Grassroots Internationalism: Global Social Movements on the Rise

The motley, courageous, committed crews occupying Wall Street and city spaces around the country are making it clear that it's time to get serious about the direction of our country and our global economic system. It's an exciting moment, as the protests are gaining momentum, and demonstrations are spreading to cities around the world. Some participants have identified the fact that they are a part of a global movement for justice, which has already raised its head in Spain, Chile, Egypt and Brazil. Whether or not this wave of activism will produce long-term change, however, will be dependent on the activists' willingness to get organized and get plugged into the existing networks that have been organizing for systemic change for over a decade.

Grassroots activists from around the world have been thinking for years now about the root causes of poverty, unemployment and debt. You might think they'd be too busy focusing on the immediate needs of their constituents to have time to attend to international policy debates on trade agreements and climate change, but it is exactly this grounding in the realities of poor and working-class people, indigenous people and people of color that drives these groups to search for deep, structural and long-term solutions. Those hardest hit by the crises of the economy, ecology and empire know first-hand the difference between a band-aid and a cure.

Take, for example, the work of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), which has a membership of more than 60 U.S.-based grassroots organizations. GGJ's mission is to build "grassroots internationalism," tying domestic issues to their international causes and effects, and building relationships between local communities across the states with communities across the globe. This is not the "internationalism" of cosmopolitan jet-setters or benevolent humanitarians. It is an internationalism that begins with the local -- with groups like Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina, the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco and Domestic Workers United in NYC -- and ties the local to the global. It is an internationalism that is grounded in mutual solidarity, forged over time between "frontline" communities around the world who are suffering from the effects of military violence, climate disruption and economic imperialism.

Recently, in Raleigh, N.C., GGJ's members came together to discuss the possibilities for future collaboration -- not just for short-term impact, but for long-term, systemic transformation. They agreed upon a proposal for the next phase of their work, a proposal that outlines a strategy for coordinated local, national and international action at the intersection of three target areas. They're calling it, "No War, No Warming, Build an Economy for the People and the Planet."

How are the issues they've chosen -- militarism, environmental justice and the economy -- connected? While Al Gore is certainly no prophet of this movement, he said it well recently on The Colbert Report:

One of the reasons the economy is in trouble is because we keep going to war in the Middle East in the place where most of the oil is located, and we keep borrowing money from China to buy oil from a market dominated by Saudia Arabia and then burn it in ways that destroy the future planet. All of that has got to change.

Members of GGJ are working on creating those changes -- from the ground up. How? Black Workers for Justice, for example, works locally in North Carolina, organizing for collective bargaining rights and services for public-sector workers, and challenging the environmental pollution caused by hog farms, a rampant industry in the area. Through the No War, No Warming initiative, they can connect to other organizations and tie these issues into a national platform with a clear demand: move money out of the military-industrial complex and into jobs that protect the dignity of workers everywhere, and that are sustainable for the planet. (See also Caring Across Generations for another example of trans-local movement-building that bridges diverse constituencies and issues, also started by GGJ member organizations.)

In addition, the proposal allows groups like BWFJ to extend their already well-developed internationalist perspective. Many members of GGJ have been participating in the World Social Forum since its founding in 2001. The WSF was created as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, as a statement that the people, not just business and political elites, should have a voice in international political and economic issues. The forums have been held in cities from Caracas, Venezuela to Mumbai, India, regularly bringing together tens of thousands of grassroots activists from around the world. In February of this year, 75,000 activists converged on Dakar, Senegal. At the 2002 WSF in Brazil, BWFJ connected with local activists and discovered that they were both suffering from the irresponsible practices of General Electric. Through that meeting, they were able to identify connections across borders and found common ground to deepen collaboration in their efforts. They have since developed long-term relationships with international trade union leaders in South Africa and Brazil. They continue to support each others' work, as they build the bridges between local and international issues of workers' rights, land rights and ecological sustainability.

GGJ's work is emblematic of a new grassroots internationalism that has roots in the global justice battle against the WTO in Seattle, as well as the World Social Forum process. Like the protests on Wall Street, this is a new phase of activism that attempts to reveal the connections between communities and issues and address social problems at their root. It is a new phase of imagination that aims to construct alternative modes of production and consumption that will be sustainable for the all the world's people and the planet. The communities involved in this work are revealing how very fragile our current order is and how very different it could be. While skeptics and cynics may question this attempt, these communities are proving that a new conception of global justice and solidarity is not only necessary but possible.