Tuesday, August 28, 2007

the rainbow council of elders

This week has been exhausting. we've only been here for 3 days, and already i'm only running on about 8 hours of sleep for all of those days combined.

Yesterday I saw Kathleen Cleaver, one of my personal heroes, at the opening ceremonies. She was walking around, doing interviews of folks throughout the forum, particularly young people. Kathleen Cleaver is the former National Communications Secretary for the Black Panther Party, and was the first woman to be appointed to their Central Committee. And there she was, in the flesh rather than on the pages of a book, talking with the youngest member of our delegation, a Latina sister from the Bayview Hunters Point area. Little did i know, she's also a member of the Brown Berets in Watsonville, and she and Kathleen are talking story, swapping experiences and she's interviewing Juana about here experiences at the Social Forum!

Now, i'm not one to have the star syndrome...i don't fall to my knees when i see celebrities. But Kathleen is not a celebrity in my mind...she's a movement hero. And any time that one has the opportunity to be in the presence of someone who's seen so much, sacrificed so much, for me and others like me, i feel that's reason enough to be humbled.

so as i'm thinking these thoughts in my mind, exhausted from what felt like a 5 mile march in the sweltering hot sun through the downtown of Atlanta, as i come back to where my body was, i see juana gesturing toward me and waving me over. Unfortunately, my movement hero obsession got the best of me, and i completely lost most ability to speak during the relatively short encounter that we'd had.

This afternoon, i sat on a panel about building black/brown unity, with Betita Martinez, Community Coalition, HOMEY, and Miami Workers Center. We talked about the different strategies that our organizaitons use to build strong political relationships between Black folks and Latinos in our respective communities. After the panel, Kathleen walks in and starts up another conversation with Juana, who'd sat in on the panel. as we're leaving, she tells us both that there are other elders here at the Forum, and that folks are trying to convene an encuentro for young people to dialogue together with some of the elders in the space.

the encuentro included elders from the Black Panther Party chapters in Oakland and Chicago, brothers from the Young Lords Party, and Ward Churchill from AIM. it was a small gathering of folks, maybe about 40 youth and 5 elders. they rapped with us about their experiences--how they'd come to join a revolutionary organization, what were the conditions that led them to want to be involved, and what was important about joining an organization. At the end, they announced that they were in the process of forming a Rainbow Council of Elders, comprised of elders from different social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, which would include I Wor Kuen and other revolutionary organizations.

As we left the panel, i was nudging Juana...can you believe that we were just in the midst of such amazing heroes? did you exchange information with that sister? what kinds of things was she telling you about? Juana looks over at me and says, "You know, she's fresh! But, what's important about that panel is that the elders are recognizing that they need to get back in the mix, that the young people today need our elders to be able to connect our experiences." As i thought about what she said, i realized that she was right...that there is a major gap that exists between the elders of the social movements that came before us (or paved our way) and the social movements of today. I'm excited to see if the thing actually moves forward, for what a valuable opportunity...to be able to use the experience and wisdom of yesterday to inform, compare, and challenge the wisdom of today.

this is what makes it all worth while...

we'd prepared for months. in fact, more than 3 months ago, we entered an intricate process of crafting our delegation to attend the us social forum.

we knew that folks would want to go--that wasn't the issue. really, what we were looking for were the leaders within the organization that were hungry...hungry to meet others who are engaged in the struggle, hungry to learn new tactics and ways to fight this beast that we're living in. but we also wanted to bring a delegation that was representative of the struggles happening here in San Francisco. so we did. and at the end of it all, we were able to bring 23 leaders within the organization to attend this historic event, about half from each of our organizing projects (the Bayview Hunters Point Organizing Project, comprised primarily of African Americans, and the Women Workers Project, comprised primarily of immigrant Latina women in the informal and/or service sector). A lot of our work has centered around the building of living solidarity between African Americans and Latin@s, understanding that this is a critical step in building a movement for social justice in this country.

so for months, we prepped together. we ran workshops on the movement lay of the land, on the relationships between immigration and displacement, on the war on terror, on the legacy of the south. we met for 4 hours each week, sharing our expectations, our hopes, our fears, our questions. but in the end, no matter how much we prepared, it was hard to really know what to expect.

I've been to two social forums so far since i've been at POWER. The first one that i attended was the Border Social Forum, in Juarez, Mexico. However, when i attended the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this year, it was completely different from the forum i'd attended a few months earlier. so, even as someone who'd been to a few social forums, i had no idea what to expect, and i had to wonder what the experience would hold.

in any case, i digress. Our first day in Atlanta, we took the delegation to the Martin Luther King Center. As we walked through the center, taking in all of the exhibits, i watched, in particular, for the reactions and experiences of our Latina members. As Black folks in this country, we've been inundated with information about Martin Luther King, so much so that his legacy, in some ways, seems to have been commercialized. However, for folks who were not born in this country, and who haven't learned in any great detail about the legacy of slavery, and how that impacts all of our communities today, Martin Luther King is someone you see in abundance one month out of the whole year.

I watched one of our members staring in awe at a TV screen mounted from the ceiling, showing the ugliness of segregation in the South. She was mesmerized and disgusted, all at once. others looked in shock as the pictures and exhibits across the room showed horror after horror of how Black people in this country were relegated to second class status.

At some point, i left the group to go and explore Ebenezer Church, the historic site where King and many others delivered powerful sermons that would rouse the sleeping giant in the South. Today, you can sit in the same pews where Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer sat, while listening to the same sermons being delivered over a loudspeaker somewhere in the church. While its somewhat haunting, its also extremely liberating as well, to know that we are walking in the footsteps of folks who were willing to die for equality.

Outside, we debriefed our experience. For over an hour, we had a powerful discussion about the legacy of slavery in the United States, the connections to the conditions that African Americans live in today, and the relationship between the conditions of African Americans and immigrants in this country. While we fanned ourselves in the sometimes sweltering heat, i saw, almost tangibly, new levels of communication and respect opening up between all of us.

it's moments like these that make social forums worth while...