I’ve never really been an activist. I’ve admired activists’ passion and idealism but have never been able to call their agenda my own. I’m too hesitant; my passion follows slow, deductive reasoning. (It’s just a slight exaggeration when I say that I fell in love only after it made sense.) By the time I ponder the ideology and merits of any given rally for any given cause, it’s time to go home. And I’m way too self-conscious to be hollering with a picket sign. To be serious, until recently I lacked a practical understanding of the ways small things can turn into big things; I’d never seen movements build and work.

So I walked into the Southeast Social Forum on June 17 feeling like a bit of an outsider. The three-day event on the campus of N.C. Central University was a gathering of activists and organizers from across the Southeast who learned, taught and strategized about progressive social movements. There were workshops, panel discussions and talks, performances and a film festival.

As soon as I entered the physical education building, where much of the forum was held, I bumped into Emery, an old friend from high school, who I’d last seen years ago at one of the few rallies I attended in college. We spent a few minutes catching up before he rushed back to work manning the registration table and passing out box lunches. That chance encounter helped me feel a bit more comfortable in my surroundings. Before he left, Emery directed me to a workshop on fitting the Hurricane Katrina disaster into a human (rather than civil) rights framework. There was the typical heated and overly general invective about imperialism, colonialism and fascism that I’ve come to expect, but also detailed and thoughtful analysis that I could follow.

The afternoon plenary session was in the gymnasium. The basketball goals were raised to make way for tables covered with literature, pamphlets and petitions. Banners lined the wooden bleachers: International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal; Grassroots Global Justice; Appalachian Women’s Alliance; Farmworkers’ Association. People in bright T-shirts blazoned with political slogans and aphorisms made their ways to brown metal folding chairs to listen to the panel discussion on bridging divisions between blacks and Hispanic immigrant workers. The moderator, a community organizer from Miami, described the last year, which saw the devastation of Katrina and the immigrant uprisings, as a historical moment that could galvanize progressives, particularly people of color. He described how white supremacy permeated both events and called on black folks and brown folks to unite against a common enemy. I could relate, viscerally and rationally.

On the last day of the forum, I went to a workshop on planning major events to build social movements. Andrew Pearson of N.C. Peace & Justice Coalition led the class. We sat in a law school classroom as he charted out the planning that goes into an event like the U.S. Social Forum, which the Southeast Social Forum was building toward. I sat there thinking that the session could lead to something bigger, something powerful. I saw a bit of how movements work.

I still don’t think I can call myself an activist. But I am one step closer. Maybe I’ll go to the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta next summer.