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Occupy and Connect

October 5, 2011 Community/Labor March for Occupy Wall Street. Photo by Brian Palmer. Click to enlarge.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Occupy Wall Street spontaneously erupted one day. And that, soon thereafter, there were hundreds of fresh-faced college students and frustrated unemployed workers camping at Zuccotti Park, communicating via Facebook and human microphones. You'd be forgiven for thinking this because this is what most of us following the mainstream media accounts are led to believe.

The reality is less romantic, but more powerful for those who believe in the potential of community organizing to transform lives. The truth is that the Occupy Wall Street movement is the result of a marriage of forces: experienced organizers and the newly engaged, community-based organizations and labor unions, those who organize via social networking and those who organize via door-knocking. And right at the heart of it all are North Star grantees. North Star's grantees have laid considerable groundwork for the movement for economic justice in this age of extreme disparity of wealth. And they've been active participants in the events--in Zuccotti Park and beyond--that have come to be known as the Occupy Movement.

Sondra Youdelman, Executive Director of Community Voices Heard (CVH), a North Star grantee since 1997, tells of the origins of Occupy New York in a year-long effort to shift the debate about the local economy. "The government's message was that we need to cut and sacrifice, tighten our belts. Our membership said, 'Wait, we've been sacrificing all along.'" It was time to re-focus the public conversation away from which services to cut, and towards how to generate additional revenue.

VOCAL-NY, a North Star Fund grantee since 1999 that works to build power among people affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and mass incarceration, was another early leader in the effort. According to Jeremy Saunders, VOCAL's lead organizer, "Our members are not one dimensional. We can protect HIV services, but what if the hospitals are closed? So we made the decision to step out of our silo and fight for a fair economy."

But how? The stakes were high. It was early 2011, and harsh state and local budgets were looming. "I remember this statewide leaders meeting at which Gloria Wilson, one of our member leaders, an African American woman in her 50's, stood up and said, 'We've just got to get Egypt on their asses,'" recalled Sondra.

So VOCAL and CVH along with others shut down the state capital in early March. Seventeen people were arrested. The protest made the headlines. "Even the reporters said, 'Wow, people don't do it like that,'" said Jeremy. The shutdown and subsequent collaborative actions around the state and city budgets helped to refine the message, excite the base, and solidify important institutional relationships. And so when the Occupy "moment" came, organizations like CVH, VOCAL-NY, Brandworkers, Make the Road New York, NICE, FUREE, and People's Production House--all North Star grantees--were ready.

The Power of 99%

The success of the movement has been attributed to the powerful slogan 'We are the 99%.' In its simplicity, this message about economic inequality has busted down the walls that have traditionally separated organizers working with extremely marginalized groups--like North Star grantees--from the broader public. "The fundamental frame of 99 versus 1 percent is so inclusive, and expresses so simply the frustration about inequality that people feel, that you can get on it in many different ways," said Daniel Coates, lead organizer for Make the Road New York, a North Star grantee since 1999.

For example, Occupy organizers invited Maria Corona, a board member at Brandworkers, a North Star grantee since 2007, to speak at the General Assembly about her struggles as an immigrant worker in food production--a sector where there is little enforcement of the few laws that do exist to protect the workforce. The very next day, Occupy protesters participated in huge numbers in a global call-in organized by Brandworkers to urge Tnuva, the world's largest kosher cheese company, to cut ties with its distributor, Flaum Appetizing, a chronic abuser of immigrant workers that illegally fired Maria and sixteen of her co-workers. More recently, organizations including CVH, VOCAL, Make the Road New York and others have hosted "Occupy the Block" conversations in which protesters head out to local communities to hear about how these issues hit on the ground.

Bringing the Movement Home

There is a commitment to partnership among the Occupy organizers, many of whom feel that they are part of a longer tradition. They know that to be truly representative of the 99%, they need the voices of those most marginalized in the communities of New York City. Working with North Star grantees and others, OWS has formed people of color and immigrant caucuses that allow for its members to share their firsthand experiences, articulate a vision, and lift up specific organizing campaigns that work towards that vision. In forging these ties, the Occupy base has grown beyond the physical space of Zuccotti Park.

Valery Jean is the executive director of Families United for Racial and Economic Justice (FUREE), which organizes to build power in low-income communities in downtown Brooklyn. FUREE sees the Occupy movement as an opportunity to promote economically fair and responsible development in the communities where its members live. According to Valery, "We've been to both community/labor marches. The last march across the Brooklyn Bridge really brought the Occupy movement home. Many of our members have gone through the civil rights movement, and they've said that they never thought they'd see this again in their lifetime."

Ultimately, the dilemma facing these organizers is how to seize the momentum provided by this compelling message while making sure that their specific priorities in areas including public housing, immigrant rights, workplace safety, public assistance, and HIV/AIDS supportive housing, don't get lost in the fold. "It's amazing what's going on and we need to continue to relate to it. And we need to know when to push our own, more specific, campaigns. No one else is going to work on 30% rent caps to protect 11,000 people living with AIDS from eviction and homelessness," said Jeremy of VOCAL.

But that's okay, according to the expert organizers in the North Star community who have been winning concrete victories for New York's poor and marginalized for decades. "What OWS is bringing up is systemic. This system ain't working for 99 percent of us," said Daniel Coates of Make the Road New York. "And I think it would be a mistake for OWS to begin to say, 'Well, we think that the United States government should pass x specific legislation.' The minute they start to put a stake in the ground, they lose the broader message and the imagination."

North Star's Role

Of course, it isn't a coincidence that the community-based organizations most involved in Occupy are part of the North Star community. As Jeremy Saunders puts it, "North Star has supported the organizations that have been most dedicated to engaging community members and taking advantage of political opportunities at the most strategic moments. Thankfully North Star is still there, creating spaces for us to talk about what we are doing now and what we should do in the future."

This space that North Star creates will be even more important now as the next steps of this movement are undecided. If the thousands of members from community organizations and labor unions that showed up to protest on November 17, two days after the eviction at Zuccotti Park, are any indication, the 99% aren't going anywhere any time soon.