Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Foro Urbano

The Foro Urbano (Urban Forum), one of the case studies for our research project, in an articulation of the needs for a new direction for Ecuador, focuses specifically on creating connections between grassroots groups in urban zones. It is a network of people and groups working together at the grassroots to improve their poor communities and to create public policy to push Ecuador into becoming a more progressive country to meet the needs of all of its citizens. The current networks within the Foro Urbano are the women's movements (which is the most active), a network of poor neighborhoods, and land invasion communities. Last weekend, Mujeres por la Vida (Women Struggling for Life) and Foro Urbano held a two-day long workshop for activists from throughout the country to discuss the new constitution, why they should vote in favor of it in the referendum on September 27, and how to organize nationally in support of the constitution. Four of the 130 assembly members in the 8-month long constitutional assembly process came from Foro Urbano/Mujeres por la Vida's ranks (and answered specific questions about the constitution during the workshop), but all of the members of this grassroots movement are inspirational, intelligent, and articulate people fighting for change. Here, we give you a snapshot of some of those leaders.

A press conference after the workshop. Here (from left to right) you can see assembly member Ximena Orosco, president of the land invasion network Luis Esparza, Mujeres por la Vida president and Quito sub-councilwoman Maria Hernandez, and assembly member Betty Tola. Behind them, standing strong, are other activists from the national movements of Mujeres por la Vida and Foro Urbano who are organizing in support of the new constitution.

I met María Hernández in 2002, when I was studying the neighborhood of Itchimbía in downtown Quito. Itchimbía was founded by an illegal land invasion and María was the president of the group from 1996 to 2006. In 2002, she was organizing 150-200 meetings and events a year, both in her neighborhood and around Quito, plus parenting her son, plus earning income, plus aspiring to a political career. In 2004, she elected as one of the 30 City Council members that, with the mayor, govern metropolitan Quito. She's now President of Mujeres por la Vida and one of the most visible representatives of the Foro Urbano. She is incredibly smart and knowledgeable, and our latest interview with her nearly reach two hours because she can talk/teach effectively about most of the topics that interest us. She has an older brother named Virgilio...

Virgilio Hernández has been a prominent social movement leader for 25 years (he's now 42; do the math). A key Foro Urbano leader he was elected to the Constituent Assembly and has spent the last eight months co-drafting Ecuador's new Constitution. During our interview with him, we were repeatedly interrupted by fans, who came up to pat him on the back, shake his hand, and one abuela pretty much did jumping jacks for joy she was so excited and proud to see him in person and rave to me and Nicole about how he is the best Asambleista ever elected. His celebrity was lost, however, on the manager of the café where we were interviewing him, and she kicked all three of us out for taking too long to finish our drinks. Maybe she just doesn't like the new Constitution?

Until recently, Sara Proaño says, she was self-absorbed and held "neoliberal ideas." Focused only on making more money and improving her social status as the only wealthy doctor in her poor neighborhood in Quito, Sara understood life to be about buying new cars and protecting herself from the ruckus of the outside world. She thought the Itchimbia land invasion (ironically led by her future colleague Maria Hernandez) was accomplished by a group of hooligans with no respect for the law. A neighborhood meeting about increasing crime on the street changed this; Sara transformed into a community leader and then eventually the president of her neighborhood. After attending a transformative political leadership school for women, where Sara learned from illiterate indigenous women about globalization, neoliberalism, and the need for true community solidarity, she became a key leader in the national movement Mujeres por la Vida. Now, Sara remarks, she has completely changed her lifestyle and understanding of herself. Instead of driving two cars and continually buying new goods, she sold her cars, makes very little money, and works 365 days a year fighting for women's rights in Ecuador. Despite having renounced her wealthy former lifestyle, she says she's the happiest she's ever been.

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