'Social Justice? Neat. Like America's Most Wanted?'


The Peachtree Hotel on Peachtree Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia has over 1000 rooms and claims to be the tallest hotel in the Western Hemisphere. It also overlooks the largest aquarium in the world which is just a short walk from the newest Coke museum in the world and is surrounded by the offices of some of the biggest corporations in the world.

If staying at the Guinness Book of Records wasn’t reason enough to go to Atlanta, it also happened to be the conference venue for the four-day US Social Forum (USSF) last week.

The World Social Forum in Nairobi earlier in the year chose as its inspiration the words: ‘Another World is Possible.’ USSF Atlanta, America’s first Forum, added a cautionary tagline ‘Another US is Necessary.’ An estimated 10,000 registered members agreed. A patriotic affair this was not. In fact, there was a noticeable lack of red, white and blue and no sight of camouflage chic.

Instead, a most diverse group of Americans conducted and attended hundreds of crowded workshops on every critical social issue. Deep commitment to the new movement and to endorsing a forward plan echoed in every conversation.

You know that something big is happening when corporate NGOs want to donate resources, expertise and naming rights. Beguiling as this is, the flip side is the weakening of the community base where it all began where actual work takes place and where change is effected. USSF is determined not to go that way.

No people are more aware of institutional betrayal than Southerners American Southerners and global Southerners. Most recently, the people of New Orleans have been just as cruelly treated by the ‘not-for-profit industrial complex’ as they were in 2005 by the corrupt Bush Administration. Building from the bottom up might be the way that the South can rise again. Or, at least, consolidate.

Dig beneath the surface of any movement like this and you will find a leader and instigator. In the case of the USSF, you eventually get to Rúben Solís. He is the compelling and appealing force behind the Southwest Workers Union which engineered the first Forum in Mexico, Foro Social Fronterizo,  in October 2006 in the border town of Ciudad Juárez. So successful was this grassroots exercise that it inevitably snowballed into the USSF.

On day 2 of the Forum, I chose to observe a workshop called ‘Family Support: A Traditional Indigenous Alternative to Child Welfare Practices’ conducted by the Indigenous Women’s Network. There were about 30 women First Nation, Inuit, Métis and Native American representing communities and organisations from Central America to Alaska. Each woman described strategies, shared successes and admitted to failures. They discussed child sexual abuse which, in varying degrees, plagues all their communities.

They were in Atlanta to build a united front to bring the issue out of isolation, to support each other in doing so, and to interrupt the cycle of abuse. A Cherokee elder believed that it takes several generations to repair and heal the impact of long term child sexual abuse on communities. There was a given in that circle: that abuse is rooted in the conditions that allowed the abuse to occur. I listened in silence. In the two-hour workshop, there was no mention of intervention by the army or of mandatory medical examination.

The Peachtree Hotel would also outclass any other hotel in the USA for the slowest, most irrational elevator system. This meant that at no time during the length of the Forum were there fewer that 30 people waiting for a lift. It became the funniest show in town as friendly, overfed locals on their way to the highest rotating restaurant in the universe nudged the world of under-coiffed name-tagged not-for-profits: ‘What’re y’all doin’ here? Social Justice? Neat. Like America’s Most Wanted?’

Flying out of Atlanta that night, I remembered the visitors to the USSF from Africa, Latin America and Canada. I imagined Aboriginal men and women community people not bureaucrats being there too, discovering that they are not alone in their pain, that local solutions are being successfully implemented, and, above all, that interest in their precious children can be sustained for longer than the life of a political stunt.

We began the descent into New York City. An effervescent flight attendant with a syrupy Southern drawl made the announcement about seat belts and overhead compartments. ‘Just one more little biddy fact, before we land. Do y’all know that there’s a lovely lady on board this evening who is having her first ever flying experience. Can you believe that now? And her name is Lorraine.’

At just that moment, I noticed a strap poking out of my overhead compartment and my arm shot straight up to stop the door from opening.

And everyone on board turned and applauded my flying debut.

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