Getting youth-enized

Nov 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

The 2010 United States Social Forum is planned to be really big. Organizers expect 20,000 to 30,000 grassroots progressive activists to converge in Detroit June 22-26 for meetings, demonstrations and get-your-hands-dirty work around town. Members of hundreds of progressive groups around the world are to participate in nearly 1,000 events.

It's hard to get your arms around the USSF because it's driven by the myriad people and organizations taking part. And this convening of progressives, following up on a 2007 event in Atlanta, is more about process than the event itself. The process of organizing for the event is also the community organizing process for addressing issues in your neighborhood.

It's easier to get your arms around specific organizations and events, such as the youth gathering that took place in Detroit last weekend. About 10 young people from Atlanta, San Antonio and Milwaukee-Madison came in to meet and work with local activists at the Boggs Center, the Hope District and the Hush House, three progressive gathering spots. I mean work literally: They cleaned up vacant lots and sank posts that will support murals. 

The activities made an impression on 19-year-old Bryant Samples, who works with Project South out of Atlanta. He talked about his image of a violent Detroit based on what he'd seen from Atlanta.

"The perspective I had on Detroit, it was really different when I came up here," he says. "There's so much hoopla and talk and exploitation through the media. I look forward to hearing what it really is like through the people themselves."

More personally, during Saturday's discussion at the Hush House on Detroit's near-west side, Samples talked about sitting at a bus stop near his home one day and breathing toxic fumes from trucks exiting from the freeway. The experience inspired the musician to write a song with lyrics that include: "One by one they come off the highway. Two by two they pollute where I stay."

Talking with others helped him realize that what he wrote and sang is a form of protest. That gives a bearing to what he does.

"I'm a musician," he says. "It wasn't until rather recently that I became very aware of issues. I guess I don't want to just be playing my violin while there are people dying from police violence right down the street. I basically sustain my presence in the movement by creating what I call movement music; where it heals, it uplifts, it tells our story and it gets other youth involved in the whole process. It's hypocritical for me to be aware of the nonsense that exists and not use my gift to change it for the better."

The Hush House session focused on defining community organizing, using technology and how activism can impact your love life. It didn't take long to see that the participants were all struggling with many of the same issues. Diana J. Nucera, 28, a Detroiter who works with the Allied Media Project, helped facilitate the technology conversation. 

"There's a connection between what's happening in other cities that are related to what you are doing," she says. "Conversations like that are important to see that you are not alone."

After Samples talked about his musical activism, Detroiter Sterling Toles sought him out during a break in the proceedings to pursue the musical thread. At 33, Toles is a little older than most of the other participants, but his work as a visual artist and hip-hop producer keeps him connected. Toles has been involved in hip-hop projects since the early 1990s. One of his most significant works draws on both his own father's drug use and Detroit's history. It brought a focus to his activism.

"I was working on a project about the '67 rebellion and on my father's personal story. The project documents what happened in '67 through WKNR-AM radio reports and NBC news. Around the same time, my father entered back into the drug trade, using the money he was making to put himself through a methadone program. I began realizing there was this connection with fire, Detroit rising from the ashes in 1805, 1943 and 1967. I felt like his experience was a personification of the city itself. His addiction and attempt to get clean is like Detroit. The city is like a middle-aged man, past its prime and stuck in the addiction of post-industrialism."

Wow! That's powerful stuff. But it seems like a fiery cleansing, a catharsis, is what we need to move progressive agendas forward in a big way. Ultimately that's what the USSF is about. The youth who came in last weekend will be back. Project South in Atlanta and the Southwest Workers' Union in San Antonio will lead automobile caravans of participants to Detroit in June. The Wisconsin group intends to bicycle in for the conference. Now that's putting your legs into the movement. In fact, conference organizers plan to have a massive bicycle ride around Detroit as part of the proceedings in addition to the events at Cobo Center and Hart Plaza.

The USSF agenda is just coming together but environmental concerns, social justice, poverty, workers' struggles and, of course, youth issues will all be addressed. 

"I've been involved in a lot of struggles, and this one has a real good feel to it," says Reggie McGhee, a member of Michigan Jobs with Justice. "There's a lot of democracy. People are taking ownership."

You can learn more about the USSF at

There're plenty
things going on around Detroit before the Social Forum. One big issue is health care reform. On Saturday, Nov. 7, Stand Up for Health Care is sponsoring a demonstration from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Woodward Avenue and 11 Mile Road in Royal Oak. Stand Up encourages you to bring your organization's banner or make your own signs. Find out more at

Not long ago I wrote about the late poet and activist Dudley Randall. He founded Detroit's Broadside Press, and at 3 p.m. on Nov. 15, there will be a 44th anniversary celebration of the publishing company at University of Detroit-Mercy Library. Bring your muse.

Don't ask, don't tell:
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick popped in for a quick visit to Wayne County Circuit Court for a hearing on his finances related to paying the $1 million restitution he owes us. For me, the highlight of the hearing (garnered through the media) was Kilpatrick's repeated "I don't know" in response to several questions. Things like: How much is your rent? "I don't know." "Does your wife have a source of income? "I don't know." I'm also wondering if his wife Carlita is giving a little payback. Kilpatrick said that there was a time when she didn't know everything he was doing. Now "We're in a period where there are some things ... that I don't know." Is she going out with the girls to unknown places? ... See ya when I see ya.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]