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helping organisations to be more like people

‘Occupy Sandy operationalised Occupy Wall Street’

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

This summer I met two activists in New York City who had helped spearhead Occupy Sandy, a self-organised disaster relief effort that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street networks after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. I wrote this piece for rabble.ca, but wanted to share the two interviews in their whole, because they were so damn good. Below is the audio and transcript of my interview with Michael Premo. Stay tuned for the 2nd interview, with Tammy Shapiro.

michael premo

Michael Premo of Occupy Sandy

Normally when I interview activists or staff from organisations and movements about something they’ve been involved with, I end up adding a ‘meta-narrative’ explaining how their story fits into a range of wider trends I am exploring. With Michael Premo, a film maker and housing justice advocate who helped kick-off a self-organised disaster relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I didn’t have to add a word.

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How things kicked-off

Occupy Sandy started the day of the storm. So there was a couple efforts happening. The sort of person-to-person effort that was occurring, was myself, a friend, Diego, Laura Schlomo, a couple other people, just headed out after the storm, to just check on people, to see what was what and what was happening and who was doing what. At the same time as our friends, Bobby and Brie, were driving out to the Rockaways and some of the neighbourhoods, Breezy Point, that were on fire. And I had a relationship with a group in Red Hook, called the Red Hook Initiative. And I just literally called them cold on the phone to see if anyone would answer the phone at their office, as we were driving down into Red Hook. I talked to them and I said, ‘Look, we want to help you help your community in any way that we can. What we can provide is the potential to be able to amplify your needs throughout our networks, so that you can identify what you need and we can support you getting what your need and support you until you’re at a point where you’re up and running and back in your normal functioning. And that became the first site of Occupy Sandy, which was in Red Hook. And then we sort of set out with that explicit intention to be able to support community-led rebuilding hubs throughout the city and we called those sites hubs.

And throughout the city we just went kinda door-to-door, and were talking to people who owned store fronts or had churches, saying ‘Hey, how can we help support you, and compliment the resources you’re getting through your networks, so that we can really work together?’

At the same time there was this sort of like emergence of people who wanted to help, and trying to figure out how to help. And so what happened was this network of little drop-off sites emerged in people’s lobbies, on their street corners where people were like, ‘well I didn’t get hit, but I have a front porch. If people want to drop of stuff on my porch or in my building, you can drop off stuff and then we’ll figure out how to bring it out to the areas.’There was one story of one girl who volunteered to do that and her neighbours got up in arms, she had no idea, her whole hallway was filled with goods that you couldn’t even get in and out of the hallway, so, people had to kinda scramble to get all that stuff into two or three carloads.

The transition to longer-term support

There was a group of folks within Occupy Sandy who understood that there are really multiple disasters; there’s the initial disaster and then there’s the long-term disaster that happens after the sorta volunteers leave, after the cameras leave, that is deeply related to the failures and ongoing crisis of capitalism as a system. And so we wanted to set up our initial, our goal was to set up the initial house with the stated and implicit intention to be able to have community-led rebuilding, so that when we got to that point when we were transitioning away from immediate relief, and into a sort of longer-term recovery and rebuilding and redevelopment phases, there would be some type of infrastructure, some type of support network, to be able to support for that long haul.So in about, I would say between December and March, the efforts started to transition from the immediate relief, to the sort of longer-term recovery.

What was the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy?

So there’s this theory, there’s this school of thought called ‘complex sciences.’ In those, one of those ideas is network theory and there’s another theory is called ‘emergence.’ Some people have written that in order to support the emergence of social movements, it’s necessary to develop a community of practice, right? Shared values, shared principles, that has a sort of like, cohesion and language and way of working, that will kind of support the further emergence of sort of, positive activity and positive action, right? So Occupy Wall Street in a lot of ways was sort of the seeds that helped create a community of practice. And what happened with Occupy Sandy is in a lot of ways we operationalized some of the more abstract ideas that were floating around Occupy Wall Street. So what I mean by that is sort of lateral, horizontal sort of approaches to, sort of, problem solving, as well as analysis, right? So if you could free up those systems of being able to sort of analyse a problem, being able to, like, strategize a problem, and being able to, like, implement those strategies, and open that up to a lateral or horizontal structure, so that you’re really supporting creativity, innovation from your community, to be able to like, really problem solve in a dynamic way, that speaks to and represents the inclinations and desires of multiple segments of your society, or of your community. It really creates the conditions to really have a robust, and really dope solution, right? And so with Occupy Wall Street, it created a cadre of people that sorta had worked together, had a working relationship, had a degree of sorta like a community around how and what they wanted to see in the world. So when Occupy Sandy hit what happened was those kind of tendencies and ideas were able to be turned into like, robust, sophisticated operation. In terms of Occupy Wall Street, I think there’s been three phases.

There’s the initial phase, which is the 53 days of the physical occupation. Then there was the second phase, which I think includes things like Occupy Homes and StrikeDebt, which sort of stretched over the year. And then you had Occupy Sandy, which really put into practice some of these goals and ideas, right?

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My new book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ available in paperback and epub now.

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Anarchists in the boardroom

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Are our organisations hearing the lessons of the Occupy movement? If we want to be more human, there’s definitely a thing or two they could be teaching us… [ADDITION: if you’re looking for my book that I ended up re-using this title for, you can find it here.]

Humanize coverI’m reading ‘Humanize: Why people-centric organisations succeed in a social world’. So far it’s excellent! Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant have written the closest thing to a ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ manifesto that I’ve seen. Their understanding of the deeply de-humanising traits of our institutions, as well as the alternatives that social media is beginning to model is spot on! As a bit (lot?) of a management geek, it excites me as much as any book has since the heavily-referenced (by me) ‘Getting to Maybe: How the world is changed’

But it is also misses something. (Every book does – no subject can ever be addressed in its entirety in a single publication.)

The book starts from the radical premise that our rigid, hierarchical organisational structures are unequipped to face the challenges of an increasingly networked world, across all sectors and types of organisations, and that social media is beginning to model alternative, more human ways of getting things done. Ace.

But here’s another step beyond: what if the ways of organising that traditional organisations are learning from social media have been practiced in some circles for many decades before? And what if those who have been practicing them have done so in a world so foreign to management theorists, as to almost not exist?

Introducing, anarchy…

I would argue (maybe unsurprisingly, as I’m writing a book on the theme) that the systems of social media are simply the ‘systems’ of anarchism (or perhaps more succinctly, grassroots activism), scaled-up. Decentralised, non-hierarchical, autonomous, processes of making decisions and getting things done, have been at the core of the current Occupy movement, but also its predecessors in the climate justice and anti-globalisation movements (and many movements before them, too).

This is why these movements have been able to take social media in stride and run with it, while most traditional organisations have superficially embraced new technologies, but actively fought tooth-and-nail against them in most of their practical manifestations.

While some of the initial shock may have worn off, think, from a traditional organisational perspective, how ludicrous the idea that nearly 1000 cities around the world would feature activists encampments in their economic centres, diametrically opposed to the predominant activities taking place in those same places?

Yet, somehow, it has happened.

Tens of thousands of people are being communally fed and sheltered, while carving-out the early etchings of a political alternative to an unsustainable status quo, without any of the management systems we might have thought essential to such an operation… Surely, there’s something managers could take away from this?

Why activists ‘get’ social media

Occupy, like several movements before it in the last decade, are ahead of the curve when it comes to social media, because it comes so naturally to people who have never believed in hierarchy, silos, traditional notions of expertise, or strategic planning. Anarchists skipped that couple century-blip we seem to be at the tail-end of, of ‘humans thinking they can turn a bunch of other humans into a well-oiled machine’.

We are the 99%One of the key messages I’ve taken from my time with these movements has been the value of ‘undefined engagement’ – giving people the chance to get involved in something they truly believe in, in whatever ways they choose to (social media has clear parallels). This is likely to be a massive challenge for traditional organisations – particularly those that exist primarily to make money. But perhaps one of the truly revolutionary lessons that Occupy can bring to the world of business, is that if we want to harness the potential of people, making money will not (on its own) be the way to do it. Purpose is critical, as is an increasing level of autonomy…

So while I absolutely commend Jamie and Maddie’s work on Humanize, I also challenge it to go a step further: learn from the hippies, learn from the anarchists, learn from the folks out on the streets of New York, London, Oakland and so many other cities, who are ‘doing’ Humanize, and have been since before there was social media to put it into the spotlight.

Flipping our notions of ‘expertise’

The world of management has for decades looked down its nose at activists, even when they have achieved massive change in the world, whether ending wars or apartheid, or winning voting or civil rights for all. In doing so, a lot of important learning has been largely ignored.

Maybe it’s time that view was turned around and the organisations that are increasingly struggling to maintain themselves on yesterday’s systems, swallowed their pride and asked a scruffy anarchist what they should be doing differently in the boardroom?

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