Big Tent for Social Change

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Mary Reister
The Evergreen State College
Shari McCarthy
The Evergreen State College

When separate groups work on social issues without learning of what similar groups are doing on related issues, opportunities for idea exchange are lost. Historically it has been difficult to bring diverse groups together to discuss and mobilize on social issues of shared concern. Worse, groups that arguably should be working together, have a tendency to argue fiercely over philosophical or other points of disagreement thus making collaboration nearly impossible.


There are many groups, in many localities, addressing many issues and themes that are related to global social issues. This pattern helps to promote coordination among these not-so-disparate groups. Often, people at the grassroots level have a better understanding of issues, especially those that have an immediate effect on their local areas. At the same time, many issues that play out at the local level also have a global context.


The World Social Forum is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth. &mdash Principle 1, World Social Forum Charter of Principles

By offering a "big tent" setting such as the World Social Forum (WSF) where these groups can come together, synergy can happen and solutions to social programs can be developed. The basic idea is that the Social Forums, like parties or conferences or other gatherings, provide an occasion for people of similar interests to get together. What people choose to do with the information is ultimately a decision that they will make. But, by the same token, the forums do what they can to make the events successful in the sense of spawning collaborative and collective actions and projects without heavy-handed "social engineering." The “Big Tent” pattern encourages other “smaller tents” (with, for example, regional or thematic focus) to form within the event and these "smaller tents" can ultimately provide issue and geographical "space" to support the work of additional groups with other forums.

The “big tent” scale of the World Social Forum and the growth (starting with 20,000 in 2001 and up to 100,000 in 2005) has helped foster respect from mainstream media and other entities that may be seen as oppositional to the Forum principles, as it demonstrates that this is real, and there are large numbers of people and organizations that are committed to working on these issues. Another positive attribute of this pattern of a large gathering of many social issue groups for mobilization is that the scale is big enough that individuals can participate and be somewhat anonymous, which can reduce the pressure to represent a certain group ideology and allow more freedom to express alternatives, to listen and to learn.

Conceived as an counterforce to the elite World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland, the World Social Forum picks up where the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle left off by providing the setting for activists to create alternatives to corporate dominance. The economic agenda was not the only issue discussed at the World Social Forum when it was held in Mumbai, India in 2004. Government repression (in Burma, for example) was examined in workshops and demonstrations as was discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation or caste. The presence of Dalits, the "untouchables" at the bottom of India's elaborate (and technically illegal) caste system, was a reminder that basic human rights are far from universal. Regional issues like so-called "honor killings" and dowry practices were also discussed as were the rights of children. Jabala, a group that works with children in red light districts led a rally with the chant: "Aloo becho, machchi becho, par bachchon ko mat becho" ("sell potatoes, sell fish but don't sell children"). Thousands of children are inducted into the sex industry every year.

Throughout the four day gathering, labor groups, human rights advocates, antiwar campaigners and many others conducted boisterous processions accompanied by dancing, sign-brandishing, and drumming. Along with rallies, films, and photography exhibits, delegates had organized scores of workshops, seminars, information sharing sessions and debates. Delegates from over 130 countries discussed strategies, areas of mutual concerns and opportunities for collaborations based on newly discovered linkages between issues.
We have used the World Social Forum as the main example of this pattern because it is the most prominent meeting of this type in the world. It has shown itself to be replicable — at least so far — in its totality as a World Social Forum, but, also, in a variety of constituent regional and thematic fora. Although not all "big tents" are required to adopt the tenets of the World Social Forum, two of its principles may be useful if you are considering the idea of convening Big Tent events.

The first principle is that the Forum is an "open meeting place" or agora where issues are raised, not necessarily deliberated or used to directly plan actions. The second principle is that power is not intended to reside within the organizational structure of the WSF. The governing body of the WSF, for example, is prohibited from making statements in the name of the WSF. Also, the original "Charter of Principles states that the WSF "does not constitute a locus of power to be disputed by participants in its meetings." While both of these ideas are designed to forestall certain problems, they ironically raise other types of challenges or tensions within the WSF community. One of these is related to action vs. talk orientation, with the action-oriented people saying that after seven years it is now time for an action agenda. Another objection is related to participation vs. elitism. Although most events are organized by participants, some plenary events are generally convened and these are likely to populated by "star" activists.

One certainly has a better understanding of the enormity of the world's problems after attending a "big tent" event like the World Social Forum. On the other hand, one cannot help but feel some cautious optimism as well. Airing the problems of the world with dedicated people who are working to create "another world" is a necessary step in the solution of these problems.


Bringing groups together in a “big tent” where a multiplicity of perspectives is encouraged allows more opportunities for discussion of solutions to social problems and sharing of ideas that help other groups working on the same or similar issues.

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