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Has 'Occupy' Helped Community Organizers?

75803_495088619877_374520129877_7157322_7767376_nByline: Susan LaTempa

At Liberty Hill’s most recent Brown Bag Seminar (one of an occasional series of timely and intriguing discussions held in our conference room/lunchroom—more info below), three community organizers reflected on the Occupy movement, especially Occupy L.A.  and how it has affected ongoing economic justice campaigns in L.A County.

Amy Schur of Alliance of California for Community Empowerment (ACCE) , Zach Hoover of L.A. Voice PICO  and Paulina Gonzalez of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) gathered at the lunch table with Liberty Hill staffers, grantee group representatives, Liberty Hill Community Funding Board members and Liberty Hill donor-activists. Among the folks who dropped in were former board member and 2011 Founders Award honoree Gary Stewart, CFB members Karen Brodkin and Arline Dillman, and supporter-volunteer Edda Spielman.

Moderator Shane Goldsmith, Liberty Hill’s Vice President/Chief Program Officer asked each of the organizers to talk about how their groups had engaged with Occupy to advance their work.

L.A. Voice is an interfaith, community organization that has members in 20 congregations in Los Angeles and is part of a national network with branches in 150 cities. Zach described how symbiosis between Occupy energy and L.A. Voice’s groundwork resulted in tangible progress. He reported a significant step forward for the Responsible Banking Ordinance, which L.A. Voice had been pushing for from the City Council as a part of a larger bank accountability movement. The ordinance would require banks doing City business to disclose detailed information about their local lending practices to provide a snapshot of how good a neighbor each bank is. In the late fall, as Occupy L.A. captured the city’s attention, supporters on the Council incorporated the Responsible Banking Ordinance into a resolution to support the Occupy movement and —voila!— the ordinance moved on to the budget committee and, in a revised form, has a real chance to succeed. 

“I got this phone call telling me what was going to happen,” remembers Zach, “And at first my reaction was, ‘I wish I would have known.' Then I thought, ‘This is awesome!” He credits the Occupy movement with emboldening advocates and government officials working for reform because so many Americans can say “I am one of the 99%.”

SAJE works for economic democracy, neighborhood integrity and tenants’ rights by taking slumlords to court, helping establish land trusts, and helping find positive solutions to conflicts between institutions and low-income city residents. Paulina described how SAJE, as a member of the national Right to the City Alliance, took members last September to Boston for a long-planned march on the Bank of America that as it turned out, occurred just as Occupy Boston began. The result was a 3,000-strong march against foreclosures that was organized and led by people of color and culminated in acts of civil disobedience.  

SAJE members came back to L.A. and started looking at how the foreclosure crisis was affecting not only homeowners, but tenants, and have been researching how many bank-owned properties house tenants in slum conditions. Paulina noted that the Occupy movement was “shifting the debate” in national political discussion to focus on income equality, a shift that was apparent now in January as Mitt Romney’s tax returns were being released.

ACCE is a multi-racial, democratic, non-profit community organization building power in low to moderate income neighborhoods to stand and fight for social, economic, and racial justice. The fall Occupy actions, said Amy, occurred just when ACCE was escalating  its “Make Banks Pay” campaign. When ACCE member Rose Mary Gudiel, who faced eviction because of a late payment, refused to leave her home, ACCE’s Home Defenders group began to parallel and draw energy from the Occupy movement and a loose-knit confederation of Occupy groups “Occupy Our Homes” began to occupy and hold General Assemblies in foreclosed homes with evicted families.

Amy  says, “They helped us and what we did helped Occupy. It’s about them putting themselves on the line in explosive ways that opens up space for the rest of us. It’s helped keep us going and get to the next phase.”

“Occupy did something bold,” Amy said, “Bold, and kind of weird, in a way.”

The discussion began to move around the room, with attendees offering examples of how the Occupy message had captured people’s imagination, discussing connections to global pro-democracy movements, analyzing how effectively some tactics brought injustices into sharp relief in media coverage, and considering how deeply resonant is the idea—and the image—and the reality— of “claiming space.”

When asked whether Occupy is a movement or a moment, Amy responded with a call to action: "It is what we make of it, so let's make it into the movement we have all been waiting for."

And then we folded up our brown bags and went back to our desks and our days.

If you’d like to participate in a future Brown Bag Seminar at Liberty Hill, please email Sabrina Beason at sbeason@libertyhlil.org and ask to be added to our notification list.

Liberty Hill’s commitment to advance movements for social change through grants, leadership training and alliance building requires all sorts of due diligence. Staff members keep abreast of the work of community organization by attending actions and events, doing site visits, conferring with Community Funding Board members—and by availing ourselves of the educational opportunities of an series of occasional  Brown Bag Seminar lunches organized by Shane Goldsmith, Liberty Hill’s Vice President/Chief Program Officer.

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