October 26, 2011
OWS: From Structure to Action (and other crazy ideas from an advertising mind)

"Hi I’m Sy Sperling, President of Hair Club for Men."  Actually I’m not. I could only hope to go down in grassroots marketing history like Sy and Dan Smith  (who will teach us all guitar). But what I have done is worked on brand strategies for some pretty large companies. So through the eyes of a Planner (as we’re called in the advertising world), I made some observations about Occupy Wall Street as it rolls into month 2 here in NYC. To my fellow Planners: sorry this isn’t in Powerpoint.

When it started:
The first month of OWS was about AWARENESS. This was the wake-up call. And the bell sounded in 1,582 cities around the world. Fueled by anger, the message was simple: “We are here. Join us.” We will not be silenced or dismissed as unjustified because we aren’t giving demands or communicating via the convenient, conventional structure that is responsible for failing this country thus far. Demands? This is not a hostage situation, Samuel Jackson. Stand down––there’s nothing to negotiate!  

As OWS enters month 2, more sophisticated STRUCTURE is now emerging as the hot topic but before speaking to that, a review of current structure might be helpful. Daily General Assembly or (GA) meetings utilize trained facilitators to moderate discussions as needed, they put speakers on a list or “stack” ––ever watchful of prioritizing potentially marginalized groups and topics. Another facilitator watches time, while another takes minutes. These facilitator’s have gone through extensive training and the movement would be lost without them. At the top of every GA meeting, the Points of Process regarding fielding questions, concerns, friendly amendments, blocks and how to vote is explained. Sometimes GA can be really moving! Other times, it’s akin to watching C-Span.

The “human mic” has characterized the movement especially during inspiring speeches or when a world-famous economist like Jeff Madrick speaks or hip-hop artist, Talib Kweli. But what the core GA (the people who show up each day at 7pm) may be starting to realize is that it’s difficult to get things done. There might be a proposal debated for an hour when a passersby will interrupt with an unrelated question, “Why are you guys here?” Facilitator’s Response: “If you don’t have a concern directly related to approving funds to expand OWS’s post-box, please direct your questions to the Outreach table.” But more unfortunate is when a facilitator is kind enough  to take time to answer the passerby’s question. Proposals get debated for hours and then tabled as “quiet hour” looms at 11pm. 

Structure was further tightened in the movement with the emergence of  ”working groups”. These were once complete strangers sitting in a park talking. Over time, they organically coalesced over common concerns ranging from “Hey, I wish it wasn’t dirty.” [Sanitation Working Group] to “Who can make a flyer for this march?” [Graphic Design Working Group.] There are about 60 or so groups to date. They meet at a scheduled time on specific days in the park, in a deli or office space. Most utilize google or wiki groups as a virtual office. Anyone is welcome to join.

The assembly of those with common goals makes sense in any societal context from ancient tribes to PTA meetings. A prime example of the direct action that arose from working groups was how Internet’s group upgraded the basic GA website to a robust and sophisticated network for all groups to moderate discussion, post minutes and connect (in about 2 weeks time). Internet group functioned more efficiently than any digital agency I’ve seen (and yes, they need designers. Are you available?)

Current Issues:
So that brings us to today. “I haven’t been to a GA meeting in weeks,” said one Occupyer. “I’ve been too busy attending working group meetings.” So if the die-hards are off in smaller groups, who is attending and making decisions on proposals at the nightly GA? Tourists, newbies, those with specific agendas that don’t represent the whole––this is a concern for a body that operates out of consensus.

So as a solution to streamlining communication, promoting transparency and efficiency, a working group (aptly named) Structure came up with a written proposal for a Spokes Council. Inspired by other revolutionary movements such as in Chiapas, Mexico––this system designates rotating “spokes” from each working group to represent the group at it’s own meeting outside of the GA. I encourage you to check out the living document HERE. This document will be voted on this week Friday 10/28 Wednesday 10/26) within the GA at 7pm. It has already been debated and was met with ten or more “blocks” mainly by those who see it as opposing the movement’s tenant, direct democracy––explained HERE.

So in case you, Dear Reader haven’t guessed by now––”I’m not only the Hair Club President, I’m also a client.” Or translated to better fit our OWS movement: I’m not only an advocate of OWS but also a contributing member––specifically of the Graphic Design working group. When we are not fulfilling design requests for flyers, posters and signage, we are hammering out our own internal structure, creating ambassadors to other working groups (which essentially are like accounts at an ad agency) and discussing other topics within our Google group. We have workflow charts, electronic design requests forms, project managers and we utilize a project management system called Basecamp. One of the biggest conversations on the table right now is about branding of this movement––to brand or not to brand? That’s a question that would be more easily discussed with others in a transparent set-up like the proposed Spokes Council––so to my next point…

Moving Forward:
The Design Group approves of the Structure Group’s Spokes Council proposal. We see this as a good method of approaching steamlined conversation that ends with actionable results. Because though it takes a very long time for thousands of strangers to organically find their place in this “society” (and all those Fox-news friendly folks love to point out the lack of mobilization of the hippies), a Spokes Council arrangement is a positive step and central to the heart of the OWS story. It fosters ACTION.

1) The AWARENESS stage was about telling folks where the room is.

2) The STRUCTURE phase is about setting up the chairs.

3) Now that everyone’s comfy, it’s time for ACTION––or at least more productive conversation about small change campaigns that can make a big difference. LIKE THIS ONE.

United under specific campaigns decided in Spokes Council, individual working groups can do their jobs! Outreach might write the message, Design makes the flyer, Info distributes it (all the while Sustainability might call us assholes for wasting paper and encourage us to find a new way to spread the word utilizing Internet!)

Though sorting out the structure of this movement may be “occupying” a lot of time at the moment, the ultimate goal of the movement is ACTION. The kind of action that will bring this country more in line with the needs of the 99% rather than reflecting the values of those who prioritize profit over people.

Finally, if you haven’t engaged with OWS, what’s stopping you? Is it fear of the unknown? Just touring around the website provides a wealth of information. Create a an account here. Its too important for someone as smart as you, to not be involved. We’re changing the course of our future and making history doing it right now. I’m hoping that this explanation of structure might inspire action in you. Structure leads to Action!

by: JessicaP

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Design Group meets at 1pm on Sundays.

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