Guest Blogger! Ray Shonholtz on Occupy Wall Street

At 11:30 am, on the 17th day of December 2010, 26 year old Mohammed Bouazizi, an impoverished high school graduate, pour gasoline on himself in front of the provincial headquarters where he was denied redress for confiscation by the police of his unlicensed vegetable cart. 28 days later, the 23 year old regime of dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali collapsed, so great was the sound of Mohammed’s burnt voice to the citizens of Tunisia.  Mohammed ignited a courageous conversation in one of the Middle East’s worst authoritarian societies and galvanized a nation out of lethargy into direct political action.

Was Mohammed’s an act of desperation or a statement needing to be heard that only flames could enunciate?  If his was a personal grievance, but others took it as their grievance then for them was his immolation a courageous conversation about what they knew he meant?

And, what was Mohammed’s act to them:  the voice of, the speaker for, immediate Change; Mohammed lit the light for change and, like tinder brush of oppression dried under the heel of despotism, that light combusted, spreading like a conflagration across the Middle East.  Change is about the resolute actor(s) and propitious timing.

Not all courageous conversations have begun with such drastic, horrific beginning points.  Gandhi walked to the sea in a march against the colonial salt tax, breaking the back of the British lion.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and Freedom Riders were beaten and killed for their courageous, resolute effort to respect the human dignity of others.  Courageous conversations always invoke risk and danger; otherwise, they are not courageous.

Of the three women who received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, all of them are initiators of courageous conversations, one, Tawakul Karman, is a close friend of Nadwa Al-Dawsari, Director, Partners’ Yemeni Center.  Nadwa describes Tawakul as a liberal Islamist voice for democracy in Yemen, resolute in her intentions to make peaceful change in Yemen, beginning with organizing media professionals against censorship and recently centered on sitting in a tent in Sana’s Square to bear witness to the deaths and injuries of democracy protesters. Tawakul seeks in her dedicated work to create “space” to advocate for free speech and change within the context of building democracy and human dignity in her country.


What is the precondition for a courageous conversation?  A resolute character or persons of obstinate intent.  The effort is courageous because it is fraught with danger, risk, and penalties, and often death.

When repression is great the courage of those engaged in change is heroic; itself a synonym for courageous.

But not all courageous conversations are heroic, but they are always about change.  When a conversation becomes a movement for change, which reflects broad discontent, then the conditions for change become ever more possible.  The Arab Spring in every country is a movement.  Solidarity’s uprising against Polish communism in 1989 was the catalyst for the Central and Eastern European democracy movement or spring of the 1990’s.

What do past and present courageous conversations have to do with us now? 

All of us here, everyone in the Mediation Association are trained to, and most often predisposed toward, facilitating change, creating a platform for change, or promoting the listening channels for change. We are rarely the resolute character or persons with obstinate intent seeking change.

Yet, the heroic actor and resolute characters create the opportunity for the exercise of our values, work and expertise.    We have a critical, essential, and invaluable role in making change peaceful, effective, and relevant.

When Solidarity in 1990 took over the Polish government, creating the first free government in Poland since 1938, tenacious, resolute, and obstinate people and their leaders transformed their 10 year struggle against communism into a duly elected democratic government.  In the first negotiation training for the Presidium of Solidarity Labor, the political leadership of Poland, in March 1991, Partners for Democratic Change encountered a challenge.  Why, asked the 30 labor leaders in the five-day residential training, did they need to be trained in negotiation skills when they had just negotiated the communist out of government?  The training came to a halt.  Over piwo and hours of listening, the deeper reasons for their participation in the training came forth.  The quality of life issues that they had fought for against the communists were still with them against their own Solidarity, elected, democratic government: health, environment, wages, schools, etc., were still present in everyday life.  Oppression was gone but the repression of everyday life was not.   They wanted change.  They knew and had the tools for negotiating with an enemy, the communist party, but they did not have the psychology, skills or methods for negotiating with their democratic friends in government.   They needed us.  Their courageous conversations over a 10 year period punctuated with much pain and suffering, set the platform for Partners’ Center, training programs, and ultimately training over 1000 wage negotiators throughout Poland.

Change is about engaging the “other” in a manner that provokes something new.  Too often violence is the provoking agent.  Yet violence, as we know from our professional work, is the highest level of “ratching up” legitimate concerns, as all other softer methods have often failed.  The sine quo non of change is not violence; it is the steady, unyielding perseverance of socially righteous goals.

Now in our own country a courageous conversation is taking place.

“Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) is a courageous conversation.  It does not, as yet require heroism, but it does require resolute actors, an inclusion of the “other”, and righteous goals.

While the “Tea Party” was a challenge to Republican mainstream politics, the OWS challenges the very economic foundation of the nation by asking questions about social justice, equity, and whether this and the next generation can have and secure lives better than their parent’s generation, the essence of the America work ethic and dream.  The politics of an economy based on quarterly returns, short-term goals, and immediate gratification—forging policies for today without regard for its consequences tomorrow–is under sever scrutiny, if not, assault.  From Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, a movement is shaping up that transcends the politics and short-sighted policies for questions the answers to which may return the nation to a vision of social and economic justice and equitable sharing in the body politic.  These are righteous goals.

There is a critical dimension in the OWS movement rare in American history:  “Millennials” that unique group born in the 1980’s and 1990’s, who see America from a perspective different than any similar American age group.  Many have lived, been schooled, and shared America’s post-1980’s diversity of culture and education. They understand that conversation means listening, speaking, participating, inclusion, and shared responsibility.  They are suspicious of decision-makers, but not transparent decision-making.  They resist hierarchy, seeking social networking as some variant of order.  They have ethics, social-networking skills, and some organizational experience.  Sounds like the values of America’s mediating profession, which itself started like a progressive effort for opening the calcified structures of institutional justice.  Millennials have many of the values of the “mediating movement” that began over 35 years ago.

In contrast to the Tea Party, which became political quickly and party-oriented, the OWS movement is working hard not to move in this direction.  “We are not going to make demands. We are not going to become a political party.  The second we start making demands, we start splintering,” said Sonia Silbert, an activist in Occupy DC, in a recent WSJ interview.  The very fact that the OWS focus is unfocused on specific politics and more on the economic conditions that make for the politics that we have speaks to the search that is going on for a broad, meaningful change not immediately in the lives of citizens, but in the long term direction of the country.

In addition to being resolute and having righteous goals, OWS needs to value and express the full legitimatization of the “other”, clearly avoiding de-humanization and demonization of those that are the subject of change.  Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s greatest allies were those who were “on the other side”, yet were not shamed for it or delegitimated because of it.  OWS moral and organizational strength lies in full inclusion, challenging efforts at creating enemies.   Here, we can be most helpful by values, training, and experience.

To be successful, OWS will have to “link-out”: they will have to move into concentric directions reaching those who feel a common level of dissatisfaction and deep concern for the national well-being.  This is not a party-like activity or some opportunity for party co-option.  Rather, it is more like a coming convention on common values, directions, and economic opportunity at the local to national level.  The effort not to be defined bespeaks the intention not to be “something” to some established political order.

While it is difficult in America’s “do-oriented” culture to motivate from a negative, OWS probably agree on the inscription of the East Side of the Oregon Capitol’s building:  “A free state is formed and is maintained by the voluntary union of the whole people joined together under the same body of laws for the common welfare and sharing of benefits justly apportioned.”

To make meaning out of broad inclusion and participation calls for the skills of those who know how to build coalitions, consensus, and shared vision, purpose, and plans; in short, for you, people with negotiating, communication, conciliation, and consensus skills.  This is made the easier for the mediating movement, as, contrary to pop-pundits and the like, the OWS are neither right nor left, Republican nor Democratic, rather, they are the low, middle and working classes.

The OWS movement needs the mediating movement, as the latter can articulate the platform of a “mediating future” that explores the needs of the former.  While they frame a discourse, who do they want to talk with?  Here an assessment mapping of potential “stakeholders”, allies, and participants, especially at the local level, would:

  • Solidify intentions
  • Explore the reality of a shared vision
  • Identify those needed to be included to make for an expanded and inclusive conversation
  • Shape the contours of options and issues
  • Identify areas where more knowledge is needed
  • Galvanize commitment to specific policies and actions
  • Articulate positive and non-enemy rhetoric

What if OWS should be offered a “negotiating table” what would they say or do?

In answer to the question, lies the larger engagement and transformative challenge that OWS offers us, mediators, negotiators, facilitators, cooperative planners, trainers, and communicators.

The mediating movement needs to open a courageous conversation with OWS, offering all that we have within the context of the ethics of Millennials.  What might we offer?

Mutual inclusion with in the values of the OWS, namely that all of us are part of the coming storm of discontent and want to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship.

Promoting, teaching, and offering skills in listening and speaking.

Experience in collaborative settings, including:

  • Ground rules for non-judgmental listening and communicating;
  • Issues that concern one side or party are in reality issues for the whole group to address and problem-solve;
  • Clarifying decision-making process before issues are discussed or decisions required;
  • Clarifying what is meant by transparency;
  • Practicing how to design and use a negotiating table;
  • Learning how to address issues raised by “spoilers”;

And the many other methods, skills and processes rich within our mediating world experience.

Concrete Steps:

Nearly all Occupied areas are now under internal and external threat:

Internally, there are fundamental issues of security, health, and social interactions.  In any large encampment rules need to be made regarding how security is maintained for occupiers, health conditions observed, and social engagement made positive.  Here those with mediation and consensus building skills can be very useful.

Further, externally, occupiers need to reach out to public authorities, ensuring liaison with police, health, and environmental agencies and facilities, ensuring that local laws are  respected and mutually taken into account.  Again, this is a good area for the application of negotiation and cooperative planning skills available within the mediation movement.

While having learnt a great deal from my 12 years as founder and President of the Community Board Program in San Francisco, one of the primary lessons concerns the critical importance of local capacity building through training and education as a vehicle for change.  The trainers in this effort were the beneficiaries of dispute resolution themselves and neighbors living in the very locales that would benefit most directly from a new system of dispute management that put trained citizens as dispute interveners of first resort, not police, courts, or the institutional system.

Moreover, sharing skills through dialogue, education, and training is both bridge-building and confidence building, leveling the field between provider and recipient, which is critical to the alliance that is possible between OWS and the mediation movement.

Further, if there is one lesson that is overarching from my founding and leading Partners for Democratic Change over 20 years is the critical importance of building structures that are vessels for knowledge dissemination, aggregation, and improvement.  I can see a “Mediating Future” where the differences between people, groups, and policy-makers are themselves courageous conversations enjoying consensus-building, participatory platforms.  This might create a continuity of effort new to the political discourse , opening the pathway for shared expertise in consensus-building on issues that not only achieve broad agreement, but stronger working relationships for change.

The OWS are awakening the country to issues that transcend the quarterly bottom line, political achievement by score card, and the empty national rhetoric of bi-partisanship. They are the courageous conversation at this moment and worthy of support for our and their long term civic, personal, and national self-interest and well-being.

Will they reach out? May be not, as many do not know what we have to offer.  As Steve Jobs so eloquently responded when asked if anyone wanted what he sought to produce:  “No, how could they; they do not know what it is.”

Our job in this decade is to let them know “what it is” and to build the bridges that will solidify a discourse so desperately needed for the well-being of America.


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