“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi
I’ve recently been inclined to exert myself in every way possible to advocate for social justice and to continue to wage a fight for people who are oppressed in my own community, throughout the state of Vermont, throughout the lands of the United States and around the World. I often times am overwhelmed by the countless struggles and issues worldwide that often time seem unrealistic to overcome. However, I was recently humbled when I encountered thousands of like-minded individuals who gathered in Atlanta, Georgia to share their experiences of struggle, to provide testimonials and information, and to collaborate and ponder ways to achieve the issues at hand. In this light I would like to share with you my experience at the first ever US Social Forum.
I arrived off the plane in Atlanta not knowing what to expect, but knowing that at some level this conference would have an immense impact on my life. I traveled down there representing the Vermont Workers Center, which I recently got involved with after the organization greatly helped in the unionization efforts at my own workplace. I traveled down south with a group of 7 other people who I either never met or had not known very well. By the end of the trip I felt like I had seven new friends. This conference could not have been so enjoyable if I had not spent it with the company of such inspirational, intellectual and kind-hearted people.
One of the most memorable experiences of my trip was when I went I met with a group of advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the group there were homeless individuals from Atlanta and Nashville. They talked about their experiences of being homeless and specifically the criminalization they face in their particular communities. Many cities have no day shelters for the homeless to utilize. It is illegal for a homeless person to spend more then fifteen minutes on a park bench (in various communities) which I witnessed first hand as police encountered a person resting in the park. They have no place to go and the resources needed to help them are scarce. The Section 8 waiting list in Atlanta and New York (which is a much desired housing subsidy voucher for people in poverty) averages ten to fifteen years. One woman in the group was put on the waiting list when her baby was first born. Her baby has just graduated high school and the woman is still on the waiting list for a voucher.
The most emotional part of this conference was when I attended a workshop on the broken criminal justice system, specifically on the death penalty and wrongful persecutions. I was fortunate enough to be part of a discussion where a Chicago based death row inmate, Victor Safforld (Cortez Brown) spoke to us on speaker phone from prison about his experience. He states that he was wrongly convicted of murder. With out a doubt, I personally believe there was absolutely not enough evidence to convict him. In fact the only evidence was a signed document that he was physically tortured into signing after he was picked up on a traffic violation. The corrupt Chicago detective, John Burge and his team who are accused of these brutal crimes are now being exposed not only by Victor Safforld, but many other inmates who have had similar experiences. Chicago journalists and lawyers are taking interest in all these cases that appear to be wrongful persecutions of human souls.
I had to leave the room in tears when Victor, a very well spoken and enlightened individual, read his poem titled “There is a fire in my soul.” This was the moment where I knew I was in that room for a reason and I had to continue to fight the good fight for all the people out there who have to suffer at the cost of our nations numerous flaws and imperfections.
Another incredible moment in Atlanta was when I had the opportunity to leave the downtown area of the city and eat the best Lebanese food I have ever had. Fifteen of us went out for great food and conversation(with interpreters-Adrienne and the owner of Cedars). We met up with two of the speakers of the US Social Forum plenary: US Imperialism, War, Militarism, and Prisons. One of the speakers was Faleh Abood Umara who is part of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Workers Union. The other speaker who we met was the first ever woman President of the Iraqi Electrical Utility Workers Union, Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein. They showed us pictures of their children, told us about their lives in Iraq, and they seemed heartened and encouraged by the fact that our group and many people throughout our country oppose the occupation of Iraq, as well as our efforts to make some change in this world.
During the six days in Atlanta we met so many organization and individuals from all over the world. It was truly a spectacular event. I met one woman on a subway who worked at Ground Zero doing search and rescue of possible survivors after the 9/11 tragedy. She had so many intense stories I could not even fathom experiencing myself. I didn’t even catch the woman’s name, although we talked for nearly thirty minutes about the suffering and pain she was dealt with on those days. The man who was blind on the same subway ride also chimed in with his own stories and knew the neighborhood that the woman from New York lived in. There happened to be a conferene for the blind in Atlanta at the same time. That was just one of many experiences I had.
I was surrounded by diversity and people from all walks of life, people who smiled when you passed them by and in depth it is discovered that they all have a story to tell. They all have experienced struggles, or simply have the compassion to help combat those struggles.
I actually got a miniscule taste of what hunger is like when I lost my debit card in Atlanta. I went two days without eating. My fellow crew was generous to help out but I was hopeful to fix my own problems myself. Our group was also so busy running around the city to various workshops that it made it difficult to meet up with anyone to eat…..so I didn’t for two days. That plus the fact that US Airlines sucks and lost my baggage, made me wait and stand on a “mini” turbulent airplane while they served the customers soda and snacks, the fact they had no portable water on the airplane (yes- no washing hands, no coffee or tea, nothing) , and the fact that we sat in a hot plane idling in the runway for an hour and a half only to miss our connecting flight in Philly and having to spend the night in Camden, NJ and return home nearly 24 hours after we were suppose to and miss work…….well it wasn’t that bad of a trip.
The last night we were in Atlanta we went to support our fellow VWC delegate Adrienne who is part of Iraqi Veterans Against the War. They had a party that we went to that raised nearly $4800. After the party we traveled in the IVAW bus that is pimped out in comfort and a peaceful easy setting. They are doing a national tour trying to gain awareness to the fact that there are many veterans who are opposed to our military operations in Iraq. “The voice of protest, of warning, of appeal is never more needed than when the clamor of fife and drum, echoed by the press and too often by the pulpit, is bidding all men fall in and keep step and obey in silence the tyrannous word of command. Then, more than ever, it is the duty of the good citizen not to be silent.” – Charles Eliot Norton
My overall experience at the first US Social Forum was clearly mind changing. I learned so many things that I was oblivious to. I met so many people from different cultures and different parts of the world. I found issues that touched me so much that I will use my skills and abilities to try and make some change. I was assured of the numerous struggles and issues surrounding people of oppression. I learned that although it might appear to be unrealistic for one person to change the world that it is realistic for people to collectively do their part to change the larger picture. It starts in the community. It starts on the road in which you live on, the neighborhood that surrounds you, the faces of your community, the people all around who contribute to each others well being. If you can make positive change in your community it sets an example for other communities and the change becomes somewhat replicated. Change can effectively evolve at a local level and spread around the world.
I hope whoever reads this realizes the power a person can have in this life. Any individual can make a positive difference, but it takes time and energy in doing so. “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the creative light of altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s persistent and most urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
That was just a quick blurb of my experience. I intend to write more about it later. I have yet to catch up on my sleep from that trip. Hope that wasn’t too intense.