This past weekend an ambitious social experiment deposited itself strategically across the Ryerson University campus. Called the Toronto Social Forum, this mini-parliament of the social change community billed itself as coming together through "diversity, pluralism, participation and imagination.'That's the essence of the forum's aspirations. It's much harder to gauge how they were met or to sum up the actual events, consisting of 75 workshops, numerous panels, two evenings of entertainment, films, an Indymedia computer lab and countless conversations. It speaks to both the scale and success of the weekend that the most prevalent complaint was, "I can't go to everything I want to.'
I sympathized. Workshops ranged from TTC rider organizing and youth homelessness to policing and tenant issues. There were two workshops on theatre and a yoga class. I trusted to luck and picked some sessions at random; the first sounded a hopeful note.
At the Creative Engagement: Communicating With People Who Don't Agree With Us workshop, one skill that got a lot of play was the elusive act of listening. "When you don't ask my opinion," reflected the facilitator, "you don't engage me." Imagine -- activists asking other people's opinions.
Debbie Field, one of the facilitators of Creating Infrastructures Of Resistance, would no doubt include this among the tactics for what she called "the politics of the 75 per cent."
"When we're successful,' opined Field, who helps run FoodShare, "we come up with something that makes sense to the rest of the population.'
It was good advice. Still, I had yet to encounter anything at the conference that substantially approached the rumoured "alternatives to neo-liberalism,' its intended focus. The three sessions that attempted this agenda -- one on native governance, one on participatory municipal governance and one on green economics -- were scheduled for 9:30 in the morning. If I may be radically permitted to stereotype my own demographic, at 9:30 am the only sustainable alternative many want to consider is the snooze button.
I'm being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here, mostly for the benefit of a segue, but it seemed to me that there weren't many young people in evidence. It would have been refreshing, for example, to see others besides the handful of the forum's mostly older white women in the audience at the Taking A Stand panel, which dealt with the organizing work of young people of varying pigmentation. Few youth, it seems, found it worth their time to attend a panel on themselves.
On the other hand, from what I saw, most of the organizers and participants were women. Gender issues, happily, were given the focus they deserve. At one of the closing panels, titled Race-ing, Gendering And Queering Anti-globalization, I thoroughly enjoyed Angela Miles of OISE taking a poke at lefty rhetoricians. "Are anti-capitalists organizing against cuts to child care and child support?' she asked. Pertinent question. Still, it would have been nice if some of those ideological offenders had been in the room to hear it.
It was also heartening that no one pushed for the false consensus of a manifesto. Organizers recognized that the strength of the forum was its pluralism and ability to inspire projects, not to amass them. But I did feel the lack of a closing plenary like the one at the forum's preview meet in February. Back then, all the "delegates" (I was there on behalf of the Selective Shoplifters Union, local 1412) had an opportunity to reflect on the gathering. This time organizers chose to end with a "parade and protest."
The poster for the event was covered with jaunty word art naming off things like "music," "flags" and "rhythm." I can't decide whether this was an effort to keep activists coming out or a pitch to people who normally wouldn't attend these things. The poster was intended to "take the Social Forum to the streets," but all we could show was that we'd agreed on liking "clowns" and "bands." For an event that billed itself as participatory and imaginative -- and mostly delivered -- one expected more of a crescendo, or at least a turn of the page in the activist playbook. As it was, a thought-provoking weekend culminated in a deflatingly familiar saunter, replete with dayglo-vested marshals arbitrarily instructing people where not to step. I mention this not out of ill will toward the forum's organizers, but, rather, out of respect. With its roots, the project can only grow. They owed it a better celebration.