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Social Forum Launch - a view from London

Dan O | 01.04.2004 14:06 | Analysis | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | Sheffield

Dave Timms works for World Development Movement and is active in organising for both the London and European Social Forums. This was his report on the Sheffield Social Forum launch...

The event was held in the Sheffield Inst for the Blind on 27 March, a far from ideal space (not nearly enough breakout rooms) which the organisers has done a fantastic effort at democractising by spitting the mainhall into 'areas, covering the walls in paper for infomation exchange, thoughts etc. There was a decent organic/community kitchen thingy. Sheffield Indymedia occupied most of the stage with constant projections of activism (they had so much hi tech kit it looked like a Prog rock band were about the play a set). My guess is that about 100-200 people attended at some time during the day in an atmosphere which I found friendly, constructive and inclusive.

Before lunch I attended a workshop on 'Power in Sheffield' which was lead by a local group called IMPACT (not sure what it means, I arrived late) which consisted of mapping the power networks between business lobby groups, local quangos, council officals, large empoyers and the great and the good in the city. In the afternoon Hilary W gave a talk to a plenary session about social forums worldwide.

The best sessions for me were the ones I must confess I would normally not go to because they weren't issue based: a workshop on consensus decision making and a workshop lead by Sheffield's Creative Action Network. The first of these involved a comradely and enlightening debate about the pros and cons of concensus models which includied contributions from those who are concensus-sceptics (mainly the two people from Workers Power, but also me to a certain extent), and a guy from the Sheffield Samba Band and the facilitator. The second session was kicked off with a presentation by the Creative Action Network about the community latern parade they had organised for the following night (a kind of evening, family, street carnival thingy, with beautiful paper lanterns. It morphed into a discussion about whether things like Samba Bands and community events are intrinsically radical, excahnging ideas for other creative actions and a discussion of what was learned from Reclaim the Streets and the samba band at the IMF and World Bank protests in Prague in 1999.

There are many things I could say were wrong with the day: The sessions were too short, the 'areas' weren't labeled properly, the event was almost entirely white (though no lack of commitment to dealing with the needs of marginalised communities), the organised labour movement was almost entirely absent and the web presence while impressive in its use of technology and having a nicely designed logo was difficult to navigate for those with limited web-savvy.

However these were overwhelmed by the things that were right about it: the overwhelming majority of the sessions were lead by women, the meeting was highly inclusive of all age groups and political traditions (I went with my father who is an ex-Labour councillor now in his 70's and he felt entirely comfortable there), there was a good mix of issue based and activism focused workshops, no group tried to capture the day as a political space (Workers Power were the only hard left group present and they played an entirely constructive role, being upfront and willing to debate and be challenged about their politics and helping on the door etc), there was a healthy cultural content (films, photo exhibition, poetry).

Just as important as the event was the process. I am far from the best person to judge this as I wasn't involved (for the record the Dave T mentioned in the Sheffield minutes is not me) but it for an outsider it seems pretty transparent: the website managed to keep up to date with dates for meetings and minutes and automated email list and the main organisers put their phone numbers of the website (you can read the minutes and even the organisers to-do list here:

I think those of us who will want to continue to organise a London Social Forum (as opposed to the European Social Forum in London) have had a challenge set down. I think a bit a healthy competition between local social forums about who can organise the biggest, most transparent, broadest, most inclusive forum could be quite constructive.

One idea which was suggested by someone from Manchester was exploring a way to twin local social forums across Europe. Currently if you want to meet and learn from other local foums you can only go through the ESF. Would it be good to supliment this by say Sheffield Social Forum twinning with similar cities say Lyon or Kracow to send a number to attend each other's event?

This all ended up much longer than I intended.

All the best


Dan O