A Therapist Talks About the Occupy Wall Street Events
By Lane Arye, Ph.D.
Last night I was talking with a group of activists/organizers from around the country about their impressions of the OWS movement. They were curious how the insights of a therapist and conflict facilitator schooled in Worldwork (which was developed by Arnold Mindell) might be useful to folks in the movement. After our teleconference, the activists encouraged me to write this.
First off, OWS is surrounded by a host of critics, from long-time social change organizers to mainstream media. (Much of the media criticism has been debriefed, so I’m focusing on internal criticisms I have heard.) We can learn from critics in at least two ways. They can help us improve by pointing out what we genuinely need to change. Paradoxically, they may be criticizing us for something we actually need to do more congruently. Seen from this angle, critics may be highlighting strengths we don’t yet know we have.
Take one criticism: The General Assemblies lead to a kind of individualism of people wanting to be heard and contribute, unaware of the impact on the thousand people listening. In one recent GA, a small group of frustrated men hijacked the meeting, cursing and physically threatening the entire assembly. Even in less dramatic situations, most GA’s are filled with judgment, fracturing statements, and individuals repeating each other just so they can get themselves heard.
From one point of view, the criticism is valid. Yes, Western individualism can be very problematic and it is always a good time to learn to become communitarian. But perhaps there is also something beautiful about this individualism. People have the sense that they can finally speak up about the economy, that their voice is important, that they do not have to shut up and listen to talking heads who supposedly know better.
It can be useful to think about this in terms of roles. (Just as an actor plays many different roles, we all play different roles in our lives, sometimes without awareness.) Individuals wanting to be heard at a General Assembly might be in the role of someone who wants attention. “Pay attention to me! I have something to say!” For years our “democratic” system has ignored these voices. They have been excluded by money, a political system that merely offers citizens a chance to vote, and a financial system bent on inequality. But now this role is finding a public voice.
This role is talking to another role that does not listen. Many bankers, politicians, media and others are part of the role of “not listening.” In essence the voice says: “Shut up! I am not listening to you!” (Though they have learned to be more subtle: “I wish the protestors had a single message.”)
There must be a third role here – the listener, who holds the space and receives what someone is offering.
Making this useful: Perhaps facilitators, organizers and activists could benefit from knowing that these three roles are around. For example, when someone is talking a lot at a General Assembly, the facilitator could echo back what the speaker is saying, getting to the essence of it so the speaker knows she/he is heard, and perhaps so the person knows what she/he is trying to say.
I have seen this work around the world. During a forum for reconciliation in the Balkans soon after the war there, a Bosnian Croat would not stop speaking, holding a virtual filibuster, despite the impassioned pleas of his fellow participants. When I echoed back what I thought he was trying to say, he thanked me and sat down. When people feel heard, they stop demanding the time to speak, because filling the missing role of the listener is relieving to the one who has something to say.
Of course, doing this can be challenging. Everyone wants to speak, but who can really listen? In Worldwork we say that the elder is the person who can listen to all voices, who supports everyone to speak and be heard, who wants the best for all sides of a given conflict. OWS, like the rest of the world, needs more elders.
Another way to make this useful is to think that probably everyone needs to be heard, and everyone needs to cultivate the listener. Having large groups move into pairs or groups of three people who can actively listen to one another about a given topic might be one way to incorporate this important need. Occupy Minneapolis used this with huge success during a consensus process that had been routinely blocked. After pair-sharing, the group was able to move forward. Or Aussie facilitator Holly Hammond has found value in “asking people to raise their hands in response to some questions e.g., ‘Raise your hand if this is your first General Assembly’ (very useful information!); ‘Raise your hand if you camped at City Square’; ‘Raise your hand if you were present at the eviction’, etc.” Both methods gave people the sense that someone was listening to them, interested in them, and that they were an important part of what was happening.
This is one reason, by the way, that the spokescouncil model can be effective. In that model there are affinity groups — embedded small groups so everyone can speak — and they each send representatives who sit at the spokescouncil, like spokes of a wheel. Each spoke can consult with its affinity group and the whole process is done in public so it marries transparent representation and participation.
Similar to the listener is the appreciator. At some GA’s people are attacked when they step into new roles of leadership. How much more exciting it could be if these brave souls were cheered when they took the risk to lead. One OWS activists came up with a different solution: put up a large chart where people can leave anonymous (or signed) messages of appreciation for people in the camp. It’s another way to model that people are hearing!
The one who wants attention is related to the role of the one who wants to contribute. Even long-time organizers may find themselves not knowing how to contribute to this movement, that has its own culture, that may not seem to them to be strategic or sustainable. They might feel disempowered as well, and feel they have to adapt to the General Assembly culture and the rules that have been set up by the OWS organizers. And those who anticipate that the long history of oppression will be repeated yet again may feel that their voices and contributions will not be as welcomed.
When we notice the companion role, the one who receives someone’s contribution, then we find ways to work with this dynamic. For instance, facilitators might again try getting people into small groups, and having folks take turns saying what they personally feel they have to contribute to this movement. The other people in the small group can draw them out, and encourage them to find ways to bring their unique gifts. Many people want to contribute, but do not know how. It is important to support people to find their strengths and fulfill their need to contribute. This can prevent people from feeling discouraged or disempowered (and thus prevent harmful consequences like deciding not to return, or discouraging others from engaging with the movement). It also breathes new life into a movement by bringing new ideas and energy from the grassroots.
When I mentioned this point to the social change organizers, they put it to immediate use. One young woman of color from New York was talking about her frustration that, while People of Color have shown up, their contributions have often been minimized. She felt that OWS needs just the opposite- to value and prioritize these contributions in order to continue expanding and diversifying the movement. Another Philly organizer of color drew her out, asking how she imagined making a difference. Her initial hesitancy was transformed into excitement as he appreciated and received her great ideas. Then he asked if she would like coaching on one point, which she welcomed. A week later she facilitated a 100 person POC meeting, as well as a media training for POC/women, teaching them to better find their voice, initiate interviews, and speak up in the media. She also had other projects/contributions in the pipeline. As she wrote, “My mind and my heart are a-whirlin.”
Here was one great example of what I imagine are a multitude of potential contributions that could be supported to come forward if we notice and fill the various roles in the field.
Let’s not forget that the man who wanted to hear her ideas also made a contribution of his own. Filling the role of the receiver was itself a contribution!
He had been one of those experienced organizers who had not found a way to be of use to the OWS movement. He had at various times tried to give advice to OWS facilitators about how to have better GA’s and create a more sustainable movement, without having had much impact. Now he realized he had been stuck in the role of the one who speaks (one of the many well-meaning people who turn into advice givers) rather than being an elder. That’s when he decided to try something different. (It is important to note that after listening to her, he asked if she wanted coaching, then waited for her feedback before offering his own ideas.)
Another way to look at all of this is through the lens of a criticism that has been leveled by the mainstream media at the OWS movement – that it has so many heads and no unified message. Rather than looking at the truth or falsehood of this criticism, let’s see if there is something good about it! If OWS is creature with many heads, then anyone can be the head. When so many heads are singing beautiful songs, it is up to each of us to both listen, and to sing our own song. The most beautiful and compelling ones will be heard. (Writing this article after listening deeply to those activists is my own attempt to contribute a song. Perhaps someone will hear it.) From this perspective, we are all potential leaders of this movement.
According to Mindell’s idea of Deep Democracy, when all voices and roles have a chance to be heard and interact, the wisdom of a group or community can arise. Perhaps the many-headed creature that is OWS needs our particular song, our particular direction. The world is trying to express itself. It is using us. By believing in our own voice, in our own special part, and by actively listening to our peers, we can help the wisdom and power of the movement to develop.