My Trip To The U.S. Social Forum

I just spent 5 days in Detroit, Michigan at the U.S. Social Forum -- a gathering of about 17,000 activists and advocates for a wide range of social justice issues. While it proved to be quite the productive gathering (from where I stand anyway), getting there wasn't easy for me. The fact of the matter is that these things cost money -- something that I never have much of and, in spite of many people admiring my homeless advocacy, I get very little money for what I do. (I'm obviously not in it for the money, but because I care about the issue.) So, helping the homeless pro bono keeps me as dependent upon the kindness of strangers as those whom I help.

I got involved with the DC Metro Social Forum in March of 2007, just 3 months before the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta (which I didn't attend). However, I was heavily involved in the planning process for this year's U.S. Social Forum. During the run-up to June 22nd, 2010, members of the DC Metro Social Forum held fundraisers to help people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford the trip to get there. But, with the large number of people who needed help getting there and the relatively small amount of money that was raised, the funds could only pay for the chartered bus that we rode and people had to find some other way to pay for room and board.

As it turns out, one of my several friends in the League of Revolutionaries for a New America knew of a group that would sponsor me for the room and board. All I needed now was a way to pay for food and whatever else I might want or need to buy while in Detroit. Though members of the DC Metro Social Forum did some rather intense planning for 6 months around getting people to Detroit, it wasn't until the final month that I had any idea where this money would come from.

I had met a professor from Georgetown University while attending Social Justice Camp (a networking event for those involved in social justice issues in DC) this past January. She invited me to do some community organizing with her students. She told me that she wasn't sure whether or not she'd be able to pay me, but that I might get paid at the end of the school year if she had any of the grant money that she received to develop the course left over at the end of the school year.

So, on May 19th, I received an e-mail stating that I would receive $540.00 for my work with the students. Within days I had received and filled out the pertinent electronic forms. However, on June 8th, I still hadn't received the check in the mail. I sent an e-mail explaining that I needed the money by June 18th, so that I could use it to go to Detroit. As it turned out, the electronic forms that had been sent to me were the wrong ones. So, a Georgetown employee met me in person on the 9th and had me to fill out the right forms. And the waiting game began afresh and anew.

I checked for mail every day until the 18th. Nothing. On Saturday the 19th, my name appeared on the mail list at the CCNV shelter. But the man who was working in the mail room that day couldn't find my mail. I actually wasn't sure if it was a $100 check that I was expecting from elsewhere or the Georgetown check. After several minutes of searching, he told me to come back on Monday. So, I walked away in disgust and despair.

When I returned on Monday, the woman who was working in the mail room found both of my checks within a matter of seconds. I now had $790.00 on hand, out of which I owed $240.00 to people that I'd borrowed from. Or so I thought.

With my chartered bus scheduled to leave DC at 7 AM on June 22nd, Monday the 21st was my last chance to cash the check. So, with the Georgetown check having been drawn on the PNC Bank, I went to the branch near the White House. I arrived at 2:45, only to find out that that branch closes at 2. I was furious and began to curse up a storm. Then I went found out where a couple of other branches were.

The teller at the branch at 14th and K Streets refused to cash my check and wouldn't tell me why. (It might have been due to the photos on my 2 forms of I.D. having been taken in different lighting and thus looking slightly different. Also, one showed me wearing a cap. The other showed me with hair. And I had a bald head and no cap when I entered the bank. (The same cap that I wore in the picture was in my back pocket.) I walked out in disgust and despair and cursed up an even bigger storm. Then, I went to the branch at 15th and L Streets where the teller cashed it immediately. Everything worked out in the nick of time. It seemed as thought it might've been a matter of divine intervention. (Coincidentally, a couple of days later, I heard the song "On Time God" playing on someone's CD player in Hart Plaza in Downtown Detroit. This served to reaffirm the notion of divine intervention.) So, I went to Target to purchase some work boots, a couple of pairs of shorts and some things for my trip and boarded the bus for Detroit the following morning.

Including about 90 minutes combined at 2 rest areas, it took 10 and a half hours to get to Detroit. And when we arrived, the registration line proved to be longer and more hectic than any line that I've ever stood in -- including those at soup kitchens and shelters. But I learned the public transit system rather quickly and was able to get around the city with relative ease.

I had an easier time than most people did figuring out which of the more than 1,200 workshops I wanted to attend. Since I knew some of the people who were leading the workshops, I didn't need to use the book with the confusing charts to find workshops. I just called people on my cell phone to find out when and where their workshops would be.

I turned out to be privileged in yet another way. Several of the attendees whom I knew actually had less money on hand than I did and needed help buying food. I gladly helped. The van belonging to one of the groups in attendance broke down about 9 miles outside of Detroit and a couple of youths in that group went around asking for donations. I gave $5.00. Since we were there to fight for social justice issues which include homelessness and poverty, I made it a point to give money to some of the homeless people that I saw. All together, I gave out over $50.00 easily (not counting what I spent buying drinks for ladies during the party on my last night there). People had helped me and now I was just paying it forward gladly.

On one occasion, I saw a man walking through Cobo Hall (Detroit's convention center) who I could tell was homeless just by looking at him. I offered him a dollar. He declined. He explained that he was a homeless man from Sacramento, CA and that he had been sponsored to come to Detroit. He and I spoke about our similar work as homeless homeless advocates for about 40 minutes. Then several other homeless people from Sacramento came down the escalator accompanied by a man from San Jose who I'd only met in person for the first time earlier the same day. It turned out that all of them knew each other. (The man from San Jose was one of 5 people that I met in person during the Social Forum after corresponding for some time via e-mail, Facebook and telephone.) I ended up becoming friends with homeless people from California after what might've been my strangest encounter yet with another homeless person.

The U.S. Social Forum was a way of connecting different people who are involved in similar struggles as well as connecting different struggles that are all part of the same social movement. While not everyone found it to be as fulfilling as I did, I was able to make some important connections. I reconnected with a woman from PPEHRC (the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign) whom I'd met last November during the visit of the U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing. She promised to assist my colleagues and I in our planned direct action on July 10th. I also signed on to help build the U.S.-Canada branch of the International Alliance of Inhabitants which is based in Italy, thus establishing some international contacts. (The IAI is running a zero-evictions campaign as part of its efforts to make housing a human right worldwide.)

That said, I have my hands full, as if I wasn't doing enough already. Nonetheless, I'm consistent in my tendency to over-commit. But the Social Forum was intended to bring people together so that they can work together going forward. It was never intended to be the end-all, be-all of social justice. We have our work cut out for us. Our work has just begun.


Anonymous said…
Can't see how you stay motivated with the current trends in DC and the country going towards cutting social services. But someone needs to stand up.


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