On a Field Trip to the US Social Forum: An Interview with Anne Rapp

This summer, Anne Rapp of DePaul University took a class of four undergraduate students to the first ever United States Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta, Georgia. AREA Chicago interviewed Rapp via email about the link between the classroom and the social movements that make up and support the USSF.

You have said that the way you pitched the idea of going to the USSF to your students was that it would be a “Pop Ed Extravaganza.” Having been there, I agree. That is a great way of framing the whole event. What else did you say to students to entice them to go? What do you think they were expecting? And what did you expect from it?

I let them know how historically important the United States Social Forum would be. In the months leading up to the Forum, I was convinced that this was potentially the most important movement-building event since Freedom Summer in 1964. The Forum was an opportunity to bring the country’s attention to a vibrant left and to alternative paths—those of social justice, not war and economic exploitation. Plus, I was totally blown away by the grassroots nature of the entire event. I also let the students know that the Forum would be utterly different from an academic conference; it was led and organized by grassroots leaders, from cities and communities throughout the country. I loved the intentionality in the planning—this was not about academic debate or even what large NGOs thought we should do about social problems; this was going to be (and was) a huge conversation between activists, learning from one another and building networks for future collaboration—and action.

Attending such a politicized social event like this gives students an opportunity to have a lot of first encounters with ideas and experiences. What “firsts” did they report having?

To start, the opening march was a first for all of us. I think that only one of the students had marched before. Plus, none of us had participated in a march that pulled together so many different issues, so many colorful signs, puppets, music, etc. It’s one thing to read about such things in a book, as the students have done for their classes. It was quite another thing to have the experience of participating. Just navigating the enormous number of workshops was a challenge. In the workshops, the students learned about organizations and issues that they had never read about before. They were also impressed by the plenaries and were finally moved to submit a resolution to the Forum, which was approved and accepted in the final plenary.

What role do academics and students have to play in social movements? Did this experience illuminate any of the possibilities or limitations of that position?

This is a super-delicate question. In our preparation for the Forum, the students and I dedicated a good deal of time to discussing concepts of social privilege and social power. In combination with reading about popular education, my goals were to sensitize them to the fact that our role was to be primarily learners and observers. I think there is a danger in academics believing we understand how to confront gentrification because we’ve read a great deal about it, for instance. It’s important for college students and faculty to stand in solidarity with community organizations and movements, supporting the work as identified by grassroots leaders, and not presuming to have the insight that only comes from experience. Plus, it’s important for folks who identify with the academic world to realize that communities have too often been used as objects of study, rather than as true partners (never mind leaders) in the pursuit of social justice.