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Adrienne Maree Brown on the US Social Forum, Detroit and Octavia Butler

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Thousands of activists and organizers have come from around the world for the US Social Forum for four days of workshops, meetings and marches to strengthen social movements and advance a progressive agenda. Democracy Now!’s Mike Burke was at Cobo Hall for the opening ceremony. He spoke with one of the national coordinators of the US Social Forum, Adrienne Maree Brown. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We are on the road in Detroit, the site of the US Social Forum. More than 10,000, 15,000 people have gathered from around this country and around the world for four days of workshops, meetings, marches to strengthen social movements and advance a progressive agenda.

Democracy Now!’s Mike Burke was at Cobo Hall for the opening ceremony. He spoke with one of the national coordinators of the US Social Forum, Adrienne Maree Brown.

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: I am one of the national coordinators for the US Social Forum. I’m on the board of Allied Media Projects and the Allied Media Conference, which just came to Detroit last weekend, and I’m the executive director of the Ruckus Society.

    MIKE BURKE: Can you tell us a little bit about the US Social Forum? How is the Social Forum different from a typical conference? And also, why are you here in Detroit? Why?

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: So, the US Social Forum is different from any other kind of conference. It’s really a process, a movement-building process that’s happening all throughout the year and that will continue happening. We have People’s Movement Assemblies, where folks are actually coming together to say what are the major issues that we care about and that we’re working on, and what are the solutions that we’re moving on those issues. And then we come together at the forum, both to do the workshops, but primarily to do these People’s Movement Assemblies and to be in movement with each other. It’s part of an international process, and so it’s very groundbreaking for the US to be a part of it and to say we’re part of an international community trying to actually hold accountable our corporations and our governments, which are having an international impact, as well as having a local impact.

    And we’re in Detroit, because Detroit is the epicenter of that impact. So, I mean, you’ve been here a few days. I’m sure you’ve seen the abandoned buildings, the brownfields, the city that has been divested from, because the auto industries and other corporations left like thirty years ago. So this city has been so hard hit by economic struggle, and yet, through the cracks of the city, the most amazing solutions are actually growing. So, urban gardens, urban agriculture — we have the highest number of urban gardens in the country, and it’s the fastest growing movement here. We have peace zones, where people are mediating, instead of calling the police in to take folks out of our community, as a way of solving our problems. We have just all these innovative young people who are actually deciding to stay in Detroit and make it a beautiful place. And there’s a lot of space. There’s a lot of place here. And to me, I say that Detroit is what the rest of the world and what the rest of the country really has to look forward to. So it’s very exciting to have 20,000 people here from all kinds of different movements to actually see what does the future of our movement need to actually look like.

    MIKE BURKE: And you’ve moved to Detroit over the past year to help organize this conference.


    MIKE BURKE: What has surprised you most about the city?

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: Well, first of all, I have to say, I moved for love, and then the conference followed. But what has surprised me most is probably seeing how people are managing to get by and do powerful organizing without relying on foundation resources. You know, in a lot of other places, people go under or they don’t pull off their programming, because they don’t get a grant or they don’t get a certain kind of money. Here, the working assumption is, folks are not getting that money, and so everything is done through relationships and connections and networks. And coalition work really means, like, we are going to come together and somehow make it happen. It’s not perfect, and it’s really hard. And it, a lot of times, means a lot harder work. But there’s a sense of accomplishment in the city when we get things done that really comes from, like, we actually got our hands dirty and we did the work, that, you know, I just haven’t seen anywhere else. And I think that’s, to me, the most surprising and interesting thing about being here.

    MIKE BURKE: And can you give us an overview of some of the topics that are being discussed at the Social Forum this week?

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I think a major one is the ecojustice movement, ecological justice movement. So, basically, we’re going to have a People’s Movement Assembly where we’re bringing together the climate movement, environmental movement, anyone who’s sort of been working on the relationship between people and planet, to come together and say what are the major priority issues that we need to be uplifting right now and what are the solutions that we see are really working that we want to highlight. And that’s going to be happening on Friday.

    There’s a series of actions that are also connected to that, leading up to a huge action on Saturday to shut down the incinerator in Detroit, which is putting out tons and tons of waste. It’s the largest incinerator in the world, we’ve been told; we thought it was just the largest incinerator in the country. So we want to break some ground and really set a precedent of saying that even in a city that has as few resources as this, we are still going to find a way to be zero waste, we’re still going to find a way to recycle. So that’s one of the — you know, I think the thing that’s interesting for me is what moves through the workshops moves into the People’s Movement Assemblies, moves into action and goes into the streets. And just that throughway, that’s like — you can see an entire sort of movement process happen on several issues throughout the course of the week.

    MIKE BURKE: And can you also talk a little about what happened at Wayne State over this weekend at the Allied Media Conference?

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: I was so geeked out. So, Allied Media Conference, I think, is one of the most amazing gatherings of visionary media makers. And it’s — basically, the idea is like, everyone can be a media maker. We were teaching folks to make their own radios, make their own computers, and really be the people who tell the story and create the history of their own communities.

    And personally, I was really excited because I got to facilitate the Octavia Butler symposium. And we got to really go in on why Octavia Butler’s ideas — post-apocalyptic survival and really thinking about how do we actually transform beyond anything we understand — how those ideas are really relevant to us now as organizers who are in the throes of change that we don’t have any capacity to comprehend. It’s easy to be devastated, and I think Octavia Butlers’s work calls us to be inspired instead. So we just really geeked out on that, and it was just an amazing, amazing gathering, the whole weekend.

    MIKE BURKE: And I want to ask you a little bit more about Octavia Butler.


    MIKE BURKE: But first, I want to play a clip. Amy actually interviewed her on the program shortly before she died.

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: Ah, that’s amazing. OK.

    MIKE BURKE: And this is part of what she said.

      OCTAVIA BUTLER: I’m going to read a verse or two. And keep in mind these were written early in the '90s. But I think they apply forever, actually. This first one, I have a character in the books who is, well, someone who is taking the country fascist and who manages to get elected president and who, oddly enough, comes from Texas. And here is one of the things that my character is inspired to write about, this sort of situation. She says:

        “Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

    MIKE BURKE: Could you tell us more about Octavia Butler, for those who haven't read her books?

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: Yeah, Octavia Butler was a black science-fiction writer, female, one of the first of her kind, basically. I often say I don’t even know if she was human. I feel like she might have been a prophet alien who was sent here to guide us. And she did a lot of writing about kind of the society that we’re in and trying to imagine, like, what are the different ways in which we are separating and creating division based on class differences, based on race differences, and then what are the ways we actually need to learn to survive, so growing our own food and really thinking outside the box in terms of what organizing looks like. One of her most famous series is Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and it really tells the story of what does it look like in this country, just a little bit later than this time, for us to try to live without the resources that we’ve come accustomed to.

    And I think some of the things that are really key about her work is, most of her protagonists are women of color. They are people who come from resources where they have few background — few resources in their background, and then they’re sort of pushed into these positions where they have to actually become leaders who can’t create a huge following. They have to build their relationships one by one. And I think so many leaders in our movement today, they really want to think, how can we get things as big as possible, what’s the massive size that we can accommodate? And we don’t think about how do we actually build it still, one to one, and make sure people really deeply feel seated in their heart a desire for change. So I think Octavia’s work is revolutionary, and I think it’s inspirational. I think it’s necessary, yeah.

    MIKE BURKE: Anything else you’d like to add?

    ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: I wish everyone was here in Detroit right now. It’s incredible. We just had a huge opening march. There are so many people here. I can’t even believe how many people actually came. And I invite everyone to watch. So if you’re not here, we’re doing something called “Detroit Expanded.” So if you go to the website, —, then we’re broadcasting ten hours of programming every single day. And so, folks can participate from wherever they are. I hope that you see the fruits of our labor here and that you are able to benefit from them in your own life and in your own community.

AMY GOODMAN: Adrienne Maree Brown, national coordinator of the US Social Forum. And if you’d like to hear a full interview with Octavia Butler, you can go to our website at

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