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. 

Oya’s Teachings

Hurricane Sandy humbled every one of the 19 million people in the New York City metropolitan area. But it humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city…

Instead of heading home to their families as the winds picked up, the city’s army of cashiers, waiters and other service workers remained in place.

Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents … who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.

Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home…

Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest and most gentrified borough, is an extreme example. Inequality here rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20 percent made $9,681.

All told, Manhattan’s richest fifth made 40 times more money than its poorest fifth, up from 38 times in 2010. Only a handful of developing countries – such as Namibia and Sierra Leone – have higher inequality rates…

~These are some of David Rohde’s words for the Atlantic this week

Though Hurricane Sandy has left the NYC area now, she is obviously still with us.  My own university’s students were evacuated and moved to other dormitories with classes canceled all week due to the wind damage on multiple campuses.  The next two weeks of my classes will be completely redesigned, to say the least.  And still, we fared so much better than others.  Businesses (the Mom-and-Pop joints vs the chains) in my own Brooklyn neighborhood are only slowly, very slowly, piecing things back together again.  David Rohde’s words (above) really resonated with me today and reminded me of the ways that capital’s newest modes of exploitation leave the rich safe in even a storm, something that should not surprise us given what we saw with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  I appreciated Rohde’s words but it didn’t take a hurricane to see the inhumanity of Manhattan’s elite and their world against the supra-humanity of the working class/working poor folk who keep this city afloat even when there is no superstorm.  So today I also have some other thoughts here… namely, that the safe-keeping of the elite comes solely from the care of the rest of us, what Rohde points out.  This means that we know how to give care to others and to ourselves.  I would dare to even say that all we impoverished or just-gettin-by caretakers know the path to a looming humanity that the wealthiest 20 percent simply will never reach.  That’s simply the price they pay for their capital.  We need never wonder  if real solutions to serious social issues will ever come from them.

I was really moved by the email sent out today from Resident Teacher, Shastri Ethan Nichtern, of the Shambala Center in New York City.  Nichtern wants us to think deeply about all of the messages of loved ones trying to contact us and about all of the support that everyday people are giving to one another.  Nichtern reminds us that, at times like these, nature forces us to connect with our own humanity and the humanity of others.  The connections we make take on new meanings, a kind of vividness not unlike what happens in meditation practice.  As Nichtern says: “we don’t have to work to uncover our heart, because the tragedy uncovers Bodhicitta for us. The tragedy itself IS open-heartedness… It is a heartbreaking time, but a ripe time for practicing, connecting with each other, and helping those who need it as much as we possibly can.”  I am moved by these words and by those with the humanity to reach such possibilities.

I told my students this week in our revised curricular plan for our course African American Literacies and Education that I felt compelled to make a nod to Oya (a daunting figure that the African Diaspora has re-Christened and brought with them all over the “New World.”)

Though I am not an Orisha scholar, I do know that Oya is considered one of the most powerful Orisha, a Warrior-Queen, responsible for, you guessed it, HURRICANES and all things related to storms and winds.  Oya brings rapid change to the places that need transformation.  She is both ardently loved and deadly feared and for good reason: she can destroy everything in her path, whether that be injustice or an entire village.  Oya also protects all women, especially their leadership power, in order to make sure that we all know that she can strike you down just as easily as she can shelter you, all of which are necessary to bring about change.  It should be quite obvious, especially this week, why people of African Descent, and black women in particular, from Cuba (where she is called Olla) to Haiti (where she is called Aido-Wedo) to New Orleans (where she is called Brigette) to Brazil (where she is called Yansa), would hold on to Oya so fiercely and lovingly.  This is a point that seems an appropriate reminder in an African American Literacies/Education class since what we have here is a system of meaning that not only attempts to understand and contextualize hurricanes and storms as central to an ecosystem but also, simultaneously, offers a completely different metaphor for women’s discourse, public life, and humanity!  There are always alternative systems of meaning and some of us maintain them, despite the devastation and daily havoc that capitalism has always wreaked on our lives.