Building a New Ship: On-the-Ground Perspective from OWS NYC

The following is excerpted from a group email sent by a friend on the ground who is involved with the Education and Empowerment Working Group at OWS, among other things.

Alejandro speaks very well to ways in which the conversation has expanded, become self-sustaining in a way, to the spread of awareness, and to new avenues for dialogue.

Personal commentary and insight like this helps provide a balanced point of access to movements like OWS, to see beyond what the popular media projects.

This email is dated from the end of last week – in the time since OWS has continued to gain momentum.

Please read.

“Here in NYC, as most of you have probably read/seen, Occupy Wall Street is in full bloom. There is an incredible amount of energy and creativity taking over our public spaces. It’s difficult to tell from the inside what the rest of the world sees, but it’s definitely more than just the beautiful marches and rallies, and much more than the confused disillusionment that gets overrepresentation in the media.

I go to Liberty Plaza a few hours each day, and I never cease to be amazed by the inspired system of government that is at the core of this movement, nor by the efficiency of the kitchen, which last week was feeding about seven thousand people per day, nor by the fast-growing schedule of happenings, including working groups, open forums, direct actions and other solidarity events, most of which are updated regularly online and on a large chalk board at the square. But it’s not just the organization of this movement that inspires, so does its spontaneity.

At any given moment there are dozens and dozens of conversations happening in the square. Perfect strangers are debating the merits of a resource-based economy over free-market; on avoiding hierarchy and promoting horizontality in social movements; on acknowledging power and privilege whenever possible (white power/privilege over people of color, male over female, straight over LGBT, etc., etc.); on democracy v. republic; on single payer v. multi-payer. I’m amazed at how many people are talking about new systems and alternate societies. People are asking questions that don’t always get asked. People are listening to each other. In this space, we’ve turned the corner on living with the lesser of two evils. We’re imagining a better world that prioritizes the health and happiness of its denizens.

It’s less about patching up a leak and it’s more about building a new ship. And, in that way, Occupy Wall Street is very successful.

I am participating in several different working groups, and each one has as one of its goals to take the spirit of OWS to the rest of the city. One of the biggest questions/issues is how to build on existing movements while respecting the uniqueness of OWS and how to acknowledge the work of poor and working-class communities that don’t have the luxury of occupying a patch of land in downtown Manhattan but have their experiences and creativity to contribute, and, without whom this movement won’t survive or be just. How do we keep the principles of community-based participatory research in social movements?

In the Education and Empowerment Working Group, we work on bringing speakers and (planned) discussions to the square. I joined, in order to inject public health topics and perspectives into this group. (Please share suggestions.) At Friday’s meeting, a professor from the New School came with a mandate from the president of the university. He’d told his faculty that he wants the school to be as involved and supportive as possible in the Occupation of Wall Street. He wanted to know what the movement needed and what he and his school could provide—space, faculty, students.

We had to pause and absorb the power of this support and commitment.

And then the group erupted… with ideas and excitement, which at some point culminated with musings on a nomadic university: 200 professors (from various universities and colleges) traveling around NYC and educating people and communities, not just poor and working class students but the rich and misguided too. Not unlike, what my friend Ora tells me, happens at Israeli checkpoints, where Palestinians learn while they wait (and suffer). She suggested that a system of credits should be developed so that a traveling university could facilitate entry into the traditional system, for those students who are able and willing. Not a bad idea.

We’re far from that dream (and even further from the dream of universal, affordable education), but along the way, we see real possibility in utilizing (and not necessarily occupying, although this may be semantic) other public spaces in NYC as venues for education and interaction. The city is full of such spaces, several of which are POPS (privately owned public spaces) and don’t have time restrictions. We’ve already seen this happening at Washington Square Park (not a POPS), and there’s no reason that a travelling open forum series can’t succeed throughout the city. (I, for one, would like to see an open forum on institutionalized racism in urban planning in front of the Citicorp building on Lexington Ave)

And these are only the ideas and actions of one sub-committee of one working group.

Is the University of Washington or any other institution providing similar support to Occupy Seattle? What a boon that would be for the movement! (Disclosure: the New School is privately owned and does not have an endowment, just astronomical tuition rates.)

I recently picked up The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Pickett), and the passage below resonated:

A nationwide survey found that Americans are “deeply ambivalent about wealth and material gain. A large majority…wanted society to move away from greed and excess toward a way of life more centred on values, community, and family. But they also felt that these priorities were not shared by most of their fellow Americans, who, they believed, had become increasingly atomized, selfish, and irresponsible. As a result they often felt isolated. However…when brought together in focus groups to discuss these issues, people were surprised and excited to find that others shared their views.”

The movement is having the same effect as these focus groups, which is great, because once you are aware of something, it’s harder to become unaware of it.

I don’t have (many) delusions of grandeur. The Plaza is just a plaza. And the winter will come. And the police will be violent. And people will get bored, tired, and frustrated. And the NYTimes will continue to give back-handed compliments. But i suspect that if enough people connect with other people and build on this moment and this momentum, we’ll see some pretty great things happen.

Just some thoughts,

Alejandro Varela

Austin Lord

Austin Lord is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, focusing in Political Ecology and Environmental Anthropology with an area concentration in Himalayan Studies. His ongoing research concerns processes of social and spatial change in areas affected by hydropower development in Nepal, with a particular focus on changing livelihoods and shifting patterns of migration and mobility. Austin spent over six months conducting fieldwork within Nepal during 2012 and 2013, focusing specifically on the upper watersheds of the Trishuli and Tamakoshi rivers, and he plans to return to Nepal in 2014-2015 to continue and expand this work. Prior to attending Yale, Austin studied Hydrology at Portland State University and received an A.B. in Economics and Studio Art from Dartmouth College. A broader collection of his photographic work (from Nepal and elsewhere) can be found at

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