Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Institutions trying to Usurp a Movement

It has been interesting to watch the doings on at the various occupations around the country. In particular, watching some groups and organizations that grew out of movements of the past are now trying to latch on to the "Occupy Movement" to try and stake a claim in it has been most interesting. HIV/AIDS organizations and activists, Jim Wallis' Sojourners, environmental groups, healthcare groups, and organizations such as AFSC are all looking for ways to somehow get their message on the radar. Some seem to be trying to remain viable; others (Sojourners most blatantly) are using the movement as a fund-raising opportunity. Let me just say, I'm normally a big fan of Jim Wallis, but I was really turned off to get the most recent fund-appeal e-mail from Sojourners titled "we've been doing this for 40 years" and then asking people to join their "sustainers circle" (even going so far as offering a "free" gift if you donate which, to me, isn't free but bartering). It is exactly this kind of exploitation and manipulation done by the "establishment" that, it seems to me, many of the occupation movements are rejecting.

My take is that this occupation movement is a culmination of a whole bunch of things, and it is also unlike anything we've seen before. It's the result of not just leaders but entire communities punting on big issues and always deferring on making serious changes and difficult choices for a later day, and that day is now. As NYTimes columnist David Brooks observed last May, we now have young adults who played by the rules their whole lives (structured childhoods of playdates, sports, and academics driven not by learning but by test-scores and grades) with the promise that compliance would be rewarded, but instead are faced with high-rates of un- and under-employment and burdened with loans. There is anger for sure, but there is also the recognition that the previous generations failed to prepare for the future. This is a non-partisan issue; it was under the Clinton years that there was an explosion of McMansion's, big cars and unprecedented debt (to that point) - very much an "if it feels good, do it" time. It's not that this was Clinton's fault or responsibility; it was just part of the era we have been living since the 1950's of American capitalism.

It is easy to see that all the various social, environmental and health issues are related to this movement. In fact, there is a strong element of chaos related to this movement as it attracts the passionate, the disgruntled, the angry, as well as the dropouts looking for company and a chance to get high. A look at the various signs that pop up at these places can speak to this, as the "issues" are clearly present. But it is also fair, I think, to understand the rejection of the organizations that have been established to address these issues or, at the least, be very skeptical of their intrusion into the movement. Taking HIV/AIDS just as an example: at what point do we look around and say that the outcomes (in terms of the continuing spread of HIV and the growing wait-lists for treatment) are not just the result of bad politics or inadequate funding? It is also the result of an entrenched industry that played "spend it or lose it" that wasted millions of dollars in needs assessments and studies. It is not a movement but a business that holds expensive conferences in glamorous places, patting itself on the back but slow to adapt to new realities and technologies. Too often it is driven not by mission completion but by protection of turf, and now wants more money. There have also been organizations that have slashed programs and staff, but maintained salaries and pensions. It is the lack of balance to sacrifices that this generation is experiencing. Consider, as another example, in the wake of the Gulf oil spill last year, not one of the countless e-mails from environmental groups that I saw that called for protests or for more funding also called on people to reduce consumption. You can replicate this process with almost all the issues of our times. For many of these organizations and institutions, the goal is to keep their issue alive in people's faces, but they don't want to really be questioned about their corporate presence and how it influences our lives, which is the very thing I see much of what this movement is about.

It will be interesting to see where this movement goes. I fully support the idea of a major community transformation that connects us closer to the ideals we espouse (see another David Brooks column for more about this). For me, it's not just about taxing the rich, nor is it about healthcare for all. It's also not mine to say what it is about. I do think that a part of the movement that is healthy is that we all need to be fully engaged and responsible. If we are educated and informed while being engaged, we will absolutely be a better society. It will also spell doom to all those organizations that want to make this their cause and exploit it for their own institutional survival. I can't say that mine is to go and Occupy anything, but to do what I can to nurture the transformations for a better, more just world.