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Advocacy in hard times: Lessons from the Occupy movement

As the Legislature struggles with budget issues, people need to speak up for protecting the services that many people rely upon. An expert offers advice, drawing on Occupy Wall Street's tactics.

Rising Out of the Shadows (ROOTS) operates a shelter for young people.

Rising Out of the Shadows (ROOTS) operates a shelter for young people. Courtesy of ROOTS

Washington state capitol: cutting season.

Washington state capitol: cutting season. Cacophony/Wikimedia Commons

State Sen. Ed Murray

State Sen. Ed Murray Washington Legislature

These are telling snippets of conversations I have had with human service providers about the recession, the shredding social safety net, and local help for people in need:

“For the most youth, the streets are the safest choice … and I think that’s a pretty reasonable choice given the circumstances.”

“For many of our seniors, we’re giving them their only hot meal of the day.”

 “We see a lot more people living out of their cars.”

“We check the jail registry, the morgue … no news is good news.”

I heard these comments because, in trying to think about how government and society should respond to hard times, I wanted to know how much the recession had affected the capabilities and the need for services of organizations that help people get what they need to live (i.e. food, shelter) and live well (organic food, green space). Were they able to keep up with demand for services? If not, were they demanding help? Had Occupy Wall Street inspired them to organize? I met with directors of six local human service agencies to find out. 

It’s not pretty out there. Executive Director Kristine Cunningham of ROOTS, which provides shelter for young adults, said more college students need shelter, more people are sleeping in their cars, and more people are newly homeless. Rare is the night that ROOTS doesn't turn away people seeking a place to sleep.

Teen Feed, which provides teens with meals and case management, is not seeing more youth, according to Executive Director Megan Hibbard. But the teens it serves now have a harder time finding jobs and housing. Hibbard says, “They are more depressed and more inclined to use drugs. … Our working is changing … now we’re helping kids hang on.” Kathleen Crompton, who runs the Wallingford Senior Center said that her agency’s services have shifted in focus — less attention to bridge games, and more attention to hot meals and job programs.

For the past few years, our elected leaders have been saying we must “sacrifice,” “tighten our belts,” “take a haircut,” and “do our part.” It's Beaver Cleaver-speak for imposing draconian cuts to services for people who have already sacrificed.

When releasing her 2011-2013 budget, which called for eliminating Basic Health and Disability Lifeline, Gov. Chris Gregoire said, “For the functions that government no longer will be able to provide, we must turn to neighbors, private charities, faith-based organizations and other local programs. Our communities, more than ever, will be asked to step up.”

How? The nonprofit directors I met said that finding the resources they need to meet the demand for services has always been a struggle, recession or not.  For many nonprofits it’s getting harder: Government has radically cut or eliminated funding to the very organizations that poor people turn to when they cannot get unemployment insurance, subsidized health insurance, food stamps, or other governmental aid. Individual donors have less to donate; foundations give fewer grants; communities have fewer foundations. The state Senate’s adoption of a draconian budget proposal  adds to this mix the prospect of more cuts before the Legislature’s special session ends. To whom or to what do charities turn to protect current funding levels (never mind the “extra” funding needed to “step up”)?

Occupiers? Perhaps, they could turn to the Occupy movement. The grassroots activists' community organizing has re-focused our national analysis of the economy (from reducing the deficit to reducing the income gap); inspired people across the U.S. to engage in activism, and pressured banks and corporations to change how they do business.

What if, in 2012, safety net providers take a cue from OWS and utilize protests to demand that the 1 percent “do their part” for the public good? That would be a big departure from what most service providers currently do. Media coverage of protests in Olympia over the past year suggests that they were for the most part, the work of unions, Occupy groups, and some nonprofit advocacy organizations. This is consistent with my 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Few direct service providers engage in ongoing advocacy; almost none engage in organizing.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Apr 6, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Thursday -- SCCC meeting -- 3-4:30 -- to discuss more free speech infringements.

Outcomes -- Students and faculty are fed up with more and more tweaks to campus expression.

Possibilities -- More faculty, staff and students from SCCC opening up campus classes and space and their own sweat to help with all sorts of advocacy and grassroots campaigns, including their own: the administrators taking the C out of Community College.

Notes -- I went to and spoke at the Thursday comments meeting in a packed house. Very articulate and impassioned points made by faculty, staff, librarians, and, of course, students. The college president was there. We had 2 minutes each to make a point. The bottom line is that these new rules proposed is indicative of administrators -- that political class and institutional management ilk -- not doing their jobs the past 10 years especially in WA. Almost $1 billion in cuts to higher education; programs erased; day care for community college students decimated; underused buildings; lack of innovation; continual gutting of tenure track and livable wage teaching jobs replaced by adjunct workers; and all these little tweaks that have nothing to do with students making it in the next half century. On their watch -- these people, many of whom jump from institution to institution while faculty stick it out and make the campus rich, as do students.

So, we have thse overpaid administrators who rub elbows with legislators, higher ups, the buisness vanguard, and, they do this? Make carrying two signs on campus larger than 3 by 5 feet a violation? Restrict when public folk can walk on sidewalks afterhours to protest. A protest gage of 17 by 23 for approved of free speech events?

I wonder why this move? Occupy Seattle? Nah. This has been going on for decades around the country. The reason? Students are empowering themselves and seeing that the privatization of college, the tuition hikes and unreasonable cuts to programs, all of that which never happened when these professional admin folk went to get their BAs, MAs and PhDs, are actonable, something big to protest. Ya think these admin folk and quasi queens and kings who are VPs and Prezes, you think they want more teachable moments on campus to critique and protest their inaction and overarching lack of understanding the role of colleges, those with C in their mission -- COMMUNITY?

They can't do squat in Olympia, here with the Seattle blue bloods, with all the billionaires making a killing off of our tax base, our students and faculty. THey are asleep at the helm -- UNTIL -- students begin to put the dots together. I see some protracted and expensive lawsuits here. I see students fed up just occupying their classrooms. Maybe what they are doing in Mexico City. Students and faculty running a free university system.

PaulKirk

Posted Fri, Apr 6, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

When Occupy folks return home, here's a another thing they can do to help protect the vulnerable:

Take personal responsibility for someone who is struggling. Spend six months or a year giving him or her assistance. Buy him or her some groceries if that's what's needed. Help him or her get to a mental health counselor. Take him or her an occasional care package. Help save the vulnerable by spending your own time helping those of your neighbors who need help.

Posted Fri, Apr 6, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Ahh, Occupy is not going "home" because home is their communities. DOn't be too surprised that many "occupy" movements across this country HAVE given all of that above , and more.

Join us.

In people’s living rooms, in donated office spaces and in indoor parks, Occupy’s working groups are as busy as they were in the fall. Occupy Our Homes has resisted foreclosures and evictions in dozens of cities across the country. Occupy the SEC filed a public comment on the Volcker Rule urging regulators to strengthen this aspect of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. Other groups have been hard at work on issues ranging from student debt to alternative banking to worker-owned cooperatives. Meanwhile, protests—against police brutality; against corporations like Bank of America, Pfizer and Walmart; against budget cuts; and against institutions like the Whitney Museum—have continued at an almost frenetic pace. Organizers have also been using the winter to incubate grander plans, among them a May 1 Day of Action that may turn into a call for a nationwide general strike and proposals to occupy corporate shareholder meetings, the NATO summit in Chicago, and the Democratic and Republican conventions at the end of the summer.

There’s no question that Occupy will be back this spring—it never really went away.

But what will this second stage look like? Join it!

PaulKirk

Posted Fri, Apr 6, 1:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Paul is right, there are many ways to help. Hope the weather is good for all those protests. If one of you young occupiers wants to come help me weed my garden, I'd be forever grateful.

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