Grassroots Movements are Alive and Well at the US Social Forum — A Green Economy Is Possible!

Authors: Alli Chagi-Starr, Senior Community Engagement Strategist

After spending a historic week in Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum (USSF), I am back home in Oakland. More than 10,000 people gathered from every state, representing every important issue of the day. From the racial profiling law in Arizona to toxic incinerators in poor communities, from illegal settlements in Gaza to water rights, community leaders and grassroots activists came together to share skills, build relationships, and get reinvigorated for the work ahead.

In 2007, I was in Atlanta for the first USSF. It has been heartwarming and humbling to think about how much has happened in the three years since, for both the movement for green jobs and the progressive movement as a whole. From Green For All formally launching its own grassroots movement in Memphis in April 2008, to the incredible campaign and election of America's first black president, to the pioneering innovation in green jobs programs at the federal, state, and local levels, our world is different than it was when we gathered in Atlanta that summer.

One of the remarkable things about the past three years is the number of new relationships, nontraditional partnerships, and powerful coalitions that have emerged. In Detroit, I got a palpable sense of these growing webs of solidarity, as our movements mature, deepen and learn to confront and transform the most critical challenges humanity has ever faced.

The city of Detroit was a perfect place for us to meet. Detroiters welcomed us, saying they had never seen anything like our conference before and that they were glad we came. Detroit's story is a microcosm of America's story. Local unemployment is at 45%, social services have been cut to the bone, home foreclosures are rampant, and the entire city is dealing with the toxicity left behind by the formerly vibrant auto industry. But, like America's, Detroit's story is also full of local people showing amazing resilience and creating innovative alternatives to the failing systems around them.

Green For All presented two exciting panel events: "The Role of Art and Culture to Build an Inclusive Green Economy" and "Making the Dream Real: Best Practices and Success Stories from Grassroots Organizers, Trainers and Practioners." Both events were overflowing with super-engaged audiences. The panelists, most of whom were Green For All Academy Fellows, were off-the-hook inspiring. They offered not only nuts-and-bolts stories from and analysis of their work on the ground, but talked about the power of love and forgiveness to take our movements to the next level.

Green For All was far from the only organization with incredible panels. I got to see some, but with more than 1,000 workshops, dozens of tours, assemblies, performances, it was impossible to see it all. One very special thing I saw was Detroit's urban agriculture scene up close, going on a beautiful tour of three local farms. It was so great to see local farmers producing healthy food for those who need it most.

While a lot of young people participated, I also saw long-time organizers I hadn't seen in years; for some of us veterans, it was a real reunion. On the closing day, we marched to an incinerator; dozens of groups were represented, including the Teamsters. Organizers are working to close the incinerator and reopen a recycling plant, which would create six times more jobs for local workers. It's exactly the kind of campaign Detroit needs. Incentivizing good green jobs in recycling, deconstruction, urban farming, weatherization, and solar installation would improve the city's air quality, help people get back to work, and help turn the local economy around.

I suspect that USSF 2010 will be a watershed event; people will talk about the movement and the country "before Detroit" and "after Detroit." It was a true privilege to experience firsthand this immense convening of like-minded but diverse people — all committed to making the world a better place in the time we have left. The prioritization and celebration of culture, authenticity, courage and collaboration made this conference truly special. In the end, it is the spirit of love that I will take with me and that will continue to guide and permeate my work. Ultimately, that is why we are here.

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