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Bringing the Next Generation Into the Struggle: The Children’s Social Forum

Victoria Law
Date Published: 
December 01, 2007

Click To Play. Video: Paper Tiger TVThree weeks before the start of the first-ever U.S. Social Forum, I decided to take the week off work and drag my six-year-old daughter Siu Loong to Atlanta. The reason? The Children’s Social Forum.

Last summer, we had done a tour of northeast anarchist and radical bookfairs. I had co-presented a workshop called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind” about the need for the anarchist community to support the parents and children in its midst. The workshops were generally well-received by a predominantly childless audience, some of whom already helped the parents and children in their groups, some of whom had never thought about the issue. Siu Loong had participated in the various childcare and kids’ programs at each bookfair and had always had a good time, although I noticed that, for the most part, the kids’ activities had little to do with the issues at the adult workshops.

For me, the Children’s Social Forum was an opportunity to see how the broader social justice movement was incorporating the next generation. This wasn’t just childcare—a room set off to the side where well-intentioned volunteers and kids were isolated from the goings-on of the larger group. No, this promised to be a forum for kids to explore the issues that we grown-ups were talking about.

I wasn’t the only parent excited about this. Neil, a dad from Lake Worth, Florida, heard about the Children’s Social Forum and brought his two daughters, ages nine and two-and-a-half. “It was something that I had been waiting for a while for a conference to offer,” he said. At other radical events they’d attended, the childcare and kids’ programs hadn’t offered activities that had tied the presence of children to the larger resistance movement. “That’s so important and it’s kind of sad and frustrating that people don’t make an effort to do that, that there’s not space being made for that.”

Originally, USSF organizers had planned to simply offer childcare to enable parents and caretakers to attend sessions and workshops. In April, less than three months before the start of the Social Forum, they hired Kate Shapiro as the coordinator. Kate, who had experience doing cultural work with youth in schools, afterschool programs and childcare, began to think of ways to incorporate cultural programming into the childcare. “We fleshed it out more fully,” she recalled, “and it evolved from childcare to childcare with programs to a being a full-on Children’s Social Forum that would be running throughout the whole day and not just relegated to one morning activity.”Kids Drying Shirts

Once the idea for a social forum for children emerged, Kate put out a call for educators through the USSF’s cultural working group that had been inundated by responses from cultural workers across the country wanting to participate in the Social Forum.

However, only two organizations responded to Kate’s request for youth-specific programming—the Fourth World Movement’s Tapori Project and the New York-based Paper Tiger TV. The lack of response did not deter Kate. “It ended up turning into was me doing outreach to local cultural workers, telling them about the US Social Forum. It enabled us to cast a wider net, to reach folks who hadn't heard of the US Social Forum before, who were ecstatic to be participants. I ended up being able to give them a pass so that they could come to the rest of the USSF as well.”

She and her co-organizer Karen Lopez conducted a week of interviews, selecting a team of local educators who felt both connected to the Social Forum’s vision and confident developing and implementing similar political programming for kids.

The first meeting of educators was supposed to last only two hours. It stretched into four. Far from being drawn out and boring, it broke the ice between the educators and the organizers.

“It was a Tuesday night, we were all exhausted, we'd all been working all day, but it was this amazing political education process for everyone in the room. Everybody was trying to get on the computer to look up political prisoners, to find out about the Black Panthers so they could name their group after the Black Panthers, who were the Brown Berets? It was this amazing, almost contagious energy and we all just sat around this room and laughed and shared and talked about the significance of the Social Forum, talked about where everybody was coming from, did all this amazing culture-sharing, played an amazing icebreaker where everybody told a couple of hilarious secrets, so the whole office, the whole US Social Forum office was coming in and listening to us cracking up and hooting and hollering,” Kate recalled. “That was a time that definitely stands out in my mind a lot.”

Out of only two of these meetings came a collaboratively-built curriculum with each day’s programming reflecting the evening’s plenary themes. There was dollmaking for the younger kids and videomaking for the older kids. All of the kids (as well as the educators and the volunteers) had the chance to try capoeira and breakdancing, storytelling and silhouette projects, maskmaking and silkscreening. “We almost had too many options,” Kate recalled. “We planned everything for 150 kids all day everyday.”

Instead, the number of children fluctuated and changed from less than twenty on the first day to 115 on the third.

The first day, Wednesday, the kids began writing a Children’s Bill of Rights: “I have the right to be tickled,” one child suggested.

“I have the responsibility to keep my hands to myself,” another chimed in.

“I have the right to impeach George Bush,” another added. Each right and responsibility was written onto a large piece of paper and taped to the wall. For the next four days, the group—both newcomers and returning attendees--added to the Bill of Rights, covering the entire wall by the third day.

Siu Loong was one of seventy kids who were dropped off on Thursday, the second day.

The Fourth World Movement introduced the Tapori Project to the six- to eight-year-old group. Volunteers traced the children’s silhouettes onto fabric. The group talked about outside appearances, their emotions and thoughts on the inside, and shared stories. “Then we wrote down what was in our heart,” Siu Loong recalled. “You know—words, like love, kindness…”

Every age group spent an hour learning about capoeira. At the beginning of each session, Joe, an instructor with the local capoeira-angola group, unrolled a map of the world and told the story about the origins of capoeira: of how slave traders captured people from Central and West Africa and brought them across the ocean to Brazil. “And the queen of the tribe had one or two of her bravest warriors allow themselves to be captured so that they could protect her people on the long voyage and in the new land,” he explained, tracing the route with his finger. Because slaves were not allowed to defend themselves, he continued, they disguised their fighting style as dancing and passed along their skills in secret for centuries.

The kids were full of questions, but not one of them needed to have the concept (or history) of slavery explained to them.

“The educators wrote those lesson plans and we framed them without really realizing that they knew a lot of this already. Like, these nine-to-twelve-year-olds already know what the prison-industrial complex is. All that political education really turned into conversations with the educators stepping back and saying, ‘These kids are fierce!’ They were so into it, so down, [they had] amazing empathy and compassion and awareness,” Kate recalled later.

Joe then demonstrated some basic movement and the children mimicked him. There was no pressure to “get it right” or even to do all of the movements. Siu Loong refused to do cartwheels. Try as they might, five-year-old Maria and eight-year-old Zion couldn’t balance themselves on their heads and hands. None of the other kids made them feel bad.

This lack of pressure happened throughout the Children’s Social Forum. Sometimes the kids even helped each other out: Thursday morning, the six-to-eight-year-old group played a name game. The teachers and the children sat in a circle. Each person said his or her name and favorite color. The next person recited all the previous names and colors and then added his or hers at the end. After the first five people had gone, the kids began to forget.

The others helped them. They pointed to name tags and mouthed the syllables of their names. They pulled at clothes and curtains to hint at favorite colors. Sometimes, they even stage-whispered the answers across the circle.

Of course, squabbles and arguments sometimes erupted as well. Two cousins had been placed in the six-to-eight-year-old group. At least once every hour, an argument erupted between them. Sometimes it was only verbal. Sometimes, one would shove or kick the other. Whenever that happened, the educators separated them.

Not everyone agreed with that approach. “There wasn't a space made where kids could work out their conflict, to even begin to think kind of critically about where that came from,” said Neil, who saw this happen a couple of times. “It was just an adult stepping in and snapping at them and saying, ‘You over there, you over there!’ And I'm a really big fan of the opposite approach to that, making a space for kids, for adults AND kids to start thinking critically about where that conflict is coming from and trying to think of a better way of doing that.”

Still, the programs at the Children’s Social Forum pushed its attendants to think critically in other areas. On Friday, a man named Ryan tried to teach the six-to-eight-year-olds about gentrification: He and the children built a community out of different-colored clay. Then Ryan built some skyscrapers out of blue clay. They were supposed to be really expensive houses. He put one next to a house. “Now what happens when someone builds an expensive house next to my house?” he asked.

No one answered.

“It makes it more expensive to live in that area. And so my rent goes up and I can’t afford to live there and I have to move.” He took his house away and put the skyscraper in its place.

He pointed to another house. “Let’s say I move there. Then someone else decides to build an expensive house next to mine. What happens then?”

This time the kids caught on. “Your house gets more expensive and you have to move!” shouted an eight-year-old boy.

Paper Tiger TV, a media collective from New York, took the nine-to-twelve-year-olds around the Civic Center with video cameras, interviewing adults and other youth in the halls and at their tables. “We each got to ask one question,” remembered nine-year-old Anaya. “Mine was, ‘Why did you decide to come to the Social Forum?’” They then edited their footage into a fifteen-minute video. That was one of Anaya’s favorite experiences at the forum.

At times, some kids chose not to participate in the programs. Lori, one of the Friday afternoon volunteers, recognized Siu Loong from New York. Instead of learning to walk on stilts, Siu Loong chose to spend the afternoon playing with Lori. Chewy, a bilingual autistic boy, chose not to participate in any of the group activities during the two days he attended. Instead, he spent time one-on-one with various volunteers who let him set his own agenda. Interestingly, the challenges of working with Chewy arose not from his disability but from his ability to speak both Spanish and English. Several of the volunteers who spent time with him only spoke English.

Screening ShirtsMiss Ayo, one of the educators, spearheaded a quilt-making activity every afternoon. “We wanted to do some sort of collaborative art project that every single young person at the Children’s Social Forum could participate in, regardless of whether they came one day or all days,” Kate recalled. Miss Ayo gave each child a cloth rectangle to paint, draw or design however he or she pleased. Then she stitched the pieces together to form a quilt that was hung above the main lobby of the Civic Center.

That was the only multi-day activity for all kids. However, throughout those four days, the nine-to-twelve-year-olds worked on a short presentation that preceded the gender and sexuality plenary on the last evening of the Social Forum.

“They maybe talked about it the first day, then planned it the second day. Then they practiced the third day,” recalled Neil, whose daughter Anaya participated. “She loved it. She loves being the center of attention, so being on stage was really awesome for her. She was looking forward to it for a few days.”

Saturday night, as the auditorium filled, the children marched from the back of the room, carrying signs that they had made and chanting “Si se puede!”

“By the time they got halfway down the aisle, there was a standing ovation,” said Neil. “The entire auditorium--everyone was just screaming and chanting with them and they got up on stage and they all lined up and they all read what was on their sign. Every sign was something about youth liberation (“Just because we're kids doesn't mean we shouldn't get respect.”) or about breaking down the binary gender system for kids (“I'll play whatever sports I want to” or “It's okay to cry.”).”

“I really would have liked to have done more activities like that, to infuse the Children’s Social Forum with the Social Forum at large,” said Kate. “I would have liked to see more critical conversations and action occur at the US Social Forum regarding young people in our movements and struggles, more conversations about childcare collectives and other structures that we can, in a sense, formalize to support leadership as well as support and honor all ages of young peoples.”

While those conversations did not happen, the Children’s Social Forum offered an intergenerational space where ideas, even if they weren’t being discussed, were put into action: “There were some people who came who were like, ‘Oh, I don’t even wanna leave. And I’m a grown person, but I’d rather play here than do anything else at the Social Forum. Like this is where it’s at,’” recalled Kate. The adults from the Fourth World Movement had so much fun that they returned both Friday and Saturday to volunteer at the Children’s Social Forum.

This response wasn’t limited to the volunteers who interacted with the children and educators: Several Social Forum security volunteers decided that the best security detail was sitting in the hallway outside the Children’s Social Forum to ensure that entering adults were either volunteers or caretakers and that escaping children didn’t go unnoticed.

For the kids, perhaps words were unnecessary: “I feel like you can explain it to kids and they can get it, but it doesn’t really matter. It becomes part of their worldview and eventually maybe some thread will connect later down the road,” said Neil. “When kids are being brought up in society, they’re gonna develop worldviews and understanding based on what is prominent and what they see. There’s so much momentum from the dominant society that it’s so important to be really proactive to raise kids in an environment where they can think beyond that and think critically. It kind of all builds and piles on top of each other.”

A month later, when asked about her hopes for the future, Kate reflects, “It is not about creating a replicable propaganda machine but rather that the Children’s Social Forum wasn’t solely childcare, and that childcare in itself is a central element to movement building, and we need to really, truly support and uphold and build these spaces as much as we can.”