US Social Forum: A Sour Taste of Classism

A month has gone by since I experienced my first-ever social justice conference, the US Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit, and I’ve been trying to erase my memory of that time ever since. The lack of logistical planning we experienced had a classist effect that seemed antithetical to the forum’s message, and I was left with such a bad taste in my mouth for the progressive left that I will carefully reconsider attending any conference in the future.

The forum was to be a space where social justice groups and grassroots organizations from around the country could come together to share their visions for a better world. A place to connect, to network, to hold workshops and people’s movement assemblies — my idea of a good time. Maybe it was the term “grassroots” that I was so drawn to. To think that I would be surrounded by thousands of people like me — from a low-income, working-poor or middle class background, and be able to relate to their work and my work for change — was something that I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, it was people like me who were to be left out.

As soon as we arrived, we were moved. Originally we were to have in an apartment eight miles from COBO Hall (the center of events), but were moved seven miles farther out. The distance normally would not be a big deal had we driven here, or if we had had the money for a taxi or the Smart bus. That first day, the shuttle to COBO never showed up, and we had to locate the local bus stop. After an hour long ride into the city being harassed by an early-morning reveler, we arrived just in time to catch the afternoon session of workshops.

We decided to skip public transportation for the rest of the week.

The reality is, if we had the money to stay in the nearby hotel, we would have been able to experience what the USSF had to offer: workshops, evening events, breakout sessions, a close proximity to food. But being low-income, we had to choose the cheapest method of housing possible in order to attend the forum at all. The result was that we were placed on the outskirts of Detroit with no shuttle bus to take us back and forth, no access to food, and no way to change our situation. We often got the the workshops late, had to limit ourselves to attending workshops in COBO Hall since transportation elsewhere wasn’t guaranteed, and were left us stranded in our apartment every night since the only bus back to our housing was at four (or maybe five) p.m.

Our socioeconomic status truly impacted our experience. Those staying in the center of the city had more means, and were able to get around with ease (the shuttles being a slight inconvenience if they had decided to take them). They were able to attend events happening after-hours, and could go out and get something to eat if they so desired. The low-income conference goers were placed on the outskirts. We spent our days wondering how we were going to make it back to our housing, whether or not we’d be able to attend the workshops we wanted, and generally stressed about the whole situation, making it nearly impossible to focus on all the good that came out of the forum.

This experience was a lesson for me as much as it is a lesson for the planners at the US Social Forum. In our work to create a more just society, classism needs to be brought to the forefront of our discussions. It seems to be “ism” that is left out of many conversations, or merely alluded to in conjunction with racism and sexism, among many others. With over a thousand workshops to choose from, there was only one that focused on class as the main topic and ironically, there was no shuttle.

3 Responses

  1. Meg, I am saddened but not surprised at the USSF conference coordinators’ shortsightedness concerning the foremost important aspect of that conference: the logistics for conference attendees.

    I am from the Underclass (not the working class, the economically discarded jobless poor Underclass), and had gone into steep student loan debt for a college education in my late 20’s/early 30’s. I am always amazed at the utter lack of consideration by many in the progressive camp for the very people they claim to care about.

    I am a self-published author on the subject of classism and poverty, and I see this every time I try to get someone in a university sociology department or women’s studies department to read/review and assign my book, Classism For Dimwits, as additional course reading. So I live, eat and breathe class justice and making classism visible. It’s a daily battle.

    I am not surprised when I encounter hatred from privileged people with right-wing views. Those of us in poverty know what sort of animal we’re up against when dealing with them. It’s those on the left who should be our allies that really upset me because they of all people should know better.

    Whether it’s a conference, or some sort of public policy being pushed, there’s this assumption by many on the left that we all have access to the same resources when clearly we do not. I have written some articles concerning the utility shut-offs crisis for CAUS, which is affiliated with the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and I will be writing the USSF organizers to let them know that they need to check their classism. I hope you do too, because your voice is very important and needs to be heard.

    Jacqueline S. Homan,
    author: Classism For Dimwits

  2. Nina

    Hi, I really appreciated reading this and I can’t wait to dig into everything else on this page. Class is the most pressing issue in my life and I want to devote it to like Ms. Jacqueline said “class justice and making class visible.” I can’t begin to explain how much I see class, and how it angers me. My dream is to community organize making the people in the kinds of places I grew up in aware of just how detrimental class is, and also how apart from the demoralization that comes with experiencing the results of short sightnedness and down right oppression, lower class people are more moral and caring. There is much to bewail, but also a lot of taboo to fight. Class is really everyone’s problem not just those suffering from others ignorance. I am bad with words, but very excited to see this page in a society in which class has become a bad word.

  3. Can I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody that actually knows what they’re talking about on the net. You certainly know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people really need to check this out and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you are not more popular since you surely have the gift.

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