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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 5, April 2004

Another world is possible: World Social Forum, Mumbai, India

A butterfly is one of nature’s most beautiful creatures. So is a child. The butterfly flits from flower to flower for its sustenance. Our children move constantly for their livelihood. Butterflies have very short lives. Street children have very brief childhoods.

– Butterflies: A Program of Street and Working Children, New Delhi

by Jill Wight

A young woman hands me a brochure that asks "Did you have a happy childhood?" I read, "Many children living on the streets cannot even dream of one." Images of children, living on the street, working on the street, denied any semblance of a childhood, are just some of the images that flood back to me when I recall my recent journey to India.

My husband and I were in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) to attend the fourth annual World Social Forum, January 16–21, 2004. The first three forums were in Porto Allegre, Brazil. With 80,000 participants registered, it was the experience of a lifetime for me, a history and social studies teacher.

World Social Forum brings together academics and activists, mostly from the South, to analyze the failures of globalization and to build both regional and global movements to bring about a better world; hence the theme of the forum, Another World is Possible! The opportunity to learn about peoples’ struggles from the people themselves was a humanizing and humbling experience. Did you know that after 25 years of war (dating back to the Soviet invasion), there is only one Kindergarten class in all of Afghanistan? One workshop entitled, "The New Triad: India, the United States, and Israel" provided a sobering analysis of U.S. strategic interests in West Asia and of the new relationship of the Indian government, with its nationalist Hindu ideology, with fundamentalist Christians and Zionists in other parts of the world. I say "sobering" in that growing anti-Muslim propaganda worldwide was discussed throughout the forum. The rise of religious intolerance astounded me; it caught me unawares as I considered my privileged position in a country where teaching human rights education is not a subversive activity.

Despite the seriousness of the plenary and workshop topics, the mood of the forum was carnival-like, with its cacophony of sounds and kaleidoscope of colours. Groups from all over the world, but predominantly South Asia, engaged in impromptu protests against, for example, Coca-Cola’s privatization of water in Kerala. Street dancers dressed in traditional regalia celebrated the spirit of camaraderie that pervaded the entire proceedings. And street performers conveyed the ongoing struggles of the Dalit (Untouchables) to be accorded equal treatment within Indian society.

The most powerful workshop I attended was the one organized by the Teacher Creativity Centre in Palestine and the National Teachers’ Federation of Quebec. I learned of the ongoing struggle of Palestinian teachers to build a new, popular, and democratic education system. Teachers talked of the challenges of delivering an education to students within the context of the ongoing violence in the West Bank. In the last three years, 850 schools have closed. Some have been destroyed; others are being used as military bases. Many parents have stopped allowing their children to attend school because children, 2,500 of them in the last three years, are being injured in crossfire as they pass through as many as 10 to 15 checkpoints, taking hours just to get to school. Children complain of an array of medical problems; as well, they experience a lack of security and belonging that should be every child’s right. Teachers note an increase in violence among family members, as well as in schools, as the entire population struggles with rage, hatred, humiliation, and depression. How does one teach the rule of law when no rule of law exists in everyday life?

In response to this horrendous situation, the Teacher Creativity Centre is organizing an international conference, "Globalization, Education, and Social Change," in Ramallah, Palestine, for October 4–6, 2004. The conference, coinciding with World Teacher Day, will educate participants about the challenges faced by Palestinian teachers as well as about the need to develop human rights curriculum and methodology for use in the occupied territories. This is but one example of how talk is moving to action, as World Social Forum participants committed themselves to acts of solidarity well beyond the confines of the Mumbai Exhibition Grounds.

Back in the classroom now, I feel re-energized as I work to translate my experiences and new understandings for my students. As I stood before my History 12 students hours after my return to B.C., I held before me an article from that morning’s Vancouver Sun that suggested a possible connection between a UBC contract with Coca Cola and the shutting down of water fountains on campus. My thoughts took me back to the struggles of the people of South India against the privatization of water to Coca-Cola there. My understanding of the impact of globalization seemed more than merely academic, the connections clearer than ever.

Corporate globalization must be replaced by global strategies that include the more than 100 million primary-age children who do not attend school. They are the children who instead are embraced by organizations like Butterflies, small grassroots organizations that offer hope for those forgotten by the likes of the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. One plenary speaker shared her perspective on current global problems in this way. She said, "I have no time for pessimism; there is too much to be done. I must be optimistic about the future. Maybe later there will be time for pessimism." In those few words, she summed up the mood of the 70,000 Indians and 10,000 foreign delegates who attended this year’s World Social Forum.

Jill Wight teaches at Aldergrove Secondary School, Langley.

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