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USSF 2010 Youth Outreach and Movement: An interview with Lydia Willie-Kellerman and Andre Martin

Adele Nieves
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

While work is going on around the country to mobilize young people to come to the United States Social Forum in Detroit this summer, plenty of outreach and organizing among youth is going down in Detroit. Adele Nieves, National Communications Director for the USSF recently interviewed two local Detroit organizers, Lydia Willie-Kellerman, age 23 and Andre Martin, age 28. Both Lydia and Andre are in the thick of building for the USSF.  Giving a picture of what outreach and organizing for the USSF among the youth of Detroit looks like, here’s their interview.

How’d you both get involved with USSF?

Andre: I participated in the 2007 USSF in Atlanta, and still communicate with people I met there. Now I’m in the exciting position of being on the organizing end of the 2010 Social Forum. I’m co-chair of the Potluck Committee, I work with the Detroit Local Organizing Committee (D-LOC), and volunteer with Michigan Welfare Rights, helping with their Social Forum tasks.

Lydia: I grew up in Detroit. I was away for five years, and just moved back in the summer. When I came home, it was clear the Social Forum was the buzz in Detroit, especially if you were working on organizing and movement. I started coming to D-LOC meetings to figure out what I wanted to do, and ended up working on the Faith and Spirituality Committee. I also work on Palestinian issues with the Arab-American community in Dearborn.

Why is faith and spiritually important in this process?

LW-K: From my understanding, there wasn’t a real presence of faith groups in Atlanta in 2007. Religions and churches can offer many things to the Forum. They have traditions, communities and texts that put forward practices of working for justice. So many movements, such as civil rights, came out of churches.

A lot of the Bible, its laws and ideas, is about economics—no one should have more than they need, and there should be enough for everyone. And these groups offer a tradition of communities who have been trying and failing, and practicing and succeeding, for a long time.

There’s also the opportunity for churches and religious institutions to be held accountable by the Social Forum. Have these institutions become part of the American empire, and what are the ways in which they are connected to patriarchy, hierarchy, and homophobia? How do we make sure churches are listening to what happens at the Social Forum, and how can they be held accountable by the people?

Andre, what brought you to the 2007 Forum in Atlanta?

AM: Before getting laid off, I was participating in a lot of community organizing, and working with smaller groups, and then started helping Michigan Welfare Rights and Moratorium Now! I heard about the 2007 Forum at Michigan Welfare Rights—they talked about the Forum and why they were going. When they asked if I wanted to participate, I said yes. The next thing I knew, I was on a bus to Atlanta (laughs).

Lydia, how did you get involved in politics?

LW-K: I feel like I was born into the movement. I lived in Detroit my whole life, and was in jail with my parents multiple times before the age of two (laughs). Being brought up like that, we understood working for justice could be more important than school.  We could miss school if we were on a picket line, wherever it was. Over the years, it’s become where I want to be. I feel like you can’t look at the suffering and injustice in the world and not want to work for change, in any way you can. It’s also life-giving work in incredible communities. It’s the work I want to be doing, and I’m glad the Forum is coming to Detroit.

What is it about Detroit that breeds this political activism in so many people here, even youth?

AM: Detroit is the epicenter of everything that is wrong with the capitalist model of economics. Every social, political, and economic ill that exists is taking place in Detroit. The city is a model for that failure, but it is also a model for solutions and how not to repeat these problems.

LW-K: I love Detroit; I think it’s an incredible city. It’s definitely a visible sign of suffering and injustice. But peoples’ basic acts of survival have become creative acts of resistance and movement. Capitalism and industry have failed here, now what’s the alternative? It’s grassroots movements—people forming community and growing their own food because they have to. Detroit is an amazing example of what the rest of the U.S. needs to be doing, and can be doing. It is possible, and it is happening!

What is most exciting about youth in Detroit?

AM: Education and culture. They are forming their own identities early, and they are educating themselves with the help of modern technology, and other forms of music and media. It’s a great step forward in building a new world.

LW-K: My heart is in urban gardening. (There are over 800 community gardens in the city of Detroit). Catherine Ferguson [Academy], the students have their own organic plots; I see kids feeding goats, tending orchards, growing crops, and translating that experience in learning about science and about business. We talk about having an investment in our space and making it beautiful, but we’re also saying, “We don’t have food in this city. What are we going to do about that?” We’re going to take it on ourselves. There’s land, and we’re going to grow our own food, and create our own alternative economy and community.

What do you hope this does for Detroit? And on the flip side, what do you hope it means for the rest of the country and world?

AM: I hope it demonstrates a bigger movement is brewing, a much broader movement outside Michigan’s borders. I hope the Social Forum can exit Detroit letting people know “you’re not alone because you give a damn about immigrant rights,” or gay and lesbian issues, minority issues and every other issue that might move you.

LW-K: Detroit has so much to offer the Social Forum: history, communities, storytelling, and action. It’s important for other people to see this and be involved. That’s what I’m most looking forward to—thousands of people in the city, seeing the reality of the suffering but also the hope that is so present in Detroit, which is not what the New York Times covers when they write about the city. We’re not sugarcoating the reality, but there is also hope, and movement.

Learning about what is happening in Detroit will help movements going forward; all the experiments in activism happening here for decades could grow on a much bigger scale all over the country.

What is the best way to get youth involved in the Forum, and what are youth in Detroit thinking about the Forum?

AM: Demonstrating to youth they have space at the Social Forum. Now, 10 years from now, and 15 years from now, their issues have to be linked and tied to this movement. Invite them to sit down at the table and hear their concerns. Get them plugged into this convergence so we can get more soldiers, more activists.

LW-K: There’s a sense of youth not feeling listened to, or invested. Detroit is a place where hope is contagious in many ways, but how do we make sure the youth in this city are feeling it? Because I don’t think it’s true; I don’t feel like hope is flying through the Detroit Public Schools. But it should be, and it can be.

Youth are pretty amazing storytellers of their reality. I’ve been in classrooms at Catherine Ferguson, listening to high school kids telling me what Detroit is. They’re my teachers of what is happening in the city, a reality that I don’t know. Youth have a lot to teach, and they are the future of Detroit. They need to be participants in this. Not just learning and gaining a sense of the history they don’t get in schools, but being the history-tellers themselves.

AM: With the Forum, youth are more curious about what will come afterwards, looking forward to what will be built in the following months and years after the Forum.

LW-K: I agree, I think young people are pretty skeptical about a lot of people coming in for a few days, leaving, and not have anything left afterwards.

What do you both bring to this process?

AM: Grassroots organizing, grassroots mentality. I live here, walk here, catch the bus here, eat here, I travel abroad, and I’ll take my last breath here.

LW-K: I bring a love of the city. My future is here, my commitment is here, and I intend to spend my life working for social justice and real change. I hope the Social Forum is a small piece of that.

What would you say, or what advice would you give, to other people looking to get involved?

AM: My advice to youth would just be “come…let’s build our world together.”

LW-K: I’m excited! The time is now. We don’t have any other choice but to focus on real change. We’re going to do it together; we have the opportunity, the joy, and the struggle to build community and movement together. It’s going to be a messy and wonderful experience, and I look forward to building it with you.

AM: Come one, come all.

Adele Nieves is the National Communications Coordinator for the United States Social Forum. She is also an independent journalist, mixed media-maker and emerging poet.

Lydia Willie-Kellerman, age 23,  is a Detroit activist who works at Catherine Ferguson Academy, an alternative Detroit public school for teenage mothers, and a member of the USSF Faith and Spirituality Committee and Andre Martin, age 28, works at Michigan Welfare Rights, and is chair of the USSF Outreach Committee and co-chair of the Potluck Committee.