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Grassroots International at the Boston Social Forum

August 2004

Grassroots was proud to participate in the first Boston Social Forum, which took place July 23-25 2004 at U Mass Boston. It was the first U.S. incarnation of the World Social Forum process, drawing 5,000 participants from New England and beyond. The forum was a colorful melange of panels, workshops, exhibits, booths and concerts at which people engaged in dialogue on everything from environmental justice to socially conscious hip hop to immigrant rights, all built around the idea that “Another World Is Possible.” With over 600 workshops and panels taking place over the 3-day weekend, the schedule felt like a gigantic restaurant menu: something for every taste, but one too many things to choose from.

For Grassroots International, our allies and our partners from Brazil, Palestine and Haiti, the forum was a wonderful opportunity to engage people in discussions around a variety of global justice issues and to strengthen ties and solidarity across borders. We were very fortunate to have Ruba Eid, a labor rights advocate from the Democracy and Worker’s Rights Center (DWRC) in Palestine; Paulo de Marck, an organizer in the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST); and Paul Altidor, a social justice activist and radio host from Haiti (and also our new on-the-ground consultant in Haiti) with us to, as our Executive Director Kevin Murray put it “connect the local and global in ways that respect the importance of both” and dialogue with people about ways of globalizing our local struggles during this age of Empire.

GRI helped organize and facilitate 11 workshops and panels at the Forum. We also worked to highlight the successes of the MST– Latin America’s largest social movement–and to emphasize the connections between the Palestinian struggle for peace and justice and our global one against empire building during the BSF-organized large convocations. We were able to talk with hundreds of people and participated in dozens of activities, but rather than offering a comprehensive summary of the many ways GRI staff and partners participated, here are a few key moments:

“Globalizing the Struggle in an Age of Empire”

One of the highlights for us was being able to participate in a Global Justice panel alongside Filipino human rights activist and intellectual Walden Bello, poet and anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus, welfare rights activist Margaret Prescod and Haitian worker’s rights organizer Yannick Etienne. GRI’s Program Director Maria Aguiar took on the formidable task of both translating and moderating the panel, giving each speaker room to share their own experiences while weaving their diverse stories together. The panelists, through their insights into local struggles around the world, offered us different perspectives on ways to globalize the struggle against Empire, however far or close one is to the belly of the beast.

Addressing a filled auditorium of around 500 people, Paulo de Marck spoke of the importance of looking at the MST’s fight for agrarian reform in Brazil as a larger struggle to change social inequalities in Brazil and around the world and of building relationships and solidarity across borders. Ruba Eid placed the Palestinian struggle for democracy and freedom within the context of U.S. empire building and militarization in the region. She emphasized that Israel, in its role as “the spoiled child of the U.S.,” will continue to strengthen its brutal occupation of Palestine as long as its actions are mirrored by its parent. Building on what other panelists had said, Paul Altidor talked about the importance of allowing Haitians and the Haitian struggles for justice to speak for themselves particularly during these turbulent times, and then turned the microphone over to Yannick Etienne so that she could speak for herself about one of those struggles: her organization — Batay Ouvriye —has fought for economic justice in the free trade zone in Ouanaminthe, near Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic. Walden Bello and Dennis Brutus both lauded the World Social Forum process for creating space and opportunity to strengthen relationships and networks for globalizing local struggles while Margaret Prescod pointed out one of its shortcomings: its inaccessibility– financially and otherwise–to most of the people she worked with, who were leading those struggles in local communities around the world.

For us here at Grassroots International, Prescod’s point–as well as the overall enthusiasm for the World Social process–resonated strongly because it has presented an opportunity for us, in our own small way, to help shift the imbalance of NGO dominance and inaccessibility to popular organizations by facilitating the participation of our partner organizations. But facilitating participation is in many ways not enough, so we attempted to create an open dialogue around these power imbalances with our partners by organizing a panel through the Funding our Movement track entitled “Moving Money to Global Justice: International Funding Strategies for Social Change.”

 “Aqui no hay proyectos solo trabajo” (There are no projects here only work) —Activist from El Salvador

How do you effectively move money across borders for social change without recreating traditional donor-grantee power relationships? How do you create meaningful global justice partnerships that go beyond moving money? These were some of the questions we wanted to address through our Moving Money panel as a way of challenging and expanding our own capacity and that of other donors, NGOs and allies based in the Global North to effectively support and stand in solidarity with popular organizations and social movements in the Global South.

For one GRI partner, the Democracy and Worker’s Rights Center (DWRC) in Ramallah, building solidarity and meaningful partnerships between Palestine and people and organizations in other countries is a prime motivation for making contact with organizations like GRI. If financial resources emerge from those contacts, it’s a bonus, but it is important for the DWRC to have the autonomy to decide how those resources are utilized. All too often funders will provide resources in restrictive ways and force organizations like the DWRC to become administrators of projects and external relations, which takes away valuable staff time and other resources from their worker’s rights organizing, mobilizing and advocacy work. And as the El Salvadoran activist quoted above put it, at the grassroots level there are no projects, only work to be done. From Paul Altidor’s perspective the same is true in Haiti. The “project” has come to define what international funders support, which has created a strange dynamic in Haiti whereby people have lost a sense of how to work with their own resources; unless funding is coming from outside for a specific project, then people don’t want to move.

In many ways, gatherings like the Boston Social Forum have the potential to create dialogues and a space to explore and begin to work through some of those power dynamics and tensions between NGOs and popular organizations and between people working in the global north and people working in the global south. We at Grassroots International are committed to creating those spaces and to supporting the international activist organizations that we work with so that they can bring their stories of struggle, organizing successes and coalition building to forums like the Boston Social Forum. We’re grateful to them for sharing their work with us and we’re proud that they consider us partners.

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