The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

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Do appearances matter in advancing social change?

The Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gather steam, and also elicit a lot of very angry negative reactions.  As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” OWS is firmly in the ridicule stage, having progressed to the point where the movement can no longer be ignored.  That is a major accomplishment no matter how you look at it, although it is only getting past stage one in Gandhi’s terms.

People who either fear, resent or disagree with the OWS movement are seizing on the most irrelevant aspects of those who are protesting. They are not asking why thousands of people all over country, and the world, are protesting. They are not trying, even for one second, to understand why people might in large numbers feel disenfranchised, desperate and dispirited. They are, though, spending lot of emotional energy harping on how the demonstrators look and dress.  It reminds me of the worst of school yard bullying. And OWS is doing a great job of playing into their hands.

There was a reason that Congressman John Lewis and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement dressed the way they did – in suits and ties as they sat in at lunch counters across the South or marched across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was not because they were hoping that a financial firm might notice their professional dress and offer them the chance to interview for a job.  It was because they wanted to put a human face on the movement – a face that would look much like the very one that was fighting against them. 

The folks within OWS might want to take a page out of the Civil Rights play book.  Imagine what would happen if the protesters were dressed in suits and ties.  Do you think the dialogue might be different? Can you image the UC Davis police pepper spraying a peaceful group of professionally dressed young adults versus a group “hippies in hoodies and jeans?” It would be a lot harder for the people who disagree with this movement to talk and act the same way.  OWS is giving its detractors valuable, albeit irrelevant, ammunition with which to hammer it.  I think that OWS could do a lot for their cause if they thought a bit more about what it would mean to “dress for success”.   As they continue to gather steam, coalesce around a clearer set of ideas and intended outcomes, and move to stage three of this journey, they would greatly diminish their detractors’ ability to belittle them.  It certainly worked 50 years ago and I bet it would work just as well today.

Is there Tea Brewing?

I spent an hour or so walking around the tent village known as Occupy Boston.  Located in Dewey Square, only a few steps from our offices in the heart of Boston’s financial district, it was a convenient detour. I debated for a few minutes whether my standard suit and tie would be appropriate attire, but in the end assumed (correctly as it turns out) that I wouldn’t be judged immediately based on my appearance.  Although it was hard to find people in charge, the village itself seemed well organized.  There were signs for “Legal Services” and “Logistics,” people tapping away on laptops, preparing food and even a library.  The whole thing felt more like a somewhat Bohemian college campus than an angry protest.

Three thoughts came to mind as I wandered around:

1. First, I could not help but compare this protest to Year Up’s Walk for Opportunity, which began one year ago in the very same square. Our walk brought together several hundred people to raise awareness of the need to provide greater opportunity for urban young adults.  Last year, we marched from Dewey Square to the Boston Common; this year (since Dewey Square was… occupied) we gathered in the Common and held a moving rally lead by our students and graduates. Here were several hundred young men and women, most of color, dressed in business attire – all setting a positive, professional and inspirational tone.  This is what the future ranks of our city’s professionals will look like.  We were all focused on a clear, positive and poignant message: Our nation needs to provide greater access and opportunity for our urban young adults, who are assets – not liabilities – and critical components of the US economic engine.  Why is it that the same media covering the Occupy Boston protest paid so little attention to this demonstration by the Opportunity Movement?  Was it because we had something to be for rather than against?

2.  How are the goals of the Opportunity Movement related to those of the protest on Dewey Square? While I am sympathetic to those who are protesting, it is a fact that Year Up would not exist if it weren’t for the generosity of the 1%.  Vilifying all people who have accumulated wealth is not helpful in creating more opportunity for those who lack it, nor is casting a spell over all of Wall Street.  Clearly, there were many wrongs committed in the build-up to the financial collapse, but concluding from this that all rich people are evil and all Wall Street firms are malevolent is just as pernicious as saying that all poor people are lazy.  I have concluded that the Occupy Movement and Year Up are coming at a similar problem from very different angles.

3. Are these protests the start of something big?  I think they are, and my prediction is that 1) these movements build rather than shrink, 2) they influence the next Presidential election in a serious way and are credited with helping to keep Obama in office, and 3) they result in the creation of a new political force to rival the Tea Party.  Walking through Dewey Square, I thought the people had dug in for the long haul, and that they knew they were onto something important. Thirty years of rising income inequality, declining social mobility and increased levels of poverty are starting to take their toll, and too many people are feeling excluded from the promise of the American dream.  Turning our eyes from what we are seeing, or dismissing it as a short lived “hippie” protest, is ignoring some major macroeconomic and social trends that have been brewing in our nation over decades.

Speaking of brewing, my hope is that the Occupy protest begins to clarify itself, and ultimately coalesces into a positive force for change. I hope that its message becomes one for increased opportunity for all rather than a rant against the wealthy or Wall Street.  My advice is that a few folks from Occupy Wall Street take time to learn about what is happening in less than two weeks at the Opportunity Nation Summit in NYC.   That is where we need to head as a nation, and what ultimately will help unite rather than divide us.

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