Town Hall Meeting – Occupy Wall Street

The room was surging with energy as members of Occupy Wall Street mingled with attendees at the town hall meeting.   Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan, organizers of the event and long time community organizers, invited students, colleagues, and all others interested in learning more about a variety of controversial social issues. This week’s topic: Occupy Wall Street.

The over-arching theme of all ‘Town Hall Meetings’ is the regular practice of democracy. It is assumed that all persons attending understand and respect the fundamental principle that guides the town hall meetings:  with democracy comes a responsibility as citizens, to learn about what is going on in this country and to delve into discussion and debate, freely, as we decide for ourselves what we believe in. Free and open debate, unhindered by intimidation nor disrespect is critical to the success of the meetings. The clock struckseven o’clock and it was time for the meeting to begin.

Mr. Donovan directed the crowd to chairs positioned in a circle, an arrangement intended to facilitate open discussion.  He began the meeting by emphasizing key points. “Democracy is argument,” he explained. He reminded the participants, “the freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted.  SeveralOccupy Wall Street [OWS] members interrupted his remarks to suggest changes to previously established discussion guidelines.  The OWS ideas were overruled respectfully, and the meeting resumed with the customary participant introductions. “We are the 99%… We are the 99%…” Attention was once again directed to a group of OWS members chanting in unison.  As their voices swelled, the room seemed to fill with a sense of unease and tension.  What was the reason for their behavior?  Did the group misunderstand the purpose for and principles of the meeting?  What were the motives?  Whatever the reason, the tenacity of the group was evident as members indirectly intimidated other speakers, challenged Town Hall motives, and criticized the Town Hall image as detrimental to its cause.

Sam, a college aged participant, had observed and listened intently to the interaction between the OWS members and the other attendees.  He was intrigued by the interaction and curious about how the OWS responded to several questions.  Finally, he could hesitate no longer, boldly raised his hand and was invited to speak:  “Currently, I am taking a history class designed to go over American history from 1945 to the present…with that said, it seems that your intentions are good, but it doesn’t seem like the OWS has clear goals and therefore, lacks in credibility. Also, the end goals they do have are not necessarily tangible.”  He paused in anticipation of a response.

A response soon followed. Scott, a self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of OWS, spoke candidly and passionately about his work experience and observations of the movement. “My experience during my first day with OWS triggered a ‘what do YOU want’’ question and made me feel like there were forty people and forty different messages… a bit of a narcissistic movement”.   Scott concluded by explaining that OWS had no other goal but to achieve active involvement. “We cannot all agree…the trouble is getting involved and the problem is the process”.

Harry Boyte, co-planner of the Town Hall Meetings and seasoned organizer, joined the discussion by acknowledging that the movement exposed very vividly the issue of inequality inAmerica. However, he warned the group about the inherent harm of fostering and furthering divisiveness.  Boyte used the example of a woman at the meeting. He described her emotions by saying that she “felt hopeless, OWS gave her hope”. He cautioned, “You cannot go about dividing the world into good and bad and expect to gain momentum and ultimate success”.

The discussion intensified and emotions heightened.  Respectfully, Oliver, a middle-aged gentleman, stood to respond to Boyte’s comment, “Polarization is incredibly dangerous. Yes. But OWS is bringing together a diverse group.  Although, I do not see a middle ground, there is an awful lot of one-liners and rhetoric flying as the gap is widening, and I am seeing a deep fractioning of society”. Likewise, another participant addressed the divisive nature of the “99%” chant.  “Why”, it was asked, do you eliminate the 1% from the discussion table? Isn’t it more productive to include the 100% in the conversation? You advocate for involvement, political change, and empowerment of the citizenry.  Why would you exclude 1% of the population? It has the image of divisiveness and hypocrisy.” The OWS member responded, “The reason why we do not invite the 1% to the table is because they own the table.”

Several participants voiced their opinions regarding the tactics used by the OWS to attract public attention. Hate speech and vulgar actions, it was noted, would eventually destroy the OWS public image and the group’s message. The OWS member placed blame on media’s reporting of events and the tremendous emotional response that ensues when confronting established power. “False media interpretation”, he said, “It gets intense when people go up against power”. Many who sat in the circle of chairs may have considered the OWS GROUP ‘intruders’. Yet, despite this unexpected and uncomfortable intrusion, those in attendance learned much about both sides of the issue. Discussion became intense at times. Yet, the non-OWS participants had an opportunity to hear the issues of the OWS first hand, observe their passion, and gain a better understanding of their position.

The OWS, on the other hand, was the recipient of excellent advice. They learned that the public was confused by the inconsistency of the message, impatient with the polarizing strategies and tactics used, and saw hypocrisy in the group’s policies and beliefs. It became clear that if the OWS movement is to continue and earn public attention and respect, it must achieve a very clear and consistent message, redesign strategies, and invite the 100% to the table.

As a witness to this event, this writer learned a tremendous lesson about democracy. Some participants may have left the meeting feeling angry and disappointed. They may have thought that the meeting had failed in its purpose due to the unexpected conflict and intense dialogue. Some may be disappointed because the meeting did not ‘come off’ as planned.  Others may get lost in determining who one or who lost. Many may be uncomfortable with the tenacity and persistence demonstrated by the participants.  However, this observer believes the meeting was a great success and it fulfilled its intended purpose.  Information was shared, opinions were discussed, and both sides were heard. All one has to do is review Mr. Donovan’s introductory comments:

“Democracy is argument. The freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted.”

 Sarah Sprayberry is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota and       a motivational speaker on the topic of public achievement, democracy and citizenship.

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What is patriotism?

By Megan Felz, Freshman, University of Minnesota

In our ever-changing society, we are constantly faced with the challenge of evolving and adapting to what the world and its situations demand from us.  Along with that, I believe it is important to constantly challenge what we thought we previously knew and develop our beliefs in addition. I was given the ability to do just that when I attended a debate at Trinity Church. Trinity church, a recent addition to the Cedar-Riverside intersection, is located at what was once St. Martin’s Table, a restaurant where 85% percent of their profits were donated to charity. Though St. Martin’s Table is no longer in business, Trinity church does an excellent job at keeping its spirit and values of community alive.

One way they are doing that is by serving as a public forum for people to address and talk about issues that they are passionate or want to learn more about. This debate, moderated by Harry Boyte, was centered around Patriotism, and included a diverse group of individuals of different ages, socio-economic statuses, professions, and beliefs. Accompanying this diverse group of people, came a diverse group of opinions in regards to patriotism, both positive and negative. On a positive side, there were people who were intensely proud of their country and felt a deep connection to it.  On the opposing end, others felt detached and under represented by the idea of patriotism. One person mentioned that they couldn’t identify with “the face” of patriotism, and therefore didn’t feel patriotic. Nonetheless, accepting and building off of these differing viewpoints is part of what makes a debate so exciting and inspirational. And it is through this wide range of people that I was able to get a better idea of what patriotism means to me.

The very idea of debating how we feel about patriotism is, in essence, patriotic. The spirit of democracy is highlighted in a passionate, fervent, and controversial debate. Being merely a presence at such an event, addresses the need to nurture and channel beliefs and opinions, as well as challenge others to do the same. Growing up, I never gave much thought to the idea of patriotism; honestly, prior to this debate, I hadn’t even thought much of it. I thought, since I am American, I was automatically patriotic; I thought I was entitled to carry the label of patriotism and everything that it stands for. I didn’t feel the need, or the urge, to earn the right to use it.  Being patriotic is more than just a label; it is a sense of pride. It is a sense of pride in the values that your country stands for, and a pride that you are able to be a part of it. Having the freedom to share our opinions and the luxury of listening to those of others is one of the most fundamental values of America, and using these values to their utmost extent is just as important.

Another core value that I found in patriotism is taking an active involvement or interest in the well being of your country. I feel that it brings you closer to your country when you have a stake in its well-being. This promotes a sense of unity, responsibility and accountability, which further solidifies the bond of citizen and country. This also holds true on a smaller scale as well. Taking an active role in your community or a common area, such as Trinity Church, I feel is patriotic because it allows for growth as an individual, and the ability to identify with others, by being exposed to other people and experiences.

No matter the extent to which someone believes or identifies with the ideals of patriotism, I still believe that there is a constant need to challenge what society has deemed “patriotic”, and encourage people to form their own ideas in regards to the word.  It is important to nurture and cultivate diversity and use these assets as a means of growing and maturing as individuals.

We need to stop harping on contradicting others and worry less about the need to prove ourselves right, and focus on growth. We need to grow as individuals, in order to help America grow as a country and to see the change that we talk so much about. It is easy to ridicule someone; it is hard to listen and to see the world from their perspective. If the overall goal is to achieve a united front, we first need to clear out the baggage that each person is individually predisposed towards. We need to figure out how to foster a sense of community; but before we ask how, we need to ask why. Why is it so important to create a sense of community? I personally believe that it is because we can get more accomplished together than we can alone. First, we need to foster cooperation in order to eventually establish it. We need to get everyone’s perspective on it, before we can understand our own, and work together on establishing a mutual and unanimous feeling towards accomplishing it. Once we are able to understand and establish a basis of what patriotism means to each of us, we can begin to mold the beliefs of individuals together and construct the role of patriotism in America.

 

Megan Felz is currently a freshman at the University of Minnesota. She is a student in the College of Liberal Arts, and at the moment, undecided in her major, with the intent of a Spanish minor.

 


Post-Event Discussion:”For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission.” We invite all to join us on facebook and twitter @DemocracyU and convene a local debate on the importance of higher education’s civic mission.

Reinventing Citizenship and the Role of Education

Citizenship has different meanings. For some citizenship means voting. Some see it as a legal status, or obeying the law, or being a good person and a role model. To others it means respecting those of different views and backgrounds.  “Productive citizenship” means making a public contribution through work, paid or unpaid – one can be a citizen teacher, a citizen business owner, or a citizen homemaker.There is no single “right answer” to the question, “what is a citizen?”People also have different views on where education for citizenship takes place. Some see families as the main “school for citizenship.” Other stress schools, colleges, universities or religious congregations. Many see all these playing important though differing roles.
 
This discussion is intended to begin an ongoing national conversation on the topic of what is citizenship, what role does civic education and engagement play in being a citizen and how do we educate for it?

Some questions to get you started:

  • If you were explaining the responsibilities that come with being an American citizen to a visitor from another country, what would you say?
  • As citizens, what do you think we owe to future generations?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of different groups (e.g. families, schools, colleges or universities) in educating citizens?
  • What are your ideas for how we can learn to listen to each other and work together across partisan and other divides?
  • What are the skills and values of 21st century citizenship? Do we have new or additional responsibilities that we didn’t have in the past?
  • Do you think it’s important for students to get involved in civic work on campus and in their communities at large?
  • How can civic engagement benefit our democracy as a whole?
Suggested reading materials and resources:
 
A Crucible Moment: Civic Learning and America’s Future
DemocracyU- American Commonwealth Partnership’s website.
Center for Democracy and Citizenship The Center for Democracy and Citizenship collaborates with a variety of partners to promote active citizenship and public work by people of all ages. The center’s work is grounded in the belief that a healthy democracy requires everyone’s participation, and that each of us has something to contribute.
National Issues Forums InstituteNational Issues Forums (NIF) is a network of civic, educational, and other organizations, and individuals, whose common interest is to promote public deliberation in America. It has grown to include thousands of civic clubs, religious organizations, libraries, schools, and many other groups that meet to discuss critical public issues. Forum participants range from teenagers to retirees, prison inmates to community leaders, and literacy students to university students.NIF does not advocate specific solutions or points of view but provides citizens the opportunity to consider a broad range of choices, weigh the pros and cons of those choices, and meet with each other in a public dialogue to identify the concerns they hold in common.

Highlights From

A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future

A report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement


In response to widespread concern about the nation’s anemic civic health, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future calls for investing in higher education’s capacity to make civic learning and democratic engagement widely shared national priorities.  The report calls on higher education and many partners in education, government, and public life to advance a 21st century conception of civic learning and democratic engagement as an expected part of every student’s college education.

 A New Vision for Civic Learning in Higher Education

An earlier definition of civic education stressed familiarity with the various branches of government and acquaintance with basic information about U.S. history.  This is still essential but no longer nearly enough.  Americans still need to understand how their political system works and how to influence it.  But they also need to understand the cultural and global contexts in which democracy is both deeply valued and deeply contested.  Moreover, the competencies basic to democracy  cannot be learned only by studying books; democratic knowledge and capabilities are honed through hands-on, face-to-face, active engagement in the midst of differing perspectives about how to address common problems that affect the well-being of the nation and the world.

Civic learning that includes knowledge, skills, values, and the capacity to work with others on civic and societal challenges can help increase the number of informed, thoughtful, and public-minded citizens well  prepared to contribute in the context of the diverse, dynamic, globally connected United States.  Civic learning should prepare students with knowledge and for action in our communities.

Components of 21st century civic learning should include:

  • Knowledge of U.S. history, political structures, and core democratic principles and founding documents; and debates—US and global—about their meaning and application;
  • Knowledge of the political systems that frame constitutional democracies and of political levers for affecting change;
  • Knowledge of diverse cultures and religions in the US and around the world;
  • Critical inquiry and reasoning capacities;
  • Deliberation and bridge-building across differences;
  • Collaborative decision-making skills;
  • Open-mindedness and capacity to engage different points of view and cultures;
  • Civic problem-solving skills and experience
  • Civility, ethical integrity, and mutual respect.
To advance this vision, The National Task Force urges Americans to:
  1. Reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education
  2. Enlarge the current national narrative that erases civic aims and civic literacy as educational priorities contributing to social, intellectual, and economic capital
  3. Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning—embracing US and global interdependence—that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem-solving
  4. Capitalize upon the interdependent responsibilities of K-12 and higher education to foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student
  5. Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge

A Crucible Moment provides specific campus examples illustrating how to move from “partial transformation to pervasive civic and democratic learning and practices.”

See www.aacu.org/civic_learning/crucible for full report; see Chapter 3 for full set of recommendations.


[1] Adapted from the National Issues Forums Institute