By Katie McCune, JVA Consulting
“Occupy Denver has no leader. Occupy Denver has no agenda. Occupy Denver has no list of demands. What it does have is passion, anger and, so far, a willingness to simply be.” From the Colorado Independent
It’s been fascinating to watch the Occupy efforts grow and expand, not only across the nation, but across the globe as well. At its core, the occupy movement is people supporting people in a beautiful grassroots effort to “fight the man.” A piece done by 9News in the early parts of Occupy Denver’s startup highlights the sense of community that has been generated around support for the movement.
This movement in many ways reminds me of Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Edna Pontellier, the main character, embarks on a journey of self-discovery and becomes increasingly more aware of her oppression while simultaneously becoming more aware of her inner strength. This seems to be what is happening with the people that identify as the 99%. They are experiencing a collective awakening. Fortunately, the 99% will not likely suffer the same fate as The Awakening’s Mrs. Pontellier. For example, in the book, as Edna’s ability to express herself grows, her ability to relate to people around her diminishes, and ultimately she can not handle what has become her reality. Luckily, the Occupy movement has to its advantage something that Edna does not have, and that is strength in numbers. I interviewed Pavlos Stavropoulos of Littleton’s Woodbine Ecology Center to get his perspective on what is going on. In his words:
“It is amazing and inspiring that people are admitting they were asleep. Now that they’re awake and have a true sense of awareness, it won’t go away. The part of us that is awakened is the part of us that is human being, and you don’t need a permit to be a human being.”
I agree with Pavlos—it’s inspiring—but what about the nonprofits? How do they fit into the Occupy movement? Here at JVA, we’ve been discussing this and decided to do some research into nonprofits that are actively involved in the movement. After searching around, we largely came up empty handed. That’s not to say there aren’t any nonprofits involved, because there certainly are. Take for example Resource Generation that has declared on its homepage “Resource Generation supports Occupy Wall Street.” But by and large, nonprofits aren’t visibly “awakened” in the same way that the masses are.
I talked to Andrea Barela of Newsed, and she provided some insights. Newsed focuses on solving long-term economic problems in disadvantaged communities through programs such as homebuyer counseling and foreclosure assistance. In short, Newsed serves the 99% that gets “preyed” upon by lenders. They watched when, starting in 2008, their clients began going into foreclosure because they were given bad loans that they didn’t understand to begin with. She pointed out that while this is just now erupting in the public eye, the grievances expressed by the movement are things nonprofits deal with every day. They haven’t experienced an awakening, because they’ve been alert the whole time:
“In the nonprofit world, we see the brunt of it. We hear and see the stories of individuals and families and what they’re actually going through. But corporations don’t see that at all. I don’t think social changes happen on the corporate or political level. It happens at the individual level. That’s the way it has always happened. The people that really effect change and are doing the work that really needs to be done are the nonprofits.”
Pavlos cautioned, however, that nonprofits need to continue to let the power be in the hands of the people and serve the needs of the populous, rather than to try to control the movement. A great piece in ColorLines done by Rinku Sen builds on Pavlos’ idea. It highlights the relationship between social change organizations and movements and notes that, “A good relationship between [the two] requires reorientation from both.” My favorite tidbit of advice from the article for the organizations out there that find this relevant to their work is, “be willing to share [your] planning and tactical skills even for an effort that [you] do not control and for which [you] will not likely get credit.”
As the 99% become more able to express themselves and articulate their grievances, their ability to impact the world around them will continue to grow. As their impact grows, so will the attention that is paid to the work already going on in the nonprofit sector. This is a critical point, and both groups need to continue to work together. In the words of Rinku Sen, “organizers are used to hunkering down for marathons, but movement moments require sprinting. As a collective body, we must prepare to run full out.” If we can do this, we will continue our journey, or rather, our race, to a much needed social awakening.