Last week, Meg Wheatley and I hosted a conversation in Washington, DC, about the relationship between Walk Out Walk On and the Occupy movement. The event took place at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant, bookstore and community gathering place named for American poet Langston Hughes. It is also a place where activists, artists and dreamers challenge one another to think differently about race, culture, politics and social change—and for that reason, it felt particularly apt for us to be there. Because right now, I’m deep inside questions about what constitutes a movement, who belongs and who doesn’t, what happens when people of privilege rise up and whether it matters who gets left out.
I’ve been hanging around Occupy Boston quite a bit since it kicked off in Dewey Square on September 30. Actually, I should probably also say this: I live only a few blocks away, so I get to pass through when I feel like it, listen in to a General Assembly, hang out in the library or participate in a dialogue circle—and then go home to a hot shower, a warm bed and a home-cooked meal. When I was a teenager, I used to wonder how I would have behaved if I’d been around in the 60s—would I have been out in the streets? How would I have responded to authority? I missed Seattle—I was busy being a dot-commer, thinking I would change the world through the democratization of technology. But it couldn’t be easier this time around. I get to be an activist en route to the farmers’ market and my favorite latte. And while those who have embraced encampment life certainly are taking on some degree of hardship, many Occupiers look a lot like me—white, progressive-minded professionals (and profession-seeking students) whose greatest challenges may be temporary unemployment, burdensome student loans and short-term housing shortages.
But when I returned from DC, something new had emerged on the Occupy scene. On Friday night, Occupy the Hood kicked off, a space for people of color to organize and respond to the issues made visible through the Occupy movement. Here’s part of their statement of intent:
People of color, particularly Black People, are disproportionately affected by the issues that the Occupy Movement has raised… Occupy The Hood Boston seeks to not only address those issues but present solutions to our collective problems and effect changes in policy that will improve the quality of life for all people. Occupy The Hood Boston is sticking with the methods of organization that have been going on prior to Occupy Boston in the realization that different people respond differently and we must craft a movement that uniquely speaks to the issues of People of Color.
There’s nothing new about the issues that Occupy the Hood is addressing among people of color. These communities have been organizing for years around chronic unemployment, police brutality, foreclosures, environmental injustice and much, much more. They have wisdom to share about how to sustain one another in the long slog of social change, activism and advocacy—wisdom that the new activists of the Occupy movement would greatly benefit from.
And, there’s something necessary and exciting about the freshness—perhaps even naïveté—of the new Occupiers. In her October 19 blog on Colorlines, Rinku Sen, author of Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, acknowledges the balance between the magic of movements and the intelligence of organization—and invites Occupy to embrace both. She writes:
Movements are decentralized; organizations are centralized. Movements are spontaneous; organizations have strategies and plans, not to mention members and funders. These first two characteristics make movements go fast, while organizations can be slooow. Movements and organizations both want change, but organizations have the added goal of building for the long term, of perpetuating themselves. That goal can make organizations reluctant to embrace movements, even on the issues they’ve worked on forever, and can in turn feed contempt for established organizations among movements.
We need both kinds of activity. There are things that the NAACP can do because it’s 100 years old, and there are things it can’t do for that very same reason. There are things Occupy Wall Street can do because it is nimble and unknown, but there are things it can’t do for that same reason. A good relationship between social justice organizations and movements requires reorientation from both.
So what actually happened on Friday, October 21st in Dudley Square? Young black men and women stood up and shared their stories of violence and oppression. Mothers told stories of loss and grief. They shared their art and their poetry and their dreams for a different future that they could create together. And the crowd was evenly divided between people of color and whites—many of the Occupy Boston protesters traveling to stand in solidarity with Occupy the Hood.
What’s emerging now is neither a fully integrated movement, nor a separate but equal one. What seems to be emerging is recognition of the many unique paths we need to travel, and the gifts we have to offer from where we stand. If we stay in relationship with one another through that difference—as occurred on Friday night—then perhaps the wisdom of the collective might rise up to its fullest expression. And who knows where we might, together, go from there.