Saturday, November 10, 2012

My First Day With Occupy Sandy

Kendra and I went to check out one of the two major headquarters of the Occupy Sandy hurricane relief effort. Anyone reading who's ever been part of Scav Hunt at the University of Chicago would instantly feel at home. Same form of no-budget organized chaos, only this time instead of trying make an x-wing out of Paris Metro tickets, contacting a medal of honor recipient, or cobbling together a nuclear reactor, we're trying to help people who've been hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy and it's aftershock nor'easter.

This is Occupy, so yes, it's ostensibly political. There's an orientation every half hour where they make the point that our job is not charity, it's something they call "mutual aid." In other words, the mission is not to parachute in, drop blankets and food randomly, and leave. It's to come in and see what's already on the ground and how we can best help, even if it's just listening to people, and often it's following orders of people who live in the communities and know much better what's going on than any of us. Also just as important, the help is for you, too. All volunteers need to take care of themselves and each other.

Granted, the manner of the presentation will turn some people off in being overly generalized. Even those who like the sound of an anit-racist, anti-classist, etc. movement would be a bit irked by the attitude with which the platform is presented to new recruits in this orientation, but their hearts are clearly in the right place, the orientation only takes about ten minutes and is then done, and more importantly these people are organized and they know what they are doing.

How organized? Slate thinks they just might be outdoing the Red Cross. If Kendra and my experience were any example, as soon as we came in with donations (which we had seen calls for on their site), unannounced, at a time nobody had asked for people, we were effortlessly funneled first to a table where we could drop stuff off, then to a coat check, then to an orientation which started in less than ten minutes, to a second canvassers orientation, then to join a group that was ready to go with a van, fully supplied, to Coney Island. As they gave us flashlights, ways to contact the system to tell HQ what was needed where, we were informed that social workers would be on hand to talk to us afterwards about our experiences if we needed someone to debrief with, and we were encouraged to grab something to eat from the kitchens if we were hungry (though they were so quick that we didn't have time, so we just snacked from the cooler our driver had been provisioned with instead in the van).

Key to the system in place is a knowledge of community organization from the activist founders of the original occupy wall street movement, and clear setup that conveys as much information as possible with as little human resources wasted as possible. Unlike most other volunteer organizations, they accept everyone who comes and wants to help, no questions. You very well could end up just picking up trash around the neighborhood, but you will be doing something. The sheer numbers ensure that something is getting done, and the leaderless lateral system of communications ensures that if someone screws up, the mistake is channeled back to HQ, learned from, and adapted to future teams and efforts so that it (probably) won't be made again.

As someone who is applying to graduate schools to learn about international development, I feel I just might learn more from these guys on how to run an effective development organization than I'd learn almost anywhere else.

The New York Times ran a great article on how it looks in there:

In short, while I always sympathised with the Occupy Wall Street movement, I used to not feel they were all that effective because of lack of goals. Suddenly, they have a goal, they have relevance, and oh man, are they effective.

Check em out:

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