istory may well record that the future of the African continent-if not the world-pivoted on February 11, 2011, with the conclusion of the 11th annual World Social Forum (WSF) in Dakar, Senegal. It was not only the day that the people of Egypt in East Africa liberated themselves after 17 days of peaceful resistance, but it was also the life-changing conclusion to a six-day sojourn for 10 Detroit activists.
In June 2010, more than 25,000 progressive leaders, activists, educators and others, from every corner of the globe, came to Detroit for the United States Social Forum. That experience inspired a group of Detroiters to join with the Priority Africa Network, a California-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting a strong African and African Diaspora presence the Social Forums, to make the trip to Senegal.
The World Social Forum came out of protests in the late ’80s and ’90s against globalization institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and their free trade agreements. Each year, the WSF is scheduled to coincide with the World Economic Forum-a meeting of the world’s financial elites-in Davos, Switzerland.
The first WSF in 2001 brought 15,000 people to Brazil under the theme “Another World is Possible.” Attendance grew to 150,000 people at the Social Forum in Brazil in 2005. In addition to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, in 2010, thousands of regional Social Forums took place throughout the world.
“Over the years, the focus of the World Social Forum has shifted,” says local D2D Coordinator William Copeland. “Initially it was conceived [in response] to globalization, attacking very specific institutions like the IMF. [Now it is] more of an open space or meeting space for civil society…where social change agents can encounter each other and encounter the world.”
Upon arriving in Dakar, the Detroit delegation soon learned that the 2011 WSF was in disarray, with attendance far below expectations at approximately 75,000. For most of the first three days, the delegation got to know the local culture, as organizers struggled to overcome a lack of support from the local government after recent protests over access to food and education.
In the final days of the 2011 WSF, the Detroit2Dakar delegation was able to successfully employ their grassroots strategy to make genuine connections and have life-changing reflections. In Senegal, the D2D delegation had a powerful, up-close-and-personal experience interacting with people from around the world.
The following is a collection of reflections from the D2D delegation.
East Michigan Environmental Action Council Associate Director
United States Social Forum Outreach Coordinator
The Forum most impacted me in that I was able to interact with organizers from all over the world, working in similar fields and doing social justice work. One interaction was especially significant to me. On one of the last days of the Forum, I attended a Social Movements Assembly where an organizer from Brazil spoke and said something that resonated with me. She stated, “Only local resistance will move us forward!” With this statement I realized that all of our struggles, in different countries, are all connected. The work that EMEAC does on the ground in Detroit is moving the global movement forward. Through showing solidarity and continuing to hold our government accountable for its policies that subjugate those in our country and worldwide, we are a part of [a global] movement.
The WSF and its location in Dakar, Senegal, were of great significance to me personally. This was my first trip to Africa, and as an African American, this was a powerful experience. I am used to living in a country where, in the majority of places I go, I am in the minority. However in Senegal, everywhere I looked, all I saw were beautiful Black people. This was something foreign to me, which I envied. The people of Senegal were very friendly and welcoming. This is no surprise, as Senegal is known as land of “teranga” or hospitality. I felt a sense of connection to the people of Senegal. I hope that I will get the opportunity to visit again.
D2D Delegation Coordinator
United States Social Forum Local Coordinator
Taking place as much of the world’s attention was riveted on the political rebellions in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries, many WSF attendees noticed the media portrayed these events as Middle East revolutions. There was discussion about what does it mean to acknowledge these countries as African nations, and this conversation led to conversations about the significance of an African awakening on the continent.
I was honored to meet Godson Jim-Dorgu and Philip Slaboh of Bayelsa state in Nigeria. These activists fight against government corruption, specifically to make sure that the riches that come from oil extraction can benefit the people who live in the areas where oil is found. I had heard of the corruption of Shell and the assassination of Ken Saro-Wiwa and am honored that they want to make connections between their struggles and the environmental justice struggles in Detroit.
Going to Gorée Island, Senegal’s historic slave-trading post, was suprising to me. I learned that over 15 million Africans had been captured and transported through this one particular fort alone. For me, this was a place of horror. I expected to enter a sacred site, but was disappointed and saddened to see the place swarmed by vendors and developed into a tourist trap. Part of Black activism should include how we hold space and how we memorialize our own history. There are so many economic pressures that we feel to make money and earn a living, but we should not sell our souls, our ancestors’ [legacy] or our histories to do so. I am much stronger in my identity as a Pan-African activist as a result of this delegation’s trip.
Peoples Water Board Commissioner
Detroit Food Justice Task Force Program Coordinator
I will say this on behalf of the organizers, the World Social Forum collapsed in their hands. They had a president who had given them space. They had carte blanche at the university. Then he retired on them. The new guy came in and was like, “I don’t know y’all. Who are you again? You don’t have a contract here.”
They had to move over 1,500 events to tents in 24 hours. There was a lot of confusion the first few days.
There is a profound movement in the world to put austerity measures on all social programs. Dakar had a real liberal education system-free education for everybody. All of a sudden the president says, “Nah. School fees.” So, there are a whole lot of children who can’t go to school now and they actually took over the Social Movement Assembly. They just walked up in that piece and went straight to that podium. They had banners that said, “I was denied an education.”
What’s happening is Dakar is being confronted with austerity imposed by European lenders. Greedy bankers are literally running the planet into the ground. They are lowering the quality of life. Dakar in particular is famous for [being a place] where everybody is literate. Everybody goes to school.
Now, locally, that is being destroyed. We pay $50 for a bottle of cognac here, but in Africa it’s the difference in whether your child gets an education or not.
United States Social Forum Works Coordinator
East Michigan Environmental Action Council Greener Schools Director
Being in Africa, and specifically in Dakar, Senegal, made me very aware of my identity as an American and within that, as someone who is influenced by White European culture that emphasizes the power of the individual. In Dakar, people I met were more communal, social and hospitable in a way that made my everyday interactions with people more friendly and authentic. I’m working on being OK asking for help, helping others and overall treating everybody like they are my family members.
Before I went to the World Social Forum, African issues like food sovereignty, migration, desertification, militarism, etc., were abstractions. But now I’ve met people who are living, surviving and fighting to uphold their rights and maintain their dignity against enormous odds. These enormous odds are what we’re up against to a certain degree in Detroit. We’re fighting for access and control of our natural resources, our land, our public schools, our water. They are fighting against post-colonialism and we’re fighting against 21st century racism. There are so many similarities. So now these issues aren’t simply African issues to me. Now it’s real, and now it’s personal.
I became friends with a young man in Dakar who refused to leave Senegal for a better life because he was determined to stay and fight for a better country. Unemployment is over 60 percent and he had lost many friends who migrated to Europe, and some had even died doing so. His pride and dedication was powerful and reminded me of my friends and colleagues in Detroit who are tireless in their work.
Detroit Grassroots Hub
United States Social Forum Culture Working Group Chair
I was with the People’s Assembly when these brothers from Egypt came up and they were like, “Mubarak is gone!” It was at that very moment that we were talking about Egypt being a part of Africa. They were talking about the revolution and how we are connected. There are people who live there who understand the commonality that we all go through.
We really had a serious talk about what are we doing. We had all these workshops with all these wonderful titles. It’s about how do we work together if we want a better future for ourselves? If another world is possible, how are we going to do that when you have these larger groups with a large amount of money taking over the communication?
That’s one of our struggles now that we are back. How do we take it to the grassroots and continue our work here? How do we not go off into our silos? I want to know how can I help you and how can I build this movement here in Detroit, because we have a serious fight ahead of us. While we are looking at these dictators being over thrown, we have our own dictators.
EMEAC Stand Up Speak Out Youth Leader
This was my second trip to Africa. It was very exciting to be able to go back. This time I was able to go there and interact and understand the value of being there. That was important for me.
Talking to the students was one of my goals. I wanted to go over there and meet young people. I grew up in the African community. I grew up in an African-centered school. But it was different going and seeing the real heritage.
Not having hot water when you need it was tough. Not being able to go to a restroom was tough. Waiting for hours and hours into the day for the water to even come on was tough. You can’t just [assume] that the water is going to be on. I even came home to tell my friends, “You go to that sink and thank that sink because that sink over there was not working for me.”
USSF Local Outreach Organizer
Small Ville Farms Executive Director
It was really kind of awkward that the [Senegalese] students [of Cheikh Anta Diop University] were not involved in the World Social Forum-especially with it being on campus. However, when you got a chance to hear some of the stories behind it and the folks that were making the decisions and organizing, and how politics plays a part, then you can understand how it was really so chaotic.
I actually got a chance to speak to the students in the English club over there. They couldn’t believe that we have problems over here that are the same as they have over there. The issues that we suffer with over here, they suffer with also.
United States Social Forum Faith and Spirituality Committee Member
People Before Banks Organizer
I witnessed a number of challenging and inspiring discussions, but one statement in particular that caught my attention spoke to the power of honesty and transparency. At a workshop on organizing to break the blockade on Gaza, someone said that to be nonviolent is to be as absolutely ordinary and transparent, to have nothing to hide. It seems to me that this is key to so many political and personal interactions today, and I can see how the lack of such honesty is violent. I am sure that I am not done digesting what was experienced at the WSF. But I know that being in Senegal has contributed to some very gradual yet fundamental shifts in how I understand the working of this world.
Senegalese Association of Michigan Member
Native of Dakar
Before that trip to my hometown, I didn’t have any experience of activism or what social activism was. But when I got the chance to be with those wonderful people like Ahmina, Charity and everybody else, then I learned a lot.
I felt pride as a Senegalese native, and being from Dakar, to see the whole world there for the World Social Forum. From there, I got a peek into social activism and I am looking forward to learning more.
Small Ville Learning Farms Project Manager
Black Community Food Security Network Member
While I was on Gorée Island, I got accosted by a White guy. He just jumped in front of me and I’m like, “Man, you don’t see me standing here? There is a line of people trying to get there and you are going to just jump in front of me?”
I’m standing there waiting. People are taking pictures and having a good time. I’m reflecting because earlier while I was there at one of the Social Forum workshops I was walking around and picked up a magazine, and I noticed that I see Charity’s name in it. I took it to Charity and said, “Look at this. They have your name on here scheduled to speak.” So, it was kind of a mystical type trip. I kept seeing contradictions in everything and then I encountered this character. I wasn’t there to make a scene or anything but it just showed me how people all over the world still have these contradicting views.