A month has gone by since I experienced my first-ever social justice conference, the US Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit, and I’ve been trying to erase my memory of that time ever since. The lack of logistical planning we experienced had a classist effect that seemed antithetical to the forum’s message, and I was left with such a bad taste in my mouth for the progressive left that I will carefully reconsider attending any conference in the future.
The forum was to be a space where social justice groups and grassroots organizations from around the country could come together to share their visions for a better world. A place to connect, to network, to hold workshops and people’s movement assemblies — my idea of a good time. Maybe it was the term “grassroots” that I was so drawn to. To think that I would be surrounded by thousands of people like me — from a low-income, working-poor or middle class background, and be able to relate to their work and my work for change — was something that I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, it was people like me who were to be left out.
As soon as we arrived, we were moved. Originally we were to have in an apartment eight miles from COBO Hall (the center of events), but were moved seven miles farther out. The distance normally would not be a big deal had we driven here, or if we had had the money for a taxi or the Smart bus. That first day, the shuttle to COBO never showed up, and we had to locate the local bus stop. After an hour long ride into the city being harassed by an early-morning reveler, we arrived just in time to catch the afternoon session of workshops.
We decided to skip public transportation for the rest of the week.
The reality is, if we had the money to stay in the nearby hotel, we would have been able to experience what the USSF had to offer: workshops, evening events, breakout sessions, a close proximity to food. But being low-income, we had to choose the cheapest method of housing possible in order to attend the forum at all. The result was that we were placed on the outskirts of Detroit with no shuttle bus to take us back and forth, no access to food, and no way to change our situation. We often got the the workshops late, had to limit ourselves to attending workshops in COBO Hall since transportation elsewhere wasn’t guaranteed, and were left us stranded in our apartment every night since the only bus back to our housing was at four (or maybe five) p.m.
Our socioeconomic status truly impacted our experience. Those staying in the center of the city had more means, and were able to get around with ease (the shuttles being a slight inconvenience if they had decided to take them). They were able to attend events happening after-hours, and could go out and get something to eat if they so desired. The low-income conference goers were placed on the outskirts. We spent our days wondering how we were going to make it back to our housing, whether or not we’d be able to attend the workshops we wanted, and generally stressed about the whole situation, making it nearly impossible to focus on all the good that came out of the forum.
This experience was a lesson for me as much as it is a lesson for the planners at the US Social Forum. In our work to create a more just society, classism needs to be brought to the forefront of our discussions. It seems to be “ism” that is left out of many conversations, or merely alluded to in conjunction with racism and sexism, among many others. With over a thousand workshops to choose from, there was only one that focused on class as the main topic and ironically, there was no shuttle.