The political and practical unite to power young activists' forum

Email|Print| Text size + By Irin Carmon
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2005

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- The world's burning issues were being debated down the street, but for the moment, four American activists and artists attending the fifth annual World Social Forum were chilling out.

Sipping a coffee at a sidewalk cafe, recent University of Pennsylvania graduate Sarah Gilfillan, 23, paused to think about how to describe living in the forum's Intercontinental Youth Camp.

''Half the people go to bed early," she said, ''and the other half . . ."

''. . . go to bed when the other half wakes up," finished her friend Maija Garcia, 25, a dancer and teacher from New York.

''It's totally appropriate and necessary that there be both," said Alejandro Urruzmendi, 25, grinning. ''If you can't enjoy life now, what's the point of fighting for a better world?"

According to forum figures, more than 150,000 people from 135 countries arrived in Porto Alegre in January for the conference of global activists. Of those, 35,000 mostly youthful participants pitched tents along the riverbanks, spending a week in what organizers described as a ''practical laboratory that permanently challenges its participants to take part in the day-to-day questions of social and political life of this space and to take responsibility in sustaining and constructing this experience."

In practice, that meant a sprawling labyrinth of tents, ropes, and clotheslines, communal showers and, despite the ubiquity of leftist rhetoric, an atmosphere more akin to a summer music festival than a protest.

Some cultural happenings in the camp were homegrown: ''favela," or shantytown, rap; 11-year-olds writhing in ''capoeira," a Brazilian art form that combines martial arts with music and dance; and street-side samba. Others were more idiosyncratic. One multi-ethnic Jews for Jesus-like sect circle-danced. Clad in shapeless natural fiber outfits, they sang about Jerusalem in Portuguese. Meanwhile, the Cuban tent drew salsa revelers. Acoustic guitars were a constant.

For many young lodgers, the camp was an opportunity to integrate the social and political goals of the forum with daily life.

Justino Rodriguez, 23, said that during the forum, he collected 200 e-mail addresses of like-minded peers. A history major at City College of New York, he stayed at the camp for a night.

''It's a dialogue all the time," Rodriguez said of the camp. ''You're debating stuff at 4:30 in the morning around the fire, you're debating it when you wake up and take a shower."

Said Daniela Broitman, 34, a Brazilian filmmaker and journalist, ''In the camp, you don't know how rich or how poor a person is. You all sleep on the same floor in a tent."

A shiny, American-style mall across the street arguably represented everything the forum opposed. Still, sightings of ''Another World Is Possible" tote bags, of telltale feather earrings and dreadlocks in the food court suggested the mall had lured more than one participant with its promise of soap and flush toilets.

That didn't mean participants hadn't made plenty of sacrifices to get to Porto Alegre. Rodriguez, for one, saved up for a year to buy his plane ticket, and two days before leaving for Brazil, sold his iPod on craigslist.

Given that there was no age limit for the camp, why was it called the youth camp? While some organizers have expressed a desire to change the name to be less exclusive, the fact remains that the qualities to which the camp aspires -- openness and flexibility -- are usually associated with young people.

Broitman, whose acclaimed documentary, ''Voices From the Edge: The Favela Goes to the World Social Forum," follows shantytown activists' participation in the forum, didn't stay in the camp this year. But she waxed nostalgic about the aspects of the youthful traveler that it represents: the willingness to forgo comfort for a little adventure.

''I remember when I was younger, I could stay anywhere," she said in a telephone interview from Rio de Janeiro. She recalled a night spent with friends from her native Sao Paulo, sleeping on the ground by a waterfall on a remote island. The next morning, the group ran into some local indigenous people. ''They heard where we had slept and said, 'Are you crazy? There are a lot of snakes under the water.' But the waterfall was so beautiful."

She laughed and added, ''Of course, I would never do something like that now."

Irin Carmon is a student at Harvard University. Her column on student travel, appears monthly. Contact her through

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