[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]
Building (Relationships, Ideas, Strategies, & Structures) for Change
The World Social Forum first met in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Over the past decade, the WSF has developed into a global movement-building process. Creating a people’s alternative to the World Economic Forum, which convenes government and corporate leaders in Davos, Switzerland each year, the World Social Forums foster grassroots strategies to counter the neo-liberal policy espoused by the WEF. They declare: “Another World is Possible!”
In 2007 the first United States Social Forum was held in Atlanta, adding the urgent call: “Another US is Necessary!” This June, activists, organizers, educators, artists, community members and change makers from all walks of life and every corner of the country converged in the Midwest for the second US Social Forum, in Detroit. Many Chicago-based organizations and individuals devoted time and resources toward the US Social Forum, but most participants understood that the five-day gathering was only a small point on a long trajectory of change.
Drawing left-leaning people of every stripe and orientation, the USSF showcased practices and strategies that reflect the particularities of the contexts they emerge from: the histories and politics of place, the experiences and identities of the folks doing the work, the resources available, the urgent needs that have to be met. Coming together through the Social Forum process means stepping back from the day-to-day struggles to take a longer view, building solidarity and forging unified strategy within and across sectors and regions. This process is slow, challenging, and sometimes messy.
One of the challenges those committed to social justice in the US (and around the world) grapple with is how to connect local initiatives to large-scale movement. The US Social Forum offers an opportunity to assess the state of US social movements on varying scales. Building unified fronts of struggle, even within the context of a city like Chicago, is a complex process. The Social Forum and its insistence that “Another World is Possible” and “Another US is Necessary” prompt important questions that might help us clarify vision, align efforts and determine what kinds of infrastructure and institutions are needed to bring about the world we imagine:
What does the world we’re striving toward look like?
How does it work?
How do we relate to each other in this new world?
Do we construct another world using elements of
what already exists?
Do we start over from scratch?
How do we get there from here?
For our tenth issue, AREA is exploring the theme of Institutions and Infrastructure.
Sometimes it seems like the word most commonly asso-ciated with infrastructure in the United States, especially in post-industrial cities like Chicago, is “crumbling.” And in activist circles, institutions are often posed as the enemy: what we struggle against. But we also rely on infrastructures (sometimes of our own making), which may be virtual as much as physical. And we also create institutions—call them counter-institutions, grassroots institutions, people’s institutions. From its start five years ago, AREA Chicago has been chronicling, mapping, and giving expression to the diversity of Chicago’s ground-up institutions and infrastructures.
This issue of AREA is a “double issue”: it has been a year, rather than six months, in the making. We’ve worked with a larger editorial group than ever before, which has meant wide-ranging and spirited discussions of our themes, more and different contacts with potential contributors, and some challenging logistical work to reinvent the editorial process. But the main reason the issue is “double” is that institutions and infrastructures are two big topics that could have been treated entirely separately. In fact, early in the editorial process, we planned to divide the content into one section on institutions and another on infrastructures. The exercise of trying to divide up article topics according to these two categories taught us that we couldn’t make clear distinctions. We all agreed there was a difference between an institution and an infrastructure, but there was little consensus on where to draw the lines. Instead, we found, there was consensus on the types of problems and questions that were raised by their juxtaposition—problems and questions that may cut across historical periods, but seem especially urgent to us in this moment.
With the US Social Forum as a backdrop, 2010 is the ideal time to look closely at the tools, spaces, resources and relationships that undergird the social and cultural work shaping and reshaping our city. Issue #10 compiles the voices of people and groups working together toward another Chicago. Some are engaging existing institutions—whether working with them (enthusiastically or ambivalently) or resisting them—in their efforts toward change. Others are filling in gaps where systems have broken down, or never existed in the first place. Many have learned important lessons while building, working with, rethinking or ending institutions, and, in these pages, share the nuts and bolts of their experience. A significant theme in many of the projects we present here is the importance of relationship-building; in several cases it is the true keystone of their infrastructure of change.
There is potential for both hope and despair as we survey Chicago’s institutions and infrastructure. We must be realistic about where we find ourselves and ask difficult questions about what we believe we are working toward. Is it even possible to imagine alternative realities when our mental and physical environments are so rigidly structured by the dominant capitalist paradigm? How do we come to terms with problems of scale and sustainability? Working within the competitive framework of non-profit funding and a chronically hostile economy, how can we identify intersections and chart a path for collective movement? What personal transformations and relational practices must we cultivate as the groundwork for a new space of imagination and action? The histories, ideas, projects, and struggles documented here provide fodder for assessing the current situation, learning from each other’s challenges, and imagining new possibilities.
From the outset, AREA has aimed to draw connections and build relationships between Chicago’s distinct sectors and neighborhoods, as well as social, political and cultural practices. Together, contributors and readers are building Chicago’s social movement infrastructure. Bringing these distinct approaches and points of view into conversation through issue 10, we hope this dialogue will continue in real space and time to push the boundaries of our imagining and bring us a few steps closer to that other Chicago we know to be both possible and necessary.