USSF: The kids are alright

June 23, 2010

In the basement of Cobo Hall, a small group of jaraneros are playing. The traditional guitar music of Veracruz echoes in the warehouse-like space and it makes it difficult for the gathered participants to hear one another.

This is the U.S. Social Forum’s Youth Space, dedicated to those between the ages of 13 and 24. Like the wider forum, there are tracks and workshops on Education, Jobs, and Immigration, as well as cultural programming. The forum claims the space is “a place for young people to decide for ourselves what we want to do about these issues.”

About 50 college students meet under the paper banner of the Student Economic Justice Action Coalition (SEJAC). Most of them are involved in organizing on their college campuses, from Wichita State to Pomona College. Most are dressed in political T-shirts — Coalition of Imokalee Workers, Southwest Workers Union, “No Human Being Is Illegal.” They work with United Students Against Sweatshops, MEChA, and the Student Labor Organizing Project, among others.

Most people are organizing around campus and student issues, like fighting budget cuts and layoffs of campus workers. Many are organizing around the DREAM Act, which would allow greater access to higher education for undocumented students.

One of the workshop co-leaders, Maria, says the Youth Space meeting is “a super get-together of all these groups.” Several people mention that they’re here to “network” and “learn what people are up to.”

Erik Rosenberg, 24, is on the upper end of the age range. When I ask why he’s interested in the Youth Space rather than attending other forum workshops, he, too, says he’s here to “organize and make connections.” He says SEJAC has only a handful of organizers and is operating “at their capacity” so he hopes to get more people involved in the umbrella organization.

Upstairs, elementary school-aged kids are making their own connections at the Children’s Social Forum. I meet a group of three self-described “best friends” who later admit that they met 20 minutes ago. When I ask why they’re here, they respond, in turn, “My mom.” But they say they’re having fun and agree the experience is “really cool.”

Left to right: Mira Simonton-Chao (8) J.J. Paiva (8) Dyani Sinnett (11)

Mira Simonton-Chao, age 8, says she thinks the purpose of the forum is “making peace.” J.J. Paiva, 8, counters that it’s “ending poverty.” And Dyani Sinnett, 11, thinks it’s “ending hunger.” Then she changes her mind: “It’s ending everything!”

Ange Smith, a retired Detroit Public Schools teacher, is coordinating four teachers and a handful of volunteers to manage close to 100 kids, aged 5 to 12. Smith says since the theme of the week is “Detroit’s connection to the Midwest, the U.S., and the world,” it made sense to “draw that connection through the children.” She’s put together PowerPoint presentations to teach the kids about Detroit history, “where the city’s people came from and how they got here.”

Smith is also a veteran jazz singer and will perform for the kids Saturday, along with a flamenco group and Living Proof, a Temptations cover band. She says it’s been a “learning experience dealing with kids from different ethnicities, from all over the country.” But while she’s had to “put out a fire here or there,” it’s been going well over all.

For now, the kids are keeping busy with art projects. I ask what they hope to gain from being here at the Forum, and Dyani offers a metaphor: “We’re living in this little plastic hamster ball, and we need to open up the hamster ball and let the universe out.”

Over sandwiches, I talk with another group of kids who are too old for the Children’s Forum, and a bit on the young side for the college atmosphere of the Youth Space. They have been working as volunteers in the Creativity Lab and helping out with registration. They agree volunteer work is important.

“It’s amazing that only a few people organize this and there are so many people here,” Samudra Randazzo, 13, says. She adds that the organizers have done a good job to make it welcoming and comfortable for everyone.

Ayele and Marieme Ba, both 13 and from D.C., say their impression of the forum is that it’s very international and diverse. “They have sign language interpreters,” Marieme notes. “If I spoke another language I would definitely be comfortable here.”

Eleven-year-old New Yorker Sario Zigbi-Johnson has a good grasp of the vocabulary here. He says he’s interested in “food justice and sovereignty,” as well as economics.

Sumudra, Ayele, and Marieme sat in on a couple of adult workshops. But they say it’s “mostly grown-ups talking.” Marieme adds, “When a kid talks people kind of laugh and say, ‘Oh, that’s impressive,’ and that can be frustrating.”

“It’s not the most normal crowd,” Sario points out.

Ayele agrees. “It’s definitely not like going to a Hannah Montana concert where everybody’s the same.”

–Simone Landon is a Metro Times editorial intern.

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