The Occupy Movements and the Universities

occupy collegesThe Occupation movements spreading around the nation and the world have the potential to revitalize University life, particularly those initiatives involving community activism and the arts.. The role of arts activists in Occupy Wall Street is a story that has not been fully told. Community arts organizations in New York such as the South Bronx’s Rebel Diaz Arts Collective and Brooklyn’s Global Block Collective have been involved with Occupy Wall Street for almost a month, making music videos on the site, documenting the movement’s growth through film, and trying to bring working class people and people of colore into the movement. The Occupation has become an essential stopping point for a wide variety of performing artists, none of whom have asked for payment for their appearances (see below).

University faculty and participants in community outreach initiatives can only benefit from tapping into this tremendous source of energy and idealism. I have never seen students on my campus so excited about anything political or artistic as they have about these Occupation movements, which have spread into outer borough New York neighborhoods ( We have had “Occupy the Bronx”) as well as cities throughout the nation and the world. What the movement has done is reinvigorate democratic practice — much of it face to face — widely regarded as nearly extinct among young people allegedly atomized by their cell phones and ipods. One my students, a soccer player at Fordham said the following about her experience on a march across the Brooklyn Bridge that led to mass arrests

“Going to the protest I felt like this was the closest I was going to get to reliving my father/uncle’s young adulthood! While we were stuck on the bridge people were passing around cigarettes, water, food anything anyone had they shared. Announcements were organized so everyone knew what was going on. People were yelling were changing the world! THE WOLRD IS WATCHING. I called my father on the bridge told him I was getting arrested, and I could tell he was proud! It was unbelievable.”

Her sense of excitement about the energy and communal spirit at OWN mirrors my own. Each time I have been at OWS I have sat in on discusion groups created on topics ranging from Mideast politics, to understanding derivatives, to educational reform. The discussions I have participated in have been rigorous, political diverse, and to be honest much more virbrant than most comparable discussions I have been part of at universities.

Those of us who work at Universities need to find ways of connecting to a movement which has inspired so much creativity and intellectual vitality.. As someone who has been to many “Occupation” events, ranging from teach ins, to grade ins, to marches, and has spoken about this movement at my own university and to global media, I have experienced this energy and vitality first hand. But most important, my STUDENTS have experienced this and it has given them a sense that they have the power to make changes in a society which they feared had become hopelessly stagnant and hierarchical. Consider the remarks of 2010 Fordham grad Johanne Sterling who works at Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, about what participating in this movement meant to her, even though the experience got her arrested and sprayed with mace

“I had plans to attend a peaceful protest on Wall Street . . . I was happy to know that I was offering my voice and my support to a movement I believed in. As a young person in this country, I cannot say that I have not grown more and more unnerved with the injustices I see every day. The fact that our governmet is quietly but surely taking away our democratic rights (First with the Patriot Act, ironically named, and then with new voting restrictions that are being put into law), the fact that so many of my fellow graduates cannot find meaningful, rewarding work no matter how hard they try, the fact that our country’s infrastruture is falling apart while the richest 1% continue to increase astronomical amounts of wealth, and the fact our justice system was able to execute and continue to execute and/or imprison innocent individuals disproportionatey based on their socio-economic position and their ethnicity are simply a few reasons as to why I decided to attend the rally.”

This kind of civic consciousness and social justice activism is precisely what so many progressive scholars and university based community outreach programs have sought to inspire. It is being brought to life by young people themselves in this growing national movement.

There are now over 100 Occupations in cities throughout the nation. They are part of a global awakening of young people that has caused governments around the world to tremble, and financial elites to face the first real challenge to their power in decades

We in the Universities did not create this movement. But we ignore it at our peril. It brings to life many things we have been teaching. And it does something that we should be doing, but aren’t doing enough- it empowers our students!

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent 

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