Coast region and elsewhere) – and more.
Then there was the matter of the USSF meeting site itself. Instead of situating this convening on the east or west coasts, Forum organizers, chose to position this historic gathering in the heartland of the US South. That one strategic decision was able to satisfy multiple logistical and political aims: symbolic linkage to the global south, notable deference to an historic organizing and protest base of the US Civil Rights Movement, and reasonable accommodation facilities for a convening of its size. In so doing, the Forum also managed to bring a week-long, whooping and hollering, high-five social justice-style camp meeting to so-called red states territory – a section of the nation once embraced by progressives but which has since been rather illogically abandoned by the left.
All that being said, I realize there are more salient points for debate within the social change philanthropic community than those with regard to our perceptions of the relative success of the USSF. Indeed, what will be the actual significance of the first USSF – with all its merits and demerits — to our grantees and to us as donors and funders? Are we now likely to see increased collaborations in issue and resource development among previously fragmented movement sectors? How might we alter the structure of some of our grants when large, already well-funded nonprofits present joint proposals with smaller, struggling community based organizations? Can we/should we simultaneously foster the capacity of our organizational grantees, providing sufficient support for them to effectively get the job done and, at the same time, revisit our standard success measures for “outcome-based” grantmaking? From where we sit in our grantmaking offices, some steps above the fray, what reasonably constitutes “change” and/or “progress” at the base and are one year, two and three year grant cycles reasonable time periods in which to achieve some of these outcomes? Will longstanding donors of the Baby Boom generation be willing to move their financial support to a new movement that will be largely led by Gen X and Y’ers? To people of color?
Lastly, as was pointed out in the USSF workshop titled “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded,” American philanthropy came of age, so to speak, at a time when the mass movements of the US left were on the wane. A quarter century later, in the early dawn of a revitalized people’s movement, many grassroots activists are now questioning the limits of the 501(c )(3) nonprofit model of organization. Some even seek to return to the old left movement building model, i.e. where fiscal viability is achieved via the route of constituent-based funding. Thus, although the question is currently quite rhetorical, dare we avoid asking it of ourselves: if and when true social justice is achieved in America, will there even be a need for philanthropy? As we labor daily to do the very best we can to support the building of a people’s movement, are we truly and consciously wedded to the notion of our own eventual demise? Will there be, should there be, a substantial increase in philanthropic funding support for the next USSF in 2010? Either way, how might our gift and grantmaking responses over the next three years influence the agenda and demographics of the next US Social Forum?
As a newcomer to the field of philanthropy, in general, and to the Funding Exchange, in particular, I confess to having more questions than answers for these inquiries and others. At the same time, I am joining the field at a generally historic moment when major change is on the horizon and when all of us should be about the task of reexamining our roles and responsibilities as progressive philanthropists. Thus, I look forward with excitement to meeting and talking with the Funding Exchange family and our external allies and partners in the days ahead about these issues and others. And, at least this much I do know: Another world is quite possible and another US is surely necessary. Let’s get on with it!