by Shanna Goldman, Organizing Director

I’m back in Albany now. There was so much to do at the US Social Forum in Detroit that I couldn’t find 30 minutes to sit and write about what was going on! It was an amazing experience–the people, the ideas, the energy. I left Saturday morning while other folks were preparing to protest an the placement of an incinerator by planting a garden across the street with 4-foot-tall sunflowers.

Here are some of the highlights of my trip:

Detroit and the People Mover

True, I am easily impressed and tend to fall in love with every city I go to.  But here is why I love Detroit.  It’s beautiful the way a dead tree is beautiful: smooth and graceful without its leafs.  Anyone can just admire the poetry of its structure and that is how all of these elegant buildings–now empty–stand.

The coolest part, hands-down, is the People Mover.  Really, that’s its official name!  It’s an above ground rail like something out of the Jetsons cartoon.  A two car train runs along a cement structure about one to two stories above us that circles the city, kind of like the monorail at the Bronx Zoo.  Not only is it an efficient way to get around town, but it’s a unique view of the city, traveling in between those beautiful buildings and looking into the windows thinking of what once was.  Yet unlike the monorail at the Bronx Zoo, you can ride for just 50 cents.

Detroit’s emptiness is haunting.  Driving into the city at 5pm Tuesday afternoon, my caravan was one of the few cars on the road.   I’ve been told that this is partially a result of urban planning.  The city was intended for car efficiency, with enough roads to avoid congestion during the height of its population.  Friends who went on an auto-factory tour saw a factory that was 7 times the size of a football field; and it’s completely empty.  How do you renovate a space like that?

While Detroit holds a record 30% unemployment rate, it also holds a record for the most food gardens.  Detroit also stands out for having the one of the highest concentrations of restaurants and is home to Restaurant Opportunities Center, a kick ass group that fights for rights of restaurant workers.  Check em out at http://www.rocunited.org/

Time Banking: A New Way to Organize, Subvert Capitalism Or Just Get Your Lawn Mowed!

Definitely one of the best workshops I attended was hosted by Time Banks USA.  It’s a system of work-exchange where everyone is equal.  People give or receive goods and services and earn or spend time bank hours.   Although Portland, Maine has over 600 members, a time bank ideally has a small geographic boundary like the Delaware Avenue Neighborhood in Albany or Ellicott District in Buffalo.  It’s a way to get people to build relationships with the people who live next to them and also to give folks who are out of work an opportunity to have currency (just not cash currency).

I met a woman who coordinates a time bank in the Sobrante Park neighborhood of Oakland, CA, which was initiated by the County Health Department as a means to bridge a divide, which often results in violence between the African American and the Latino communities in that neighborhood.  While this time bank provides many economic benefits, it also heals and shifts the balance of power.  In the workshop, the coordinator talked about a town hall meeting she held between the Spanish speaking community and the police.  The meeting was held in Spanish, and the police had to wear headphones for simultaneous translation.

What if we had time banking in every community and folks earned time banking hours for volunteering, taking actions, and registering folks to vote?  Think of how that could change organizing and grow the movement.

Do’s and Don’ts for those planning to attend the next US Social Forum

  1. Do think ahead of time about which workshops you want to attend since looking through 1500 options the day-of will overwhelm you.
  2. Don’t stress out too much if the workshop you chose is canceled, just randomly go into any workshop, and you’ll probably learn something.
  3. Do stay at the old cheap hotel that’s almost 100 years old with its broken air conditioner, moth ball smell and all.
  4. Don’t freak out when you see the fancy-shmancy hotel all the Jobs With Justice people are staying at.  Your old cheap hotel is pretty, has nice people working there, and you’ll end up meeting a lot of new folks as you all converge in the lobby, the only place with an internet connection.
  5. If you stay at the hotel, do make friends with the staff since you may need them to wake you up when you pass out drunk outside your room at 3 in the morning and not laugh at you.
  6. Do take a walking tour of whatever city will be hosting the next US Social Forum, or just plan your own tour but get out of the conference center and the touristy areas.
  7. Do also meet up with a local resident like Detroit’s Unofficial Ambassador Evan to show you around the historic buildings and the local bars.
  8. Do not let him convince you its tradition to do a shot at every bar – but if you do, don’t worry, if you follow the advice in numbers 3-5, it’ll all work out.
  9. Do come with some goals in mind for what you would like to get out of the US Social Forum, but..
  10. Don’t panic and stay flexible.  There’s so much to experience that even if you wing it, you will leave energized, inspired, and connected.

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