Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Occupy: A Conversation on Activism, Education and Language

On Sunday April 29, in Knox Presbyterian Church, there was a gathering of individuals, but instead of a Presbyterian church service, which, as Neil Wilson pointed out, politely and willingly displaced to the basement, there was a meeting of minds and curious folk who sought to find out about or discuss further the most recent grassroots movement for social change, the Occupy movement.


The event was well organized, formative, and attendees were treated to a brief synopsis of each speaker’s—Amanda Joy, Joel Westheimer, and Jacqueline Kennelly —perspective on the Occupy movement, followed by an enlightening question and answer period hosted by Neil Wilson.  From the beginning it became clear that a conversation about the Occupy movement and the issue of activism would also involve a conversation on morality and ethical responsibility; making it not so much different, perhaps, from the meeting downstairs.


After a brief introduction, Jacqueline Kennelly took to the stage. Taking a more academic approach, she focused her discussion on youth activism. She argued that the Occupy movement is important because it manages to shift society’s idea of “what is okay” in a culture that defines itself by “the way we live in the world today”. To her, “culture” is as natural “as the way we breathe”; however, it makes us complacent on what we believe to be a propriety, or “common sense”.  Reading from her novel, Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era, she was quick to identify the stigma that most youth activists face of being “troublemakers” and “rabble-rousers” and of the contrary and contradictory relationship between the good activist and good citizen. 


Next to speak, Amanda Joy’s perspective is that of one within the center of the movement looking out. An activist, she described her participation in the Québec City Protest of 2001 as a “personal transformation”, in which she realized that there where others who could imagine “alternatives” to the hierarchal government system.   She described the Occupy movements as being about “producing meaningful social change” and seeking to “illustrate how disconnected issues are inter-related, where there are no elites making decisions”, but rather where every decision made seeks to work towards “non-coerced agreement”.  Her insider perspective was educated and hopeful, yet she was clear that the Occupy movement is not an exclusive movement.


Joel Westheimer was last to speak, and with him the conversation quickly turned to how certain organizations and media outputs were quick to note the “insignificance” of the impact of the Occupy movement. He, rather, wanted to highlight its success. The words “income inequalities” and “99% versus 1%” are now, thanks to the Occupy movement, part of society’s current language. He argues that “economical disparity is now of medieval proportions” and the inequalities affect society’s educational institutions.  He says that education is now a matter of mathematics and literacy test scores, dehumanizing the process of education.  “What is worth reading?” “What do the numbers add up too?” As he sees it, the Occupy movement made possible the conversation of educational narrowness manifesting the possibility for change.


As the panel was open to questions, the conversation further developed into a discourse education and technology. Is education limiting or freeing?  Does technology hinder or help activism? As Joy is quick to note, the most important part of activism is participation. Joel sums it up best when he notes that “half of social justice is social”. To him, “the language of Occupy is the language of participation”.


In the end, this was an afternoon of questions asked rather than of questions answered, and as long as the conversation continues with movements like Solidarity Against Austerity, so too, does the hope for social change.