Dispatches from the Boston Social Forum | The Nation


Dispatches from the Boston Social Forum

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July 23

About the Author

Jennifer C. Berkshire
Jennifer C. Berkshire is a writer who lives in Boston.

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When organizers were planning the Boston Social Forum, they envisioned a gathering that would counter the Democratic National Convention in every way.

When immigrant janitors in Boston went on strike this fall, they
attracted some unlikely allies.

The Boston Social Forum is not a conference. While the official program may list panel discussions--some 500 of them, in fact--on topics from water privatization to the Wal-Mart economy to defeating George W. Bush in swing states this November, do not, insist BSF organizers, confuse the event with a typical left convocation.

Neither is the BSF a coalition, an alliance, a congress or an organization. The BSF does not make decisions, issue statements, call for actions or sponsor campaigns. So while the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will adopt their party's official platform in a few days, we here at UMass Boston, just five miles away, are platformless.

All of which raises the question: What exactly is a Social Forum anyway? Organizers of the event describe it as an "open space"--part of the World Social Forum process begun in Brazil in 2001, continued in India, and carried on in Europe--that enables people who believe in something other than the neoliberal economic model to get together and think, talk and dream about what that alternative might look like. Forumistas are dead serious about keeping that space open, too. While the organizing committee established priority "tracks"--loose topics like global justice, movement building or immigration--the vast majority of workshops are "self-submitted," the brainchild of one group or even a single person.

It's unclear what the thousands of participants who are expected to attend the BSF this weekend might be hoping to get for their $30 registration fee, but the event has proven wildly popular. Two thousand attendees are already registered for the forum and organizers are expecting twice that many for a weekend of lectures, star-studded convocations, performances and documentary film viewings from John Sayles, among others.

Not bad, considering that the "open space" model wasn't exactly what a cluster of Boston-area social change organizations had in mind when they came together last springto plan for the BSF. "We wanted to keep the focus very much on Boston, to gather our grassroots organizations together and figure out how to deepen our social movements," says Tim Costello, the director of the National Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE), one of the groups hosting the forum.

But what they got couldn't be more different. And they're not the least bit unhappy about it."This is a real Social Forum,"says Costello. "Here you've got the entire range of issues that constitute the left in America," he insists, pointing to a rainbow flag, a flag having something to do with water, and another whose reference is unclear. "The magic of this is that it enables people to connect up with something bigger than themselves. You can do the workshop, you can do the performance and imagine that you're part of something bigger--that you're part of the world."

"This is a place where you can dream," agrees Ana Amaral, an immigrant rights organizer with Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. "It's important for us to have a space like this," she says. "I just hope that people will come tomorrow," she says, referring to the event she's coordinating for members of Boston's huge Brazilian community. "I'm afraid everyone will be working."

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