“Other Economies Are Possible!”
A Report from the Boston Social Forum
By Ethan Miller*
From July 23-25th 2004, over 5,000 people participated in the Boston Social Forum (BSF), held at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. As a localized manifestation of the World Social Forum process (begun in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2000), the BSF was designed as an open and democratic space for a wide array of radical and progressive organizations in New England to share ideas and visions, form new alliances, create public visibility, and build broader and more powerful movements for social change.
The event was a tremendous success. The BSF brought together hundreds of organizations to present nearly 600 workshops, panels, discussions, and talks over a span of three days. Topics, organized into 30 “tracks”, included immigrant's rights, women's liberation, environmental justice, the protection of civil liberties, corporate power and militarism, overcoming white supremacy, healthcare alternatives, organized (and unorganized) labor issues, resisting capitalist globalization, and building international solidarity.
Also prominent amidst these crucial issues: cooperative and democratic economics. The “Other Economies Are Possible!” track, including more than 40 events, made it loud-and-clear at the BSF that contemporary social movements have substantial, viable visions for economic cooperation and solidarity. These visions, we demonstrated, have taken root and are growing strong in our own backyards and all over the world.
Where did this “Other Economies Are Possible” (OEAP) organizing effort come from? As an organizer and popular educator in the so-called “anti-globalization movement” (I prefer to call it the “global solidarity” movement), it has become increasingly clear to me that if our efforts to oppose capitalist globalization are to truly succeed, we must develop not only a popular critique of existing institutions, but also stronger, shared alternative visions for economic organization.
I have been particularly inspired by efforts that I encountered in Brazil, at the second World Social Forum, to build locally-rooted, globally-connected cooperative economic networks. Often using the term economía solidaria or “solidarity economy,”organizers throughout Latin America are working to link together autonomous, grassroots, solidarity-based initiatives through mutual recognition and support—seeking to create not a new blueprint for “the” alternative economy, but rather a horizontal web of many diverse, interconnected, and democratically-controlled economies.
The Boston Social Forum, particularly because of its links to the World Social Forum, seemed to be a perfect space to foster conversations about these ideas. Hoping to facilitate a discussion or workshop, I made some calls in search of people who might be organizing an “economic alternatives” track—only to discover that no such track or coordinated effort yet existed. I couldn't imagine a Social Forum without a vibrant display of economic alternatives, so with much encouragement and support from comrades, friends and fellow collective members (I live in a cooperative community in Maine called the “JED Collective”), I leaped into the fray.
I soon discovered a large and inspiring array of people throughout the New England region who were excited to work on the project. A series of three meetings—Amherst area (Western Mass), Boston, and Worcester—solidified a network of supporters and organizers and generated both a solid vision for the track as well as a smaller working group dedicated to the logistics of carrying it all through to the end. This group included Noemi Giszpenc of Ownership Associates; Stacey Cordeiro of the Cooperative Development Institute; Julie Petot of Equal Exchange; Eric Johnson of Red Sun Press; and Pasqualino Colombaro of SEIU 509. Many others assisted along the way.
We took a consciously broad approach to the definition of “alternatives,” including not only worker-owned businesses and cooperatives of various stripes, but many other kinds of grassroots economic initiatives as well. We wanted the OEAP events to help make these many inspiring efforts more publicly visible—especially in “progressive” circles where they are often (surprisingly) little-known or acknowledged. We also hoped that this approach might point towards the real possibility of building a “solidarity economy movement” here in the US, linking together a wide array of existing efforts focused on meeting individual and community needs through cooperation and solidarity.
As with the BSF in general, the momentum of the event took on a life of its own and generated a kind of “snowball effect”. What began as a track evolved into a full-fledged conference within the Forum, linking together OEAP efforts with numerous self-proposed events and related tracks. In the end, OEAP became a “frame” that gave larger coherence and visibility to a wide array of activities organized by many individuals and groups.
The final conference program was defined by four “theme areas”:
The variety of panels and workshops within these themes was tremendous—from solidarity-based food systems, healthcare, housing, communication and alternative energy to forms of community-based exchange, consumer organization, and models of worker control and ownership of businesses and capital. Full descriptions of the events, along with numerous articles collected by the Earth & Sky Exchange Collective for a reader distributed at the Forum, can be found on the OEAP website: www.othereconomies.org.
OEAP was very successful at creating a space for broad, popular economic education. The bold presence of the track within the BSF also marked an important step in the region towards bringing together the often-separate spheres of “oppositional” and “alternative” movements. Such connection, if taken further and solidified, can strengthen both realms and provide a powerful basis for movement building. If OEAP can set a precedent for such linkage at future events, our work will have been well worth it.
Challenges of OEAP & the Social Forum
One of the many challenges of OEAP was negotiating the tension between the event as a popular education opportunity and the event as a space for more concrete connection and communication between existing initiatives. Attempts at talking “movement strategy” in spaces containing people of varied levels of knowledge an experience proved to be very challenging, while the thought of creating a more “exclusive” space amidst the wild openness of the Forum seemed like a missed opportunity for new connections. In the end, events at the BSF seemed most successful when they were framed in the educational vein—open spaces for the sharing of information and ideas between people of differing backgrounds and interests.
This brings us to the Social Forum as a whole. In my experience, Forum-type spaces are very effective at creating a feeling of movement —the dynamic convergence of diverse groups and efforts, indicating new possibilities and hope. In a sense, they are for organizations what mass street mobilizations can be for individuals: a chance to briefly experience the solidarity of togetherness, what it means to be one crucial part of a larger, almost incomprehensible whole. We need these experiences. But the ensuing chaos is also difficult to navigate. Logistical problems aside (and there are many, as those who missed workshops because of scheduling errors can attest!), the magnitude of movement and action can become almost paralyzing. Amidst the frenzy, we risk losing the kind of focus that is necessary for sustainable, long-term organizing.
Can Social Forums channel our limited energy in ways that are productive for long-term movement building? I believe that they can, if used carefully as a tool for periodic mass-convergence, energy-building and collective amplification. But as with all such sporadic, high-energy events, it is the steady careful work we do in-between that will lay the foundations for truly successful struggle.
The OEAP conference suggests tremendous future possibility for local and regional cross-sector connection between “solidarity economy” efforts. Though no immediate plans have been made for such work coming out of the Forum, I believe that this is an essential direction for our movements to take. Combining:
—can move us towards not only new languages and tools for struggle, but perhaps even new dynamics of economic and social solidarity that we have not yet imagined.
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