More than 450 registrants, including activists, community workers and supporters of Grassroots joined us on November 15th for a full day of discussions and workshops and a chance to meet our dynamic partners from around the world. For the first time in the history of the organization, Grassroots was able to bring together representatives from Haiti, Brazil, Eritrea, Palestine, and Mexico, the five countries where we currently have partners.
To start the day, Maria José Bezerra of Brazil’s Rural Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) led GRI staff, partners and conference participants as they marched down the stairs of the Episcopal Divinity School and symbolically “occupied” the auditorium. It was a tribute to the land occupations that are central to the MST’s de facto agrarian reform program, and a symbol of the solidarity between Grassroots and its partners, supporters and allies.
The morning plenary session focused on the question of how the “war on terror” is impacting the work of our partners for social justice. Ironically, one of the invited partners was unable to attend due to supposed security concerns. Hasan Barghouthi, an internationally respected social activist and founder of the Democracy and Worker’s Rights Center in Palestine, was denied the right to travel by Israeli security forces.
The partners who did attend spoke eloquently about what Maria Jose Bezerra called their “struggles to find security and build hope, to gain full rights of citizenship and be courageous in dreaming that one day we can have a better, more just world.”
Frances Moore Lappé, author of “Diet for a Small Planet” and “Hope’s Edge,” said that the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” is both a diversion of resources from and a direct attack on the democratizing processes that are taking place around the world with the help of movements like GRI’s partners. The focus on “homeland security” is an intentional blinding device, she said, designed to distract us from our focus and purpose. She said that the current moment of world-spanning oppression is one of the most frightening she has known in decades as an activist, but that we must not let fear keep us from moving toward a more just world.
The antidote to fear, she said, is hope. “Hope is what we become in action,” she said. While working on her latest book, Lappe spoke with MST founder João Pedro Stedile. She asked him how he could possibly have imagined that the MST would succeed, all those years ago.
“Success,” he answered, “wasn’t even in our thinking. It was simply what we had to do.”
For years, GRI’s partners have been doing what they had to do. The conference was an amazing opportunity for attendees to share some of the accumulated wisdom of decades of work on the cutting edges of the world’s movements for social justice: The MST is about to celebrate its own 20th anniversary, and Haiti’s Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) just celebrated its 30th year.
After the morning plenary session, there were two sessions of workshops. The morning workshops each focused on the work of one of the partners. The afternoon workshops focused on the techniques of popular education, including a workshop on using art as a tool for social justice. Workshop leaders from GRI and allies like United for a Fair Economy shared their experiences and discussed tips for finding new ways to educate the public about and get people involved in areas like the struggle for a just solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the struggle against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
In the afternoon plenary, the focus was on the future. The question at hand was, what is the way forward? The challenges are dire, but the hope and dedication of our partners is an inspiration.
Osman Idris of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) said that in his new nation, full of young people, “We’re still trying to run with time, but time is running from us. The challenges are many, but the future is ours.”
One thing seemed clear to all of our partners. The path to a more just future can’t be walked alone.
“Solidarity is the only option,” said Celina Noel of the MPP. “By joining with Grassroots International and groups like the Via Campesina we will globalize our struggle and our hope.”
Maude Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians and a leader in the battle to protect the world’s supply of fresh water from corporate privatization schemes, emphasized that the very water that we drink is a tie that binds us all.
“When it rains, some of the water was in the blood of dinosaurs or the tears of children in the back of history,” she said.
Josefina Aranda of the State Coordinator of Coffee Production of Oaxaca (CEPCO) said that a few years ago, the idea of a peasant movement in Mexico was dead, but that recently a diverse group of campesino organizations had begun to coalesce into a new movement.
“There are many things that separate us, but we put our differences aside to focus on the struggle that we share,” she said. The conference was a chance for her to build new relationships with an even broader range of activists.
“We don’t want to be alone and we don’t want you to be alone,” she said. “Let’s find ways of being together.”
Byron Rushing closed the plenary with a moving speech, calling on the audience to mobilize, organize, and believe that justice, freedom and equality can prevail.
“If we are going to truly sow justice and reap security, we must redefine security, we must redefine globalization, and we must redefine our myths,” he said. “The first step we have to take is to remember that we can win. We can change the world.”
With that in mind, we ended the day with an evening of dancing, music and dining, and with the presentation of the Hunger for Justice Awards to commemorate the inspirational work of our partners and allies in the quest for social justice. The celebration was a time to look proudly at our past, but also to embrace the challenges and opportunities so present in our future. With 20 years of experience building connections between people of conscience in the United States and some of the world’s most dynamic social change organizations, Grassroots International is in an ideal position to make even more of a difference in the coming years.