As we prepare for the long holiday weekend all across the country, we at Global Exchange are taking some time to reflect on ideas of freedom that we have been working on together with you.  From the US Social Forum, to reaffirming our independence from oil to ending the travel ban to Cuba, join us as we share with you four ways to think about freedom on the Fourth of July.

  • From June 18th-22nd, thousands of activists from around the country converged in Detroit for the US Social Forum to look at ways that the social movement can grow and connect to each other. Global Exchange was there showing a film about the Climate Conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia and how it connects to local struggles for Climate Justice around the world. In Michigan, our local organizers introduced the summer Green Economy Leadership Program (GELT) bringing youth and local communities together to rebuild Detroit from the ground up.  (Read more about Global Exchange at the US Social Forum)

    photo credit: US Social Forum

  • As we begin to build a more just and sustainable world in our local communities, we must also declare our independence from an empire of debt and energy dependency. TJ Buonomo of our Chevron Program writes a great piece urging us to do just this and lends strong support for domestic renewable energy.
  • Another victory for freedom is just in our horizon as the fight to end the travel ban to Cuba reached a milestone this week. On Wednesday, the House Committee on Agriculture passed the “Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act” putting us one step closer to ending the travel ban this year and setting the stage for a more humane, sensible, and just U.S. policy towards Cuba. Check out all the ways you could experience Cuba for yourself.
  • Lastly, what better way to ring in the holiday weekend than by participating in our Summer time Fair Trade S’mores campaign. This Fourth of July kicks off the beginning of the most delicious political action you can take this summer, by calling on Hershey’s and the rest of the cocoa industry to help alleviate poverty and end abusive child labor in the cocoa fields and make the switch to Fair Trade. Celebrate the freedom and independence small-scale Fair Trade farmers have in a system that empowers them to escape the cycle where profits rule and maintain their traditional lifestyle with dignity.

From the urban gardens in Detroit to the cocoa farms in Africa, Global Exchange continues to work towards a more just, equitable, and sustainable society. As the US Social Forum taught us, another world is possible and the only way to achieve this change is by taking action into our own hands. As our founding fathers and mothers taught us, freedom and justice for all can be achieved if we stand together.

photo credit: US Social Forum

After a political let down in Copenhagen back in December, activists around the world have been mobilizing into action, understanding that we don’t have the time to wait for our leaders to make the changes we need to see in national legislation, in global treaties or agreements.  This attitude is prevalent in Detroit this week.  Beginning with the great discussion at our session Wednesday morning, Anti-Imperialism is Green, to the workshops on movements in Central and South America, to’s 10-10-10 Global Work Party campaign.  People are sick of waiting for change, so they’re taking it into their own hands on the local level.

Global Exchange’s Michigan team has been working on national policy and legislation for four years now.  In the past year, we’ve transitioned to more localized work on the ground.  We’ve had overwhelming support from the community on this work.  In Lansing, during Powershift last fall, we launched a Bicycle Cooperative.  This bike co-op has received tremendous support from the community as it works to make transportation safe, easy, affordable, fun, and green.  The bike co-op offers an alternative to the current imperial, economic system.  People are able to come and get work on their bike done for a donation of either time or money, or free if neither is possible.  Parts and tools are available, all of which have been donated by community members.

The summer program in Highland Park is yet another example of localized work to transition to a clean, green economy.  Global Exchange is working to transition a block in a neighborhood in Detroit by working with the community.  At the same time, youth activists are getting Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT), learning about alternative energy, permaculture, and reusing resources to retrofit homes.  This type of work shows what the green economy could look like.  It’s a model which can be replicated and modified all over the country.  And similar projects are popping up all over.

This past week, over 20,000 people gathered in Detroit for a common goal, another world – a better world, a green, more just world. In order to reach this world, we will need change on all levels.  But we can’t wait for our leaders to make those changes.  We need to start taking action ourselves.  And as the Social Forum demonstrated, people are doing this all over the world.  Its time for us to follow suit and do the same.

(Casey McKeel is part of our Midwest Climate and Energy Campaign based in Lansing, Michigan where they are working together to build a green economy in the Midwest.)

(US Social Forum photo stream)

(This is the fourth in a series of posts by Executive Director, Kirsten Moller as she pedals her way to the US Social Forum. Read on as she shares her journey from Upstate NY to Detroit and the lessons learned along the way.)

Abandoned building in Detroit. photo: Kirsten Moller

Riding into Detroit means making some concessions to the Motor City.  First of all, you can’t ride a bike across the bridge from Windsor to Detroit so we had to load the bikes into a big trailer and cram into borrowed vans and cars to get into the city. In some ways Detroit is a good place to bike — it is flat; on the other hand the roads are rutted with potholes and filled with broken glass, but the roads are wide, radiating out logically like spokes on a wheel from the hub at city center and filled with cars; then on the other other hand the drivers have been surprisingly friendly and nice letting us squeeze through lines of traffic lined up to see the annual fireworks show.

As soon as I arrived in Detroit, I headed out to Heidelberg Street where CODEPINK was working with neighbors to bury the shell of a dead Hummer and welcome the birth of a new green economy. Check out CODEPINK’s webpage for a pink picture of the creativity of another possible world.

CODEPINK buries the Hummer

CODEPINK buries the Hummer. photo: Kirsten Moller

As I watched the CODEPINKers and volunteers plant fruit trees and pink petunias in the carcass of the old car, I spoke to a neighbor about about Detroit. He mentioned that this is the first year that the population will fall below 900,000 from a high of two million at the height of the car manufacturing bubble.  Again you can see blocks with only 3 or 4 occupied homes; the rest of the lots and houses have been mined for the bits and pieces of usable materials leaving behind peeling paint and fire traps. There isn’t a tax base to support social services and my new friend says the police will only come if there is evidence that a gun has been pulled.

“So we have to take it into our hands,”  John, my fellow shade-seeker says,  “Detroit has a long tradition of victory gardens and community gardens and now the artists and musicians are starting to come back to take advantage of the space and cheap housing.  It will turn around, but it will be different.”

Ode to the Hummer

Detroit has some interesting assets to deal with the massive problems it has faced.  On the way back to the Forum I pass the United Autoworkers building. They have a new director, Bob King who is supporting the US Social Forum and says that for the union to survive, they have to be involved in social programs and community affairs and not just contract negotiations.  In front of their building, the flags that fly are the Stars and Stripes, the UAW banner, a POW/MIA flag and the Ford Motor company. They are all sagging on their poles, not quite half-mast but heading in that direction.

On Hart Plaza where the outdoor portions of the Forum take place is a beautiful arched sculpture called “Transcending”  a gift from the labor movement to the City of Detroit.  On a raised platform under a 63 foot stainless steel arch are quotes from labor and civil rights leaders and tiles letting you know what the labor movement has brought to you — including the eight hour day,  free public education and the the grievance procedure.

Another World is Possible. Another US is Necessary. Another Detroit is Happening!

The labor host tells me how he has lived in Detroit his whole life and he says he has hope for the future of Detroit precisely because the auto plants are empty. The city retains the skills and the commitment to labor that can be transformed into manufacturing the vehicles we need for a new green economy — electric buses, trains, and fuel efficient vehicles.

Detroit is the right place to put the Forum that wants to explore the new possibilities!  As the slogan goes:  Another U.S. is necessary, Another Detroit is Happening!

(This is the fifth (and last) in a series of posts by Executive Director, Kirsten Moller as she pedals her way to the US Social Forum. Read on as she shares her journey from Upstate NY to Detroit and the lessons learned along the way.)

US Social Kirsten

Downtown Detroit doesn’t look much like the rest of Detroit. Some people say that the city is revitalizing itself from the center outward. Its high rise buildings glisten in the morning sun, the neon signs from the Casino across the river shine with promise of instant wealth and the river walk is a pleasant stroll from the hotel to the Cobo Center where 10,000 people are meeting to talk about a different kind of revitalization.

Nolan Finley, an editor for the Detroit News welcomed the Forum with an editorial entitled:  “Detroit hosts leftist cavalcade” calling the gathering a “hootenanny of pinkos, environuts, peace-niks, Luddites, old hippies, Robin Hoods and Urban hunters and gatherers. In other words, a microcosm of the Obama administration.”  When we read the piece out loud the only thing we disagreed with was the last microcosm part.  We are not here to endorse the current policies which escalate the war in Afghanistan under new leadership, which allow the oil disaster in the Gulf to continue and, without a doubt to replicate itself in the future, and which is creating cities and rural communities hanging on to fewer and fewer social services.

The idea of the forum is to put people first, to confront neo-liberal policies where ever we find them (and sometimes they are well-hidden) and to link our struggles in a web that can begin to transform our world as we confront the power of the corporations and the state.

Since the beginning in 2001, unions, community based organizations, youth groups, NGOs and artists have attempted to build a sense of community and dialogue that can augment and amplify each other’s work.  The official newspaper of the forum reminds us that “this path puts people over profits and values action over pontification.”

But for leftists who struggle daily to have a voice in their communities, the temptation to pontificate is sometimes just too great!  When faced with a list of over a thousand workshops to attend, it is impossible to figure out which one is going to cut through an analysis of where we are, to a vision of where we want to be, and how we are going to get there together.  The result for many of us is that we flit from partial workshop to partial workshop, hoping to find the one truly inspiring meeting that will make it all worthwhile.  Its kind of like being at an all-you-can eat buffet and trying to taste a little bit of everything with the end result that you feel stuffed and unsatisfied.

So the challenge for today is to pick a topic, stick to it — enjoy the energy and diversity in the hallways and streets but stay put for the harder work of committing to change that we can make together.

The US Social Forum is part of an international set of fora happening with social movements around the world, in Turkey, Paraguay, Québec, Mexico, Iraq and Palestine all leading up to a World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal next year.   When we learn to link our movements, listen to each others stories, respect each other’s struggles and reach out past our own struggles, maybe we will be able to generate new strategies and vision for the other world we are all working for — a world of justice, sustainability and dignity.  I urge you all to listen to Amy Goodman’s reports on DemocracyNow! who has the remarkable ability to capture an overview that eludes those of us still rushing from workshop to workshop.

(The Global Exchange team has reached Detroit for the US Social Forum. This is the first of many posts from the USSF. Stay tuned to our blog for all the GX updates.)

US Social Forum 2010 – Part 1
Monday, June 21st

Bike Tent City, Detroit

And we did! Monday, hundreds of cyclists converged in Detroit, the final destination of their respective rides from locations across the country with a united vision that “Another World is Possible,” of a greener, (bike friendly!), and more just society. People chose bicycles as their form of transportation to the forum for a variety of reasons; as a demonstration against dirty fuel, as a symbol of unity, purely out of the love of cycling, or perhaps as a personal challenge of endurance.

Groups biked from as far as Seattle, Washington, and Ithaca, New York. Global Exchange’s own Kirsten Moller biked 500 miles with the group from Ithaca. I, myself, biked the mere 100 miles from Michigan’s capital city of Lansing. Having never biked more than maybe 30 or so miles at a time, 100 miles in two days seemed quite daunting. However, the trip proved to be much easier than I expected, and quite a fun experience as well, with quite a bit of time to reflect on what was to come in Detroit.

BikeIt is the national organization which coordinated all the regional bike caravans to the USSF. Once in Detroit, the majority of BikeIt participants camped together in the Bike Tent City downtown. The rides and community camping space both provided a great opportunity for cyclists to meet each other and share stories of why they were attending the social forum.

In Lansing, we hosted a group of over 20 cyclists from Madison, WI as they passed through en route to Detroit. The Grassroots Caravan, as they were called, made several stops along their route, volunteering on farms and community gardens all along the way. To celebrate their arrival, and raise awareness in the community of the upcoming social forum, we held a Do-It-Yourself festival at the Lansing Bike Co-op, a project started by the Lansing community at the 2009 Michigan PowerShift Conference. This was also the meet and greet for the three of us from Lansing making the bike ride to Detroit.

Two days and 100 miles later (in the company of nine other cyclists from Ann Arbor, Mi), we rode onto Woodward Avenue. After the merriness of our ride, Detroit’s abandoned and boarded up buildings, which had been ever increasing as we rode down Warren, greeted us with the harsh reailty of why we had come to Detroit in the first place – to unite together for a better Detroit, a better U.S., a better World.

Upon arriving the Bike Tent City, we dragged our bikes inside the lot, anxious for a break in the shade and the ability to refill our water bottles. Only 3pm on Monday, the day before the opening of the USSF, the city was already swarming with activists anticipating what the week held in store.

(Casey McKeel is part of our Midwest Climate and Energy Campaign based in Lansing, Michigan where they are working together to build a green economy in the Midwest.)

(This is the third in a series of posts by Executive Director, Kirsten Moller as she pedals her way to the US Social Forum. Read on as she shares her journey from Upstate NY to Detroit and the lessons learned along the way.)

Sunset along the Lake in Buffalo. photo: Kirsten Moller

I promised I’d tell you about the Urban Fish in Buffalo, but the Bike-It days got into a groove of 70 plus mile days, rolling into the campgrounds as the sun was setting and the mosquitoes emerging, without a computer in sight. The days settled into a regular routine of waking with the sun, eating, packing lunches, pedaling off in our groups based on ability — the fast ones, the fast ones with breaks, the slow and steady ones and the ones hoping for a ride in the sag wagon.  Pedaling along the shores of Lake Erie in Canada, with the elegant windmills significantly outnumbering the oil/gas pumps and the wheat fields gradually becoming golden was enormously satisfying.

Days ago we arrived in Buffalo after a long day along the tow path of the Erie Canal entering the city along the water front where rollerbladers, baby strollers, dog walkers and bicyclists shared the path and the gorgeous sunset.  Unfortunately, as the path entered  Buffalo proper, we passed a huge coal fired plant and a neighborhood of dying steel plants. Coming in the back door like that we saw so many boarded up shops and decaying industrial parks.  It was shocking after the beauty of the day.

Bicycles parked at MAP library. photo: Kirsten Moller

Buffalo actually has the lowest unemployment in the state according to Wikipedia, but only because thousands of people have already left the the city. As one young man told me, the people who are still here, are the ones who can’t afford to leave.

We were hosted by the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), sleeping in their library/community center which was given to them by the city after the county gave up on maintaining branch libraries.  We slept among the stacks of books and spent a day volunteering on the project’s local city farm.  The MAP is a youth and family empowerment project that is dedicated to improving access to fresh, healthy and culturally appropriated foods in  the local “food desert”.  “A food desert” explained our host Zoe, “is an area where there is no grocery store within walking or easy bus distance.”

Zoe talking about the MAP program. photo: Kirsten Moller

Because of the rapid depopulation of the Buffalo area, there are more than 2,500 vacant lots in this food desert.  MAP was founded as a block club in response to gang violence. They established a commercial kitchen and started farming on two vacant lots across from the center.

Now the project employs 35 youth who grow 40 – 45 different kinds of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.  They grow chickens and, yes FISH in hydroponic systems under hoop houses that swelter in the summer sun.

Erin in front of the Hoop House. photo: Kirsten Moller

Erin, Zoe and Jesse are the farm staff working with “Growing Green” and they show a real understanding of how to make a youth program that is real, respectful and provides tools for a healthy future.  Erin works with a group of teens to do event promotion and production, graphic design for posters, brochures and labels and savvy media work.  Zoe has a group of social entrepreneurs who create value-added products such as chili starter and salad dressing.  The youth do the business plans, production schedules and sell out all of their products to 25 local businesses.  Jesse has a group that looks at farm systems, growing food and learning about policy and advocacy work.  The students learn to articulate their challenges and identify the source of those challenges and begin to build policy and advocacy goals.

Though it is not a goal, every one of their participants has graduated from high school in a city with a 44% graduation rated and all have gone on to college.

Swarming tilapia. photo: Kirsten Moller

One of the most fascinating projects was the urban fish pond with thousands of organically-fed Tilapia fish swimming (swarming might be a better word) in a large cement tank inside a plastic covered hoop house.  The water and fish waste from the fish pond is pumped to the top of the hoop house and waters flats of tomatoes, water cress and basil planted in fine gravel beds.  By the time the water filters though the stones it is clear and clean, ready to be oxygenated by being sprayed back into the fish ponds.  The plants clean the water, the fish waste feeds the plants in an almost perfectly balanced circle.  Extra leaves from the water cress or spinach feed the vegetarian fish who fetch $5 a piece from local restaurants when they reach one pound.

The MAP project inspired us because it was such a successful hands on project that was set in a context of changing relationships in a neighborhood, a city and ultimately in systems of food sovereignty and local control.

(This is the second in a series of posts by Executive Director, Kirsten Moller as she pedals her way to the US Social Forum. Read on as she shares her journey from Upstate NY to Detroit and the lessons learned along the way.)

The Bike It crew helps to rehab the performance space at the “Flying Squirrel” Community center in Rochester, New York. Picture by Daniel Gregor.

On Clarissa Street in Rochester sits a stately old home that has had a long cultural history. Since the 1900s the center housed the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World — an improved order because it welcomed both black and white members in an otherwise super segregated city.  The house had long dark wood bars, a space for jazz and blues performances, thick sculpted plaster walls with gold tinged mirrored tiles on the wall. One can imagine cigar smoke, business deals and lots of information changing hands with the social lubrication of liquor and music.

Then the City hit hard times, the big employers Kodak and ITT moved on, unemployment sky-rocketed and the old forms of social networking became obsolete. The flying squirrels took over, nesting under the roof, pouncing on realtors who tried to get some kind of price for the building.  Ninety five thousand dollars for the disintegrating stately corner building, but no takers.  Finally last year a group of activists made a deal to buy the building for $32,000 and turn it into a multi-use community center for grassroots meetings, art shows, performances, dances, film screenings, lectures etc. Once a month they have a community dinner, Indy media works out of a bank of computers, classes are taught, craft projects started, constant renovations and all by volunteers. There is no staff, no president, director and their goal is to provide services reliably and consistently at no cost or for small voluntary donations.  Imagine a center where old Communist Comrades, mingle with young anarchists, where the hallways are decorated with graffiti art and the dance studio is spare and clean.

We joined in to make the final squirrel eviction.  Removing and cleaning the ceiling acoustic tile, scrubbing away the squirrel nests and insulation, repainting and repairing the dance studio. It was a big and dirty job, but we felt so accomplished when it was done and we joined community members in the sparkling new space to talk about the challenges we face in the movement and our hopes for the the next ten years.

Then out to the parking lot to learn how to hoola hoop and watch the pro spin flaming hoops for the neighbors.  Good bye Flying squirrels  — on to urban fish in Buffalo tomorrow.

The BikeIt Crew

(This is the first of a series of posts by Executive Director, Kirsten Moller as she pedals her way to the US Social Forum. Read on as she shares her journey from Upstate NY to Detroit and the lessons learned along the way.)

Over ten thousand people have registered for the US Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit to look at the ways that the social movement can grow and connect to each other — to  learn about and celebrate our successes, to strategize ways we can work together to overcome obstacles and build the “Other World that is not only possible but on its way.”

Some of us are already on our way by bike, by caravan, by boat from Texas, Arizona, Florida, California.  I’m pedaling to the USSF through BikeIt with 22 wonderful Upstate New Yorkers making our way across New York, up into Canada and then back down to Detroit — learning about each other, our physical abilities, aches and pains and a little bit about the communities we are passing through as we stop to talk and volunteer at community projects in Rochester and Buffalo.

When we get to Detroit, there are 14 different themes to explore  — ranging from “Capitalism in Crisis,” “Climate Justice,” “Indigenous Sovereignty,” “Democracy and Governance,”  “To the left,” “To the right,” “International Solidarity,” and an exciting track focusing on Detroit and the Rust Belt itself.  Will we be able to muster the common vision to build a new Green and Fair economy out of what we are left with now?

The Bike-It group is modeling the best of the values I hope to see in that economy.  There are 22 of us — ranging in age from 9 to 65 (ish) with differing abilities and needs.  We are camping out, sleeping in community centers and libraries and eating delicious vegetarian food cooked in big woks over a propane  flame and everyone is giving according to their abilities and taking what they need.  Sound familiar?  There is patience with those of us who are slow and steady and admiration for the fast and furious.  When we arrive at our destination, tents go up, frisbees and novels come out and then dinner with conversations about what we hope to learn at the US Social Forum and many more conversations about our sore muscles and butts. I will spare you.

Bicycling along the Finger Lakes and along the Tow Path of the Erie Canal has been an interesting lesson in history. Did you know that the Canal was only seriously in business for 20 some years, yet it defined the economy for 100 years after that, making New York City the financial powerhouse it has become and the opening up of trade to the Midwest?  All this from mules and oxen traipsing up and down the same trail we are biking on.  Also, did you know it took 70 years for the Suffragette Movement to gain the vote for women?  Now this doesn’t even seem like that big of a deal — even Republicans embrace women’s right to vote — but 70 years of working for change meant that some women didn’t even live to see what they were working for.

Bicycling has really given me the time to reflect on patience and impatience. Watching the world go by and noticing more details, thrilled by the incremental progress, building the structures, compassion and fairness that we want to see in our new world but not losing sight of our destination.

Detroit, here we come!