US Social Forum Highlights Detroit as "Solution City"

Posted by: Jackie Smith, Co-coordinator of USSF Writers Network (

Crowds of weary-looking activists and organizers mustered the energy for the US Social Forum’s fifth and final day of activities. They spent the morning sessions learning about local organizing and coalition work presented in two dozen “Detroit Highlighted” workshops. These workshops were a feature of the USSF aimed at lifting up Detroit’s stories of success as a counter to popular images of the city’s desolation and decay.

I attended a workshop on the work of the Black Community Food Security Network, Earthworks, a largely white organization promoting local food and community gardens. Over a hundred participants came to hear how Detroiters have confronted the “white elephant in the community garden.” It was clear from people’s energy and discussion that organizers around the country struggle over how to confront the stark effects of race on people’s access to food.

Detroit organizers shared knowledge and tools they’ve developed in the course of building alliances across races that can help build gardens while also taking on the systemic racism that deprives so many Detroiters from enjoying healthy, fresh, and affordable food. Participants left with resources for starting discussions about race in the food system and about the pitfalls and hard work that anti-racist organizing takes.

We also engaged with questions about the difficult links between land-use policies and community gardening and the challenges of organizing to defend rights to housing and local self-determination as well as food. The success of Detroit’s urban agriculture movement has attracted investors seeking to buy foreclosed properties and lots that gardeners have improved.

The national “People’s Movement Assembly” followed as the Forum’s culminating activity, designed to send participants forth with ideas for actions and guidance for how to engage with and reflect on the variety of cross-cutting issues that inspire the movements which make up the Social Forum process. Summaries of principles and calls for actions were presented for each of the thirteen thematic tracks of the forum, and activists had worked through the night on Friday to distill the key ideas from workshops and smaller PMAs.

The PMA process is a key innovation and experiment that US organizers are offering to the world social forums, and their purpose is to help the forums inspire more concerted action for social change. To make another world and another United States possible, we must find new ways to work together and build more united movements, according to the architects of the PMAs.

The closing ceremony provided a sense of ritual to inspire and lift up exhausted social forum activists, and we were honored by the Bolivian Ambassador, who spoke as a part of the international community working for the protection and sustaining of Mother Earth, and justice for all people. His presence helped link the work at the USSF with actions to build a climate justice movement around the Cochabamba Declaration which resulted from an earlier people’s summit in Bolivia.

Social forum activists were then invited to Dakar, to the next World Social Forum, by brother Mamadou, who was inspired by what he called an “incredible” gathering here. The conversations we’ve begun and sustained in this space will be carried forward in this world gathering, the second global forum held in Africa.

Finally, USSF participants thanked the people of Detroit for welcoming us to their city. They took on the hard work of organizing and supporting the forum even though so much of their energy is taken up with the basic work of defending Detroiters from the harshest effects of global capitalism. Intrepid Detroit organizers continued to put out fires in their city—defending residents against utilities shut-offs, deportations, and police repression—while committing countless hours to the hard work of organizing a gathering of twenty thousand changemakers. Local organizers and volunteers received a long, long standing ovation from their guests.

What is also exciting is that we are leaving Detroit with some new infrastructures in a city where public officials are reducing public services under the mayor’s program euphemistically called “right-sizing.” A library has been launched with books brought by participants, and a people-powered public transit system started with bicycles ridden here and brought here by those responding to the USSF call to make the forum an event that will strengthen local capacity and organizing work.

In the coming weeks we will learn more about what was accomplished in the five days here in Detroit. We will assess the lessons of the 2nd USSF and identify needs for improvement. But for now, we will first mop up a bit at Cobo hall and then rest a bit before picking up again the work that we know is necessary to helping give birth to the other world we know is possible.