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Face-to-face on the global stage: U.S. activists of color reflect on the impact of the World Social Forum in their work.

Participation of U.S. activists in the World Social Forum has been growing, with increasing attendance of grassroots groups of people of color and low-income people. In this interview, three activists of color who have attended one or more of the past WSFs share their experiences and provide insight on the impact of the forum in their organizing work.

Beatriz Maya is the education director of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Immigrants (NCDA). FLOC is a migrant farmworker union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and Maya is also the lead organizer for their immigrant rights campaign. NCDA is a grassroots coalition of immigrant-based organizations advocating for a broad legalization program for undocumented immigrants.

Njoki Njoroge Njehu is director of the 50 Years is Enough Network. She is a Kenyan national who worked with women's groups and the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya f-or more than a decade. She grew tip learning from the work of Kenyan women, especially from her mother, Lilian Njehu, a grassroots community activist. Before joining the 50 Years Is Enough Network, she worked at Greenpeace International for three years focusing on the international toxic trade and on biodiversity issues. The 50 Years is Enough Network is a network for global economic justice that holds the International Monetary Fund and World Bank accountable for their socially and environmentally destructive policies in countries in the Global South.

Zoila Almonte is a leader and board member of Community Voices Heard (CVH), a membership organization of low-income individuals, mostly women with experience on public assistance, dedicated to building power of families, communities, and low-income people. CVH was founded by women on public assistance, but now focuses more broadly on issues of economic justice, including welfare reform, education equity, living-wage jobs, and other community issues.

Basav Sen: What in your opinion are the main benefits of participating in the World Social Forum?

Njoki Njehu: The WSF is an opportunity for activists worldwide to develop both a shared analysis and a critique of what's wrong with the current system controlled by neoliberal policies and to create a shared vision of a better future. It also helps us to put faces to names you already know and to discover amazing people one has not heard of before. A highlight for me was meeting Sara Longwe, who has been fighting against the privatization of the national bank in Zambia that would negatively impact grassroots women's access to credit. It is meeting people like her that keeps one's own convictions and passion alive.

Beatriz Maya: I think that participating in the WSF can help us expand our vision towards the possibility of building an international grassroots movement and international solidarity. It provides a space to make connections and to begin to build relationships at an international level. It helps us see the links among the many different issues we may be focusing on at the local level. Although corporations have worked at the global level for centuries and capital doesn't really see borders as an impediment to the search for profit, we the people, however, have been trapped with falsely created borders, nations, and flags of all colors. The division of our struggle into hundreds of "issues" has hindered our ability to see the connections and to build solidarity among working people. It also got us confused many times, as to who the real enemies are, and made us fight among ourselves. We know how much, for instance, racism is instilled in people's minds to create divisions. The WSF helps us make these connections and to identify the common "enemy."

BS: In what ways is the WSF fundamentally different from other conferences?

Zoila Almonte: The difference of the World Social Forum is that it focuses on the experiences of people who are directly affected by the policies of globalization and highlights their organizing efforts. Other conferences are directed by intellectuals, students, and others who are removed from what's happening on the ground. In the World Social Forum, we ourselves are at the table.

BM: The WSF is fundamentally different because it was conceived not as an educational conference but as a symbol of protest against the neoliberal model. It was born as a rejection of the Economic Forum of Davos. Participation in the WSF is a statement against the status quo. It is a rejection of a system that puts profits before human beings. People who participate share the belief that "another world is possible"--world based upon justice, peace, equality.

BS: How has participation in the WSF helped yon to place your work in a global context?

BM: Most of the FLOC members now are undocumented immigrants who were forced to migrate because of the policies of this country and of the international financial institutions the U.S.A. controls, such as the World Bank and the IMF. In addition, the same corporations we are fighting here in the U.S. buy their products in Mexico, India, Dominican Republic, and many other countries now. We have to be clear that unless we can build real solidarity with workers in these other countries, any victories we may win here are going to be pretty shaky. We don't have any other choice now but to organize globally.

NN: It can be a powerful, life-changing realization for many people from the U.S., even people of color, to come face to face with how closely they are linked to, and benefit from, the global power structure. For example, in the U.S., we think of white people as being privileged and people of color as not being privileged, but that distinction may not always hold in a global context. I know of a woman of color from Los Angeles who realized for the first time in Porto Alegre how privileged she was because of her U.S. citizenship and the fact that she spoke English fluently--in many ways, more privileged than many people from, say, Brazil who might be considered "white."

BS: What are the challenges you face as an organizer in developing and applying a global framework in your grassroots organizing work?

BM: We need to increase consciousness about the relationship of what happens to our lives (and the lives of our members) and the corporate-dominated system in which we live. We need to incorporate new educational components that make these links and explain why we need to work beyond the usual limits. Some of our members can tell you that they used to grow corn in Mexico and sustained their families with it but they can no longer do that under NAFTA; they had to migrate to survive. The education FLOC provides to its members, for instance, helped them to understand that NAFTA opened the door to subsidized corn from the U.S.A. and that's the reason why they could no longer sell their crop. We need to remind ourselves of the bigger reality we face if we are to organize successfully under globalization.

ZA: I believe that the biggest challenge is to change the perspective of the people. The press won't collaborate with us in this; they present globalization as a grand success but don't show what it means in human terms. The people don't know what globalization produces in our communities and in our countries--fewer jobs, more hunger. To meet this challenge, we have to educate ourselves and our people in public forums, conferences, and in every medium possible to let people know how globalization affects us!

BS: How is it to be a Northern activist (or an activist based in the North) in a primarily Southern forum? What unique contributions can Northern activists make to a global forum?

NN: People from the U.S. often think of themselves as being at the center of the universe. Even activists for social justice from the U.S. might think of people in the South as victims of U.S. policies, and may be amazed to go to the WSF and see so many thousands of people from the South not suffering silently, but organizing for their rights. Conversely, it is important for the rest of the world to know that all Americans are not like George Bush, or that all the dissidents are not elite intellectuals like Noam Chomsky--that there is important, transforming work being done by grassroots activists in the U.S., who are often people of color.

BM: I am from the South myself, and I know by experience that outside this country people never hear about the existence and/or experiences of poor people or people of color in the U.S.A. The image of the U.S.A. outside is one of an imperialistic country that builds its wealth upon the suffering of the rest of the world, but whose own people are well taken care of. This same belief is instilled in people's minds here in the U.S.A. by the media and educational institutions. Mainstream America does believe this is a good system that should be "replicated" all over the world. Part of our task is to break that myth in people's minds and we can do it by highlighting the struggles of poor people and people of color in the U.S.A. We need to show the voices of the oppressed and to make sure they are leading the way.

For the labor movement in particular, I think it is crucial to link organized and unorganized workers working for the same corporations in different countries. One of the most important challenges now is to build worker-to-worker solidarity with a jointly developed platform for action at the international level. Some unions, including FLOC and UE, for instance, are pioneers in this type of work, but we have a long way to go to break the "provincial" approach to labor organizing many unions have in the USA.

BS: What do you look forward to in the Mumbai WSF?

ZM: While broadening one's vision is a critical first step, it would be wonderful if the forum could go beyond identifying problems and actually develop joint strategies on how we can move forward ... step by step. If we are only joining together to meet and talk, and we fail to move forward, we have done nothing.

NN: I'm particularly excited to go to Mumbai to take a stand against communalism--the violent political misuse of religion to oppress minorities and women. The energy and boost I get at the WSF makes me want to go back year after year.

Basav Sen is staff at the Center for Economic Justice, and has been a long-time activist in the Boston area.
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Title Annotation:global south rising
Author:Sen, Basav
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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