Responses from CGA Leadership

1. Have you discussed OWS in a course? How? What does OWS help you illustrate?

I have taught about the Occupy movement in my undergraduate Religion and Politics course as well as in my graduate course on Effective Nonprofit Management.  As an ethnographer, I visited the Occupy Philadelphia encampment site in mid-November 2011 (where I observed a rally against corporate greed on Black Friday) and was present for Occupy Philadelphia’s eviction two days later.  In visiting the site, it was evident that the movement was imbued with some religious expression, reflecting the vitality of the Religious Left in the United States.  Indeed, interfaith religious services were provided by the Quaker faithful throughout Occupy’s encampment in front of City Hall. And, in early April 2012, Occupy Philadelphia will be hosting an Occupy Holy Week/Passover, which will end with the sharing of an interfaith Seder supper.

In my graduate class on Effective Nonprofit Management, we discussed the political relevance of Occupy in light of the tradition of social movements in the United States.  We compared and contrasted Occupy to the Tea Party and made speculations as to the long-term effects of the Occupy movement in American public life.  Furthermore, we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy’s horizontal nonprofit structure and what kinds of implications this structure would have for strategic decision-making in the organization. [Catherine Wilson]

I was teaching the Sociology of Organizations last fall (at Hunter College in NYC) just as OWS began, and although my syllabus and schedule were already set, we followed OWS pretty regularly. Early in the term, we were reading about classic administrative theories, each of which relies on different assumptions about the relationship between workers and corporations and each of which posits something about the social “function” of industry. So with every Taylorist or Fordist claim, or each “promise” of the humanist approach in organizations, we could ask what the banking collapse, the bail-out, salary differentials or high unemployment rates among college graduates indicated about the underlying assumptions of different theories. (Students tend to be very animated about high unemployment rates among college graduates.)

Later in the semester, we addressed organizing for social change, and again we turned to OWS. At this point in the term, the media were in their “this movement is so disorganized” phase. So we discussed the stages of movement organizing and analytically evaluated whether a mass movement could or should coalesce around a single clear message within the first few months of its existence. My students, though not experienced in social movement activism, generally came up with much more astute expectations and explanations than those that I read in the news. What some sources called “a hodgepodge of unrelated claims,” we looked at as “network growth and development.” What others called a “lack of leadership” we discussed as “coordination without control.” For this part of the course, we also compared OWS to the long and inconsistent development of what has come to be known as the Tea Party movement. [Howard Lune]

Yes, OWS helps illustrate the following points:
1. Mary Parker Follett’s work on integrating multiple views
2. participatory/democratic practices
3. How OWS violate the media and other groups’ expectations of how a collectivity should operate
4. Growing unrest about inequality

See my full blog entry on this here: http://enablingcreativechaos.com/wordpress/?p=1621
[Katherine Chen]

I teach a class on grassroots social movements with a specific focus on popular education, critical pedagogy, and participatory practices involved in building popular movements from the ground up. I am teaching this course right now and this semester is seemed like it would be crazy to NOT spend time talking about OWS. So we dedicated a couple weeks to the OWS movement with a specific focus on the ‘participatory processes’ used and articled by OWS. To prepare for our discussions, I assigned over 10 popular media articles and a couple more academic analyses of OWS. Then I invited two leaders from OWS’ “Education and Empowerment” committee to join us in class. Many of the students in class also participated in an ‘occupation’ of a New School building as a part of OWS’ November 17th (2011) NYC citywide student walk out so some brought their own personal experiences to the classroom as well. The insights that this rich discussion brought to our class are many. A few key insights include: 1. the importance of new ideas, messages, ways of thinking, and intellectual space for people to have hope that ‘another way is possible’ at a time when many are jaded, disillusioned, or hopeless. 2. The importance of claiming public space in any participatory movement. Coming together in public not only makes a statement, but also brings people together as equals beyond the constraints of professional workplaces and nonprofit organizing where people often have prescribed roles as clients or professionals. 3. That even though there was and is an open, democratic, public call to participate in OWS there are still lines of difference, power, and inequality that run through the public engagements of the movement. These differences, mostly around race and gender, must not be ignored if the movement is to grow and sustain.[Erica Kohl-Arenas]

2. In light of your research on community and grassroots organizations, what questions should we be asking about OWS?

While the Occupy movement has a well-established base of support, their greatest challenge is to reach out to the ‘unconverted.’  Given the anxiety that many young adults are experiencing with respect to the job market, the movement needs to think critically about finding ways to relate Occupy goals to the everyday lives of young Americans. [Catherine Wilson]

Unlike many movements, this one did not start with an organizational center and grow. It did not begin with a specific claim or inherent constituency of interest, and it did not particularly invest resources in recruiting supporters or spreading its message. Instead, it began with a small act of protest against very general forms and patterns of inequality with resonated with so many different kinds of people that the initial event was quickly overwhelmed with new participants, new claims, and wider concerns. The central message of the 99% as victims of the 1% described almost everyone as a constituent, and a great many people around the country and beyond have identified with this framing.

Right off the bat, this offers a great case study for the meaning and use of framing. Conventional wisdom would suggest that if an issue framing is so broad that almost nothing is excluded, then it would not be prescriptive enough to move anyone. We’ve seen how many simultaneous messages have been propagated under this banner, and there appears to be a general sense of mutual support rather than competition among them. It would be useful to know more about what OWS means to its participants, and how they interpret its purpose. In this, I think the tea party is a natural comparison.

On the other hand, in terms of sudden and surprising growth, OWS clearly resembles and probably tries to emulate the Arab Spring movements. Why have so many people who were clearly dissatisfied with existing social and economic conditions chosen this moment to come forward? What barriers were lifted for them? What “opportunities” are represented by this movement? What was the “tipping point?”

Finally, in my work I prefer to view movements as active parts of a larger organizational field. I think we have learned as much as we need, for the moment, about the competitive claims and resource competition within complex fields in which some organizations protest and some seek to work within the system. The more interesting question for me is how a complex field can collaborate, cooperate, and come to share a set of perspectives, meanings, and goals – and to divide their labor – despite the differences in their organizational forms. In time, OWS will coalesce into something tighter and more easily described, while many of the pieces of it that are outside of that future central message will break away and pursue their goals under a different banner. How that happens, when that happens, and how they all co-exist is a question of collective identity within organizational contexts. It is mostly a cultural matter, and only somewhat of a structural one. [Howard Lune]

What is the longterm impact of people learning how to use participatory practices? For instance, do people import these practices into other organizations or form new organizations? How will the media and other entities adjust their expectations of organizations and social movements, if at all, now that OWS has familiarized them with participatory practices? [Katherine Chen]

Answer to Question 2 & 3: Because we looked at OWS alongside many other historic and current ‘participatory’ movements it became clear to the class that there is a risk in using and requiring one prescribed methodology to engage diverse populations and communities. So while there are many many questions that I would ask OWS participants, the most urgent questions seems to revolve around the use of a pretty clear-cut ‘General Assembly’ and ‘Consensus’ process. These facilitated processes are presented to new participants in the movement by specific trainers, with specific styles, hand symbols, and ways of working. This has become problematic to people who believe in the core purpose and sentiments of the movement but have themselves been deeply engaged in social change work in their own communities with their own styles, ways of working, and organizing cultures/practices. This has been particularly conflictual in the situations where OWS organizers/trainers have attempted to ‘go out’ to the boroughs of NYC and ‘train’ people in the Bronx, Sunset Park, Harlem etc. how to run a GA. Many of these groups with names such as ‘Take Back the Bronx’, Occupy the Hood, etc. have been organizing for many many years and find the visitations by OWS leaders as somewhat imperialistic or colonial (their terms), even as both clearly want to work together and build a broader movement. Even though the OWS and borough groups want to work together and have actually found some really interesting and critical ways to support each other, their approaches are, and perhaps should be, quite different. Another difference, beyond process, that I have observed is that the Occupy the Hood and outer borough groups are less hesitate to make concrete proposals than the general OWS. When grounded in poor and low income communities concerned with increasing home foreclosure rates, police brutality and racial profiling, use of land and urban space etc. the stakes are quite high and more urgent/immediate. I would be very interested in engaging OWS organizers in a discussion about how it is that the Occupy the Hoods have been able to galvanize members around concrete issues and proposals in the Bronx, Minneapolis, Oakland, etc. but that the larger movement is still focusing on a broader message and call to action -which is also necessary of course. So lots to think about and work on!!!! [Erica Kohl-Arenas]

3. If you were talking to participants of OWS, what insights or observations might you offer them based on the experience of past movements/grassroots efforts?”

The Occupy movement currently sits at a crossroads – it can continue to operate as a loosely organized, leaderless, and grassroots phenomenon — as its Tea Party counterparts did in the early stages of that movement.  Or, it can recruit outside organizers to help fashion the movement along the lines of a national advocacy group with clear policy objectives.

If the choice is the latter, the Occupy movement will need a few things to accomplish that goal: financial backing, greater support by public officials, and cultural receptivity of the key tenets of its political platform.  If the Occupy movement wants to fashion itself along the lines of successful examples of social movements in the U.S., it will need to assert itself as a relevant voice by linking its desired objectives to the age-old ideals of American public life. [Catherine Wilson]

Every major (progressive) movement in this country has ended somewhere far from where it started, and each has faced repression, derision, and hardship along the way. Yet, when we (in the US) describe our unique accomplishments, we praise the high standard of living once afforded by our industry (the labor movement), our commitment to freedom (the civil rights movement) and equality (the women’s movement). We celebrate the rights of individuals above the rights of government (the free speech movement), and we still talk about the land of immigrants and the gorgeous mosaic (immigrants’ rights). The front-line activists of OWS should know that they will not be able to control the direction that their movement ends up following, even if they wanted to. But things in the future will probably change in some way due to what they are doing now. And they might even end up with a national holiday. (Remember Labor Day?) [Howard Lune]

Major changes have been introduced by previous social movements, but these often depend on how cooperative and accountable the state is. [Katherine Chen]

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