The 2010 US Social Forum, held from June 22- 26, was a continuation of the path of political justice that began in 2007. That year the first US Social Forum was held in Atlanta in 2007 and was successful in bringing together thousands of social justice activists. This year the journey continued, leaving the south and heading up north to Detroit. Ironically, this is the same route as the Underground Railroad where thousands of American slaves found freedom in Canada, which lay across the Detroit River. It is not coincidental that Detroit was chosen as the location for the second US Social Forum. A city of many faces, Detroit is an “epicenter of both crisis and solution, a border city, a post-industrial environment …a movement city”. A place where large-scale job loss, increased violence, and pollution exist, Detroit is also a symbol of environmental activism and grassroots innovation.
The US Social Forum should be recognized as a “political process” and not a networking event, as it aims to unite communities across the nation to create a collective movement that can fight oppression. At the forum, several thousands Americans from all over the country met to discuss and achieve these aims. More than 1,000 workshops and nearly 50 assemblies were available to participants, which allowed voices to be heard on both the social and environmental struggles on the local, national, and even international levels. Solidarity was not difficult to find amongst the enthusiastic dialogue and inspiring stories from participants. The forum was successful in uniting oppressed peoples from the Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific-Islander and Indigenous communities of the United States to developing counties.
Local Detroiters also voiced their experiences. Looking at the drastic decrease of Detroit’s population, one cannot imagine the amount of social injustice and environmental hazard that could be found in one city zip code. Abandoned homes, soot-covered buildings, and “For Sale By Owner” signs are a common sight in the communities of Detroit. Sadly, Detroit’s 48217 zip code is Michigan’s most polluted. Industrial sites such as the Marathon Oil Refinery can be seen from the houses of most 48217 citizens. Some neighborhoods are only a fence away from the salt mines, coal plants, oil tanks and other industrial facilities that plague the 48217 area.
Stories of cancer, asthma, leukemia, and sarcoidosis disease are all found on one street block. Community members have been protesting against the pollution that continues to threaten their lives and children. Mrs. Delores Leonard and Ms. Theresa Landrum are two women who are making a voice for the people of 48217. Leading “toxic tours” through the neighborhoods, these activists are showing other Americans the truth about the pollution caused by the industrial sites and their close proximity to residential areas.. The citizens of Detroit have not been shy in calling out the industries that have acted wrongly against them. Rhonda Anderson, the Environmental Justice Organizer for the Sierra Club in Detroit has helped sustain the fight against the addition of industry in the 48217 area. Along with Mrs. Leonard, Ms. Landrum and other activists, Anderson is motivated to see justice served for the people of Detroit.
A march was held on Saturday the 26th to advocate for the closure of the Detroit Incinerator. Titled “Action for Clean Air, Good Jobs, and Justice for All”, the march began in front of the Detroit Public Library and ended at the Detroit Incinerator. The march called for city Mayor Dave Bing to “expand curbside recycling throughout Detroit - bringing new jobs and economic development to the city” and to end trash incineration. At an interlude in the march, organizers from across the nation voiced their solidarity with the citizens of Detroit and acknowledged the environmental plight of the city. Bringing the US Social Forum full circle, members of different Detroit grassroots organizations thanked demonstrators for their support and stay in the city of Detroit.
The role of grassroots organizations was evident throughout the US Social Forum as both youth and adults discussed and learned from each other. The forum was extremely successful in building national and international networks, which fostered the beginnings of a unified approach against the social and environmental injustices occurring at home and abroad. The forum was not an event that would allow such unity to end, but rather it is a process that needs the help of its attendees to continue the movement. Throughout the five-day event, tears were shed and the energy of thousands was generated toward a common goal for another, better world.
Leslie Fields is Director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program.