Last week I attended the United States Social Forum, which was a week long summit of 15,000 progressive individuals from around our country and around the world. 'Progressive' in the broadest sense possible: the term as appropriated by many who associate with the democratic party was not intended, rather individuals who are committed, in some substantial way, to social/political/economic change.
It was inspiring to say the least. One of the first shockers was the absolute diversity of participants. I have never been in a group of individuals with such diversity of interests, socio-economic class, hometowns, ages, skills, educational background, ethnic background and political opinion (besides general 'left'). In one workshop, I sat and listened to representatives from the Nigerian River Delta decry the exploitation of their environment. In a discussion afterwards, a middle aged Colombian woman argued with an older white sociologist from the University of Kansas who had been researching the relationship between native governments and the World Bank. A young gay rights activist from California mediated as me and a girl from Eunice, LA tried to make the connection between Nigeria and BP spill. In another, where an extremely passionate man from Move To Amend explained that a law that is 'legally' instituted that gives corporations the same rights as people contradicts democracy and is thus illegal by nature. An 80-year-old man, clearly hard of hearing, raised his hand to say, "Thanks so much for telling me about this issue! I had no idea there were people out there trying to amend the constitution". An 80 year old discovering new causes, new ways to look at the problems at hand and figure out one's place? To say inspiring hardly does it justice.
As the conference went on, the energy among the participants was palpable. Everyone there was doing something, wanting something, imagining something, pleading, arguing, debating, listening, participating, rejecting. It's not to say that everyone was doing the right thing, but just to have so many people fully engaged with this whirlwind of life: it demanded that you consider your role. Where do I fit into this society where this person is oppressed, that person is suffering, exploitation is here and here and here, communities are falling apart, individuals are fighting for their rights, artists are putting their images to the cause, photographers, dancers, puppeteers? Most people there, I would say, were already set into their cause/purpose, had been fighting the good fight for something for a while already, so it's not to say that everyone was having this experience. But I do think that even for those deeply entrenched in their cause the sheer variety and conviction of participants in a variety of causes would make anyone stop and think for a second: why my cause, now? Why not something else? How can we collaborate? In what ways are we fighting the same fight?
I kept thinking over and over about some talk that I thought was glaringly missing from the discourse: what about all of those upper to middle class Americans who are not overtly complicit in oppression or destruction or exploitation and yet do nothing to fight against it in their societies? There is a common parlance among these activists about 'waking up', realizing the contradictions within ones society and becoming increasingly willing to do something about them. But where was all the discussion about how to get everyone else to wake up, about what to do with the overwhelming sense of helplessness, pointlessness and eventual apathy that can result from a full investigation to how truly wretched so many aspects of our world actually are?
Being interested in psychology, and someone who in many ways has just recently 'woken up', and in many ways is not fully awake yet, I thought about this a lot. I think I'll write about this more as time goes on, but like so many things, the questions have lead me back to myself. I must do what I am meant to do. I must fight, and fight hard, against the constant bombardment of messages, images, expectations, second-guessing and fear that I have within myself that prevents me from being myself. Until I have made progress in this fight, all my external battles will be for naught. As was a quote by Archbishop Oscar Romero in one of the official USSF t-shirts sold by Liberation Ink,