The US Social Forum represents one pole of the progressive movement and Netroots Nation represents another. I just got back from the Forum (which ended on Saturday), and I’ll be attending Netroots Nation (July 22), and it got me thinking: what do these two gatherings represent when viewed as two estranged parts of a complete whole?
Attendees of the Forum generally consider it to be one of the most important national gatherings of the last few years. It’s a staging ground for forces that rarely get to experience their own collective strength. But to the rest of the movement, especially those who define themselves in relationship to some wing or the other of the Democratic Party, it’s more like ‘the US Social what?!’
The gap between the two tells us a lot about the challenges facing change activists to the left of the Obama Administration. Nearly everyone I know who is active on an issue falls in that category – supporters of immigration reform, financial regulation, a strong jobs program, opponents of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change activists, and more. The gap between what we want and what we get is might be related to the gap between the Social Forum and Netroots nation.
The Social Forum vs. Netroots Nation
In a nutshell, the Social Forum represents a broad swath of people organizing for change in membership-based organizations that represent the poor, people of color, queers, immigrants and other marginalized constituencies. As one observer notes, these groups have
“literally taken over the organizing process right from the beginning, consciously excluding and marginalizing the traditional civil formations who otherwise normally dominate such processes (including – as I understand it – progressive organizations from the civil rights world, the labor world, the world of feminism, the environmental world, and so on.”
Jai Sen, 2nd issue of the USSF Magazine
What a contrast from most conferences I attend, where VIP’s and salaried staff of organizations mingle with folks eager to become next year’s VIP’s and salaried staff. Where Netroots Nation serves in part as advanced training and brainstorming for internet fueled political campaigners, the Social Forum is all about offline organizing and coalition building among the have-nots.
One aspect of the Social Forum’s mandate is that the agenda was being set by folks who are often feel left out and disempowered by the political process, and in return don’t give it much faith. No one I met was disappointed in Obama’s first year accomplishments – people didn’t expect that much to begin with. A lot of them see electoral politics as a kind of diversion from the “real” organizing work. On one panel, organizations involved in civic engagement were clear that they did electoral work to base build; they did not do base building to help win elections.
What Influences the Mainstream?
My disappointment in the Social Forum was in the relative absence of high level strategizing and information sharing on how we intervene successfully in the ‘real’ political life of the United States. Few workshops addressed nuts and bolts issues like targeting, messaging, polling, open rates, super-activists and donor acquisition – all hallmarks of what makes Netroots Nation such an important event.
By way of example, I encountered very emotional testimonies from Arizona immigration activists fighting against SB1070, the recently enacted law that, more or less, declares all brown people to be potential enemies of the state. It just wasn’t connected to an educational strategy that might persuade supporters of SB1070 to change their minds, nor to a legislative strategy, an electoral strategy or event a Congressional lobbying strategy. All of those exist, wonderful people are doing this work, but – based on my own experiences – it’s work that takes a bit of a back seat at the Forum.
Some months ago at the Left Forum, I asked one of the leaders of the Social Forum process about the tendency to ignore political strategy. She explained that the level of organization and political education among marginalized people is so low at the moment, that the main task is shifting consciousness. Looking back at the Forum workshops I attended, it looks like many agree with her.
Social Forum vs. the Netroots
The netroots movement inspired by Howard Dean has been superseded to an extent by the web-enabled organizing carried out by the Obama campaign. There is now a literature articulating the benefits of ‘web-ready’ organizing models. Many of us believe that the rise of web-based tools and practices has revolutionized organizing, advocacy and political campaigning. Unfortunately, it was hard to see the impact of such views at the Social Forum. Not that attendees there aren’t online; but there are strong countervailing forces seeking to keep all that new fangled stuff in its place, as though it was a threat to be managed. (A major exception is the focus on open source technology and a DIY ethic.)
Among my online organizing peers, there is a bias towards working with organizations large and well funded enough to have access to certain tools. In parallel, they often pursue agendas limited enough to have ‘play’ in Congress or a state capitol. The folks using these tools and working for those organizations are often more white, more male, more formally educated and from more privileged class backgrounds than the pool of change activists comprising the sector as a whole. Good people all; but there are excellent reasons why leaders from marginalized communities would seek to prevent that demographic from dominating their spaces. We can’t separate the potential impact of new tools from the political power of the demographics wielding them.
An illustration of this is the conflict one experiences when hearing about the great online work done with the Basta Dobbs campaign or the great text messaging work done by Fair Immigration Reform Movement. It is great work, but very little scales back down to the work of grassroots organizations with fewer resources. If a goal of your movement is to avoid dependence on ‘the industrial-nonprofit complex‘ it’s just frustrating to be directed to strategies forever out of reach.
Despite the obstacles, I wish there was more high-level sharing of ideas between these two communities. The cost of tools continues to go down. Less specialized training is needed. What we need are more tables at which organizers, community leaders and online strategists are working together to take advantage of every new innovation to build power.
What Should We Do?
What we need are 10,000 more online strategists with an emphasis on practitioners who are people of color, not in DC/NY/SF, women and veteran organizers already embedded in leadership positions. These newly minted strategists might not be able to code a single line of php or build a single email template, but they will know what we mean by CRM, CMS, SMS, the VAN, ROI and of course, Netroots Nation. Every one of them will be one degree of separation away from the vibrant community of new media activists and online organizers that is taken root over the last decade.
It won’t be easy. We’ll know we’ve succeeded if, the next summer when the Social Forum and Netroots Nation are both taking place (2013?), more of us choose to cross over to the other side.
What do you think?