Occupying Wall Street: Literacies and Education for the 99%

Today I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion with two, wonderful colleagues, Christine Utz and Jon L. Peacock, both creative writers who worked as two of the 60 writers to create the text, Occupying Wall Street:  The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America.  Unsurprisingly, it was probably one of the most direct and unflinching conversations that I have been involved with about social action and critique against capitalism in my current space (Here is the plan/outline of today’s discussion.)

I have read/heard many people talk about Occupy Wall Street (OWS)  as a literacy/educational movement, but usually only in the context of the uses of social media.  I think we miss so many ideological issues when we only focus on these seeming processes of participants’ and onlookers’ conversations and discourse arenas.  The OWS book really helped sharpen these thoughts for me.

In particular, I am struck by the educational, participatory model that OWS models for us.  To get at what is radically literate and educational in OWS, we have to look particularly at the nestings of horizontal participation and the value of labor.  What I am also interested in is the galvanization of a new kind of (college) student.

On the heels of Hurricane Sandy’s still disastrous impact in New York City, with so many of my students and colleagues still without electricity and/or homes, I keep thinking back to this past summer.  My Brooklyn neighborhood, in its pre-gentrification phase, was primarily people of color who worked for the city— municipal workers (I, myself, was a public high school teacher when I moved in). One neighbor, one of the few oldheads left on my block, works for Con Edison so I have witnessed, vicariously through him, the complete disintegration of workers’ dignity and actual jobs in these past 14 years living here, all alongside the CEOs of this utility company bursting at the seams in profit.   Yet I have heard very few activists, including those of color, embrace and/or link the strike that these Con Ed workers waged for a good part of last summer, many of whom were people of color, to the very conditions that so many poor communities of color are facing in NYC post-Sandy: the slow work and/or overwhelmed-ness of Con Ed workers (many of whom were downsized or ousted long ago) and the general degradation of poor and working class peoples (that results in the downsizing of their jobs and the supersizing of CEOs’ pockets).  Given how difficult it often is for even activists to see just how linked our fates are as workers, I am struck by the ways OWS made these connections real, especially for college students, who organized alongside and with labor unions as part of the work they did at OWS.   Here we have an educational climate that, by and large, tells you that you are simply supposed to get your degree, whatever the financial debt may be (which, after all, helps you value the degree as it adds to schools’ financial portfolios), compete and beat out everybody else for that job at the end of the line, and not think about any one but one’s self (with little critical awareness of that self).  And yet, despite all of that and maybe even because of it, here we have college students walking out of classrooms to work with union organizers and other workers at OWS.  This requires a complete mutation in how you define and do the work of being a “student” and that, to me, is what we need to be theorizing and defining as the new literacies and educational praxis of OWS.

I am also inspired by the way the book was written which, as Jon showed us, is further indication of  the way work was organized and valued at OWS where every role is seen and valued vs. commodified according to individualistic monetary gain.  I see the book as a history of OWS but also as an unfolding of its praxis/theory of social change. Christine also pointed out, rather brilliantly, that the book is also a protest manual and in that sense, it seems like something invaluable to those of us interested in literacy and education for change which must, at its heart, always be doing some protest.