Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Report-back from the United States Social Forum

By Zemora Tevah

I spent last week in Detroit, Michigan, at the United States Social Forum. I missed the farm crew, the vegetables, and our friends the groundhogs, but I had an amazing time and learned a lot!! If you haven't heard of the Social Forum before, don't worry. It's hard to describe, but I'll try. It's basically a convergence of leftist and radical activists and organizations from all corners of the country (and even the world) getting together and learning from one another, building momentum, networking, sharing skills, resources, ideas, workshops, energy, and action.

The Social Forum is completely built by its participants, for the people and by the people. Over 20,000 people attended, and led over 1,000 workshops, spanning five days. More details can be found on the website,

“The US Social Forum (USSF) is a movement building process. It is not a
 conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples’ solutions to the 
economic and ecological crisis. The USSF is the next most important step in our
 struggle to build a powerful multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational,
 diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and
 changes history...We must declare what we want our world to look like and we 
must start planning the path to get there. The USSF provides spaces to learn 
from each other’s experiences and struggles, share our analysis of the problems 
our communities face, build relationships, and align with our international 
brothers and sisters to strategize how to reclaim our world."

So why was I drawn to the Social Forum? The Forum had many interconnected themes, among them, poverty, immigration, climate justice, labor, indigenous sovereignty, housing, building alliances across race, class and gender... I was specifically most interested in learning about the food system, and how it is intertwined with all of the above. I see the ways that we as humans produce, consume, and distribute our food as interwoven with the current economic and ecological crises. I was lucky enough to attend various food related workshops and also to tour a few of Detroit's community gardens. I'll tell you about the first workshop I went to, the thoughts it provoked, and what it taught me.

The workshop I went to on farmworker's rights was held by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida, a corner of Florida where most of the tomatoes for the nation's fast food chains and supermarkets are grown. They had faced exploitative conditions, including being beaten in the fields, bosses stealing paychecks, very long days at low pay, living in isolated labor camps, and many instances of what they termed "modern day slavery." They began “The Campaign for Fair Food”, and battled eight corporations (including McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Subway) eventually becoming victorious in their demands. They were successful in getting 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes (it doesn't sound like much but over the course of the day, it adds up to significantly higher wages) as well as the corporations being held accountable to a new code of conduct, designed and implemented by the workers. This code of conduct included things like being actually being paid for overtime, having shade in the fields, being more protected from sexual harassment, and a zero tolerance policy for slavery conditions including physical violence. (see CIW is now engaged in a struggle to change the policies of supermarket chains and their suppliers.

Hearing the stories of members of the CIW really made me think a lot about the so-called "food movement," what that means, and who it leaves out. In mainstream media the faces we see are frequently of young, college-educated, usually white farmers.These are the faces of the fashionable food movement, but this is so far from the whole story. We can't forget that the majority of our food supply still comes from huge corporations that exploit, abuse, and dehumanize people, and we have to change this. It's easy to forget this crucial aspect of the food system, especially when you work on an awesome small farm, and are surrounded by others who are working on growing food in better ways that don't hurt people or the earth. But it's not enough to focus on local, organic, fresh food. The general awareness of the importance of "local" and "organic" food seems to have grown tremendously in the last few years alone--which is a huge step-- but there is so much more to fight for. We need to work for fair food as well.

If you're interested in learning more about the Social Forum, or about the dynamics of the urban agriculture scene in Detroit in particular, here is a pretty good article in the Nation, entitled "Detroit's Social Forum: Hope in A Crisis." It can be found at:

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