We the People: Civic Engagement as a Systemic Process

One of three conversation maps from the workshop.

We’ve all seen it: photos of young and old people of all colors and sizes holding up incisive and sometimes sassy cardboard signs commenting on or accusing big business, government, the Man of all the things that are true and relevant about our times that need to change. And these days, there is a surge of these photos far and wide from cities all across the world. What are they doing? They are participating in an egalitarian process that is known as the Occupy Movement.

There is a strong legacy of civic engagement stemming back to the 1910s and the Suffragette Movement, the 1920s during the Depression, the 1960s protesting the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. Despite, or perhaps in spite of the historical significance of change through protestation, the public perception of the Occupy Movement has been mixed, confused and muddled:

young disenfranchised youth protesting economic hardship; homeless people camping out on city hall lawns and in parks; hooligans rustling up trouble and making extraordinary messes; the unemployed grumbling instead of trying to find a job. All of this has pointed to the fact that very few people listening to mainstream media have a clear understanding about the real aim of the Occupy Movement.

We were curious about this perception and we saw incredible value to the energy and enthusiasm lighting people’s fires in Occupies across the land. We wanted to learn more, and find out what it was that people needed that we might be able to provide. An initial query led to the reality that new social technologies are needed that empower groups to quickly share information and move into strategies–no matter the content, and without a focus on personality. We were excited: we knew the systemic methods we work with could serve to meet this need.

Emerging Themes Group Notes

We decided to host a free two-day facilitation-development lab for people involved in the Occupy Movement at Rudolf Steiner College on January 21-22. Thirteen participants showed-up from all over: Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley, Sonoma County, and Sacramento. They came with a wide range of experiences and levels of engagement in the Occupy Movement. Together, we learned more about systemic processes that nurture egalitarian engagement, transparency, and community building. We also examined some of the challenges facing the Occupy Movement with particular emphasis on how General Assemblies (GAs) are run; how people easily burn out; how difficult it is to translate the characteristics of the Occupy Movement in mainstream media because there is no central demand–which has been the characteristic outreach tactic from previous civic movements.All of these issues were explored systemically: everyone got their say, everyone felt empowered to have something to offer, everyone walked away with an significant new tool in their toolbox.
Occupy is taking a stand against the system that has distorted and trapped our humanity; it is about a reclamation of that humanity. I think of the spectrum of participants and of all that came out of our workshop: what emerged was a greater interest in bridging the gap between those who “get it” and those who don’t. We were renewed in our enthusiasm to continue to engage systemic processes that inspire everyone to participate in shaping a social order that is well balanced between form and freedom. 
We’ll continue to explore these threads and more in May at our next Collecting the Wisdom of the Crowd workshop.  More to come soon.
Leslie Loy has worked in the non-profit sector for over ten years, focusing on integrating youth and social technologies to impact social renewal. Her work with youth began in her teens when she become a youth advocate and representative on numerous community-wide groups and facilitated a peer-led, self-organized regional publication. She has been active in giving voice to youth social activists and providing diverse forums for them to engage in, both on and off-line. She was a founder and later Director of WeStrive.org, an alternative social networking platform, a Community Facilitator for the Anthroposophical Youth Section in North America, she lived and worked in a Camphill community supporting young adults with special needs and abilities, and a volunteer coordinator for college students to become actively involved in addressing complex issues within their own communities.

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