October 19, 2011

Making Sense of Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street is an international sensemaking exercise. From my frame of reference of working in applied narrative, I see people coming together, sharing stories, examining them, gleaning insight, and extracting meaning. The problems are profoundly complex and any solutions (“demands”) that may emerge will require collaboration, careful analysis, and shared understanding.

Sensemaking is a social activity and “occupy” is a physical act. Social media is facilitating and spreading the news of the worldwide movement, and people are coming together physically to share their stories, detect patterns, and make sense of the emerging elements.

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, explores this sensemaking exercise:

It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus method of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.

“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.

“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s apt phrase.

…Imagine Zuccotti Park, one protester told me, as a Venn diagram of characters representing disparate political and economic disenchantments. The park is where their grievances overlap. It’s literally common ground.

… “We may not have all come here with the exact same issues in mind,” [Sophie Theriault] told me, “but sharing this park day in and day out, night after night, becomes an opportunity for us to discover our mutual interests.”

To those of you reading this who may think that the Occupy Wall Street movement does not have a message, I ask you to reconsider: think of how you would describe the message you are taking away from the worldwide protests. Close your eyes or look away from this page and think about it: what message came to mind?

Richard Kirsch, writing on New Deal 2.0, explains the predominant frame (and one I am guessing crossed your mind):

One of the most common criticisms of progressives is that, unlike the right, we don’t have simple messages that tell our story. Our young leaders at Occupy Wall Street have come up with a powerful answer: We are the 99%.”

…This phrase’s power is in the emotions it elicits. It is triumphant, not defeatist. It says, “We have the power and the moral authority, not you!” It conveys action — we’re standing up for ourselves and occupying your turf. It declares our common humanity. It is hopeful.

Kirsch ends his essay by writing

When people say that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have demands, we should look at that not as a criticism, but as an invitation to complete the story. Everything about the phrase [We are the 99%] establishes the point that we build an economy that works for all of us when we make decisions that benefit the 99%.

This pleased me because approximately 10 years ago, I trained over 700 activists, legislators, and Congressional staff members nationwide in sharing the message that we must create an economy that works for all. Seeing the results of that concentrated effort is a lesson in language spread, adaptation, and adoption.

On October 7, Clay Shirky brilliantly tweeted:

Groups of voters have incompatible goals, so working democracy doesn't produce coherent policies, but livable compromises.

The message of #OWS is not "Here's is our 9-point plan." The message of #OWS is "This is not a livable compromise."

A smart friend sums it all up: “The bottom line from an economic point of view is that inequality stifles growth. So unless people are willing to move towards a banana republic-type set up where the rich drive in armored cars, etc., there will have to be concessions.”

From action will come audience, and from audience will come message. Out of what seems like chaos, insight will occur. Occupy Wall Street is making sense out of complex experiences.

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