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Midwest Social Forum Holds Organizing Teach-in

by Marc Becker
April 11, 2008

Over 150 activists from throughout the Midwest gathered the last weekend of March 2008 for Organizing Communities Across Boundaries: An Organizing Teach-in. The weekend sought to build collaborative relationships and develop organizing skills to bridge the divides that segment social justice movements.

A struggle that social movements face is to break from hierarchies and out of “silos” that divide people from each other. Activists need to move from protest actions, which often react against oppression, to developing and presenting visions of where we want to go. Social movements are also moving away from the control of foundations that often limit activism through funding restrictions.

Planning Committee member Patrick Barrett noted that not only are skills important, but we also need to build relationships. Big gatherings are good for gaining a sense of being part of something bigger, but small gathering is designed to help us build relationships.

People, especially young people and people of color, who have been impacted by issues are now in leadership positions. That was reflected in the composition of the participants, with an overwhelming presence of people in their 20s and people from the inner cities of Chicago and Milwaukee.

Workshops covered a range of issues from the basics of community organizing and strategic campaign planning, through more advanced topics of fundraising, how to democratize our campuses, and building a queer left in the Midwest. While most workshops were planned ahead of time, at the teach-in participants from Chicago and Milwaukee organized a powerful and well-attended session on the prison industrial complex.

In addition to the workshop, the teach-in also featured relationship building cohorts and caucuses. The cohorts were 10 small groups that cut across race, age, and issue divides. An objective of the cohort groups was to break people out of their comfort zones and “silos” in order to build ties across communities and issues.

In addition to the cohorts, participants gathered in 5 caucuses for people working on the common issues of youth, environmental justice, immigrant rights, LGBT, and students.

Three plenary sessions were also spaced throughout the weekend. Rose Brewer from Project South and Adrienne Maree Brown from the Ruckus Society facilitated the opening plenary session on “Can We Win it All?” Rose and Adrienne emphasized the importance of intersectionality–how struggles over race, class, gender, sexuality and others are informed and shaped by each other. Organizations come and go, but key to realizing success is to build movements around networks of people.

Friday ended with an intergenerational fishbowl on cross-cultural best organizing practices. Organizers began with one representative of each of 4 age groups in the fishbowl (under 21, 22-35, 36-50, and above 50) in order to begin a conversation about commonalities and conflicts across these boundaries. As the conversation advanced, people in the audience tapped out those in the fishbowl so that a constantly rotating source of knowledge was on the floor.

One person noted that the young and the old are the most disrespected in our society, and that they needed to talk to each other to learn from each other and to organize around common concerns. Another person talked about the problems with the professionalization of radicalism. Activists need energy and passion–they can learn the other skills. A problem is that after the civil rights movement, activism became a job which killed movement building.

A final closing plenary brought together the threads of what had been covered during the weekend, and asked participants to reflect on how to move forward.

The long and very active days ended with artistic performances, including "Invincible" performing powerful spoken word pieces, and Cecilio Negrón leading a drumming session that extended late into the night.

The teach-in was sponsored by the Midwest Social Forum. Social forums provide open spaces for exchanging experiences and information, strengthening alliances and networks, and developing effective strategies for progressive social, economic, and political change. The weekend gathering was held at the Wonderland Camp and Conference Center in rural Wisconsin just north of the state line from Chicago.

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