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A Conversation With Van Jones: Understanding Movement Building–The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and Philanthropy

Monday, November 21, 2011

The energy in the room at last month’s NCG program with Van Jones was palpable, the kind of excitement that develops when you have a perfect combination of an engaging speaker and a momentous topic with far-reaching implications.

No doubt the two big questions for the afternoon were:

  • What exactly is the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement? and
  • How do we respond as a sector?

A Moment in History

President of the Monitor Institute Katherine Fulton, who led the conversation with Van, reminded participants that this is not a “business as usual moment.” Instead it is a critical point of transition when networks and organizations are working together in ways unanticipated.

Katherine asked, “If it were Freedom Summer, would you know?” Considering that the way people organize and interact has evolved, she pointed out that a contemporary civil rights movement would not look the same today as it did in the 60s.

It’s Not a Movement, It’s a Swarm

Van Jones’ interest in making sense of the Occupy Wall Street movement evolved from his research in network building, brought about initially by a desire to better understand the Tea Party. As time progressed, and after the Arab Spring, it became clearer to him that something new was happening in the world when it came to movement building.

“How change happens, is changing…[We have to] recognize there’s terminology we don’t have. Occupy Wall Street isn’t a movement. It’s a swarm.”–Van Jones

What exactly is a swarm? It’s a leaderless movement that doesn’t need to depend on a charismatic top-down leader.

There Is No Tea Party

Sounds provocative, doesn’t it? But Van took the packed room at the Mitchell Kapor Foundation through a mental exercise:

“There is no Tea Party. You can’t get in a cab and say, ‘Take me to Tea Party headquarters’ because there is no headquarters…The Tea Party is an open-sourced brand that affiliates use but don’t own.”

Who are those affiliates?

They’re small organizations that have been around for a long time, but they were able to all come under the umbrella of the Tea Party brand.

They’re open-sourced, which means they work collaboratively. The Tea Party’s“Contract From America” was written by approximately 50,000 people working online through a wiki. Interestingly, Van pointed out, even though the Tea Party’s rhetoric is entrenched in the idea of “Rugged Individualism”, they act collectively to exert their political will and power.

However, while the Tea Party talks individualism and acts collectively, Progressive movements have long talked solidarity yet enacted individualist approaches. If Progressives can learn to act collectively, Van explained, the ideas can scale more rapidly and have a much bigger impact.

Rebuild The Dream

Van’s organization Rebuild The Dream has positioned itself to be a hub for the American Dream Movement. This past summer Rebuild The Dream decided to try to use a crowd source model to ignite a Progressive version of the Tea Party movement.

With over 100,000 people collaborating, with over 1,500 house meetings in every Congressional District it was clear–there was something bubbling, an unrest that needed an outlet in order to come to a full boil.

Here Come the Millennials

One of the key ingredients to Occupy Wall Street is the Millennial generation. Here’s why they are going to be integral to re-shaping society:

  • As the biggest generation in American history, Millennials will make up 1/3 of the eligible voters in 2016
  • They are a tech-savvy digitally native group, with the skills and interest in using technologies in unforeseeable ways
  • They are graduating from schools “off a cliff” as they enter in the current economic struggle

Van challenged the group to think back to how the Baby Boomers re-shaped society in the 60s through the Civil Rights Movement. The Millennials are poised to have a similar seismic impact.

Why Occupy Wall Street is Extraordinary

When Occupy Wall Street first began a little almost weeks ago, it took a while before it was taken seriously. While described as leaderless, directionless… it has still inspired countless protests across the nation and is receiving regular media coverage.

Here’s what Van says has already made the Occupy movement extraordinary:

  1. OWS didn’t wait for progressive “Grass Tops” to call a demonstration, yet they benefited from the work that these groups have already done. Instead the movement went straight for the grassroots.
  2. They didn’t go after political capitals; they went after financial capitals, going straight to the scene of the crime, so to speak. Breaking this taboo took courage.
  3. In an era of a 24 hour news cycle, they decided to hold a 24 hour protest.

The Challenges Ahead

“You can have a lot of energy, it doesn’t mean you have power.”
–Van Jones

We saw how the Tea Party did this: they went from protesting, to having candidates running on a Tea Party platform, to taking seats in Congress.

“At some point you need to go from anger to answers or it sours.”
–Van Jones

The Occupy movement is coming to a critical crossroad. It needs to figure out how to translate its energy to power.

“We have to be able to go from politics of confrontation to a politics of aspiration.”
–Van Jones

Van asserts that a moral choice needs to be made. Is it the 99% against the 1%? Or, are we the 99% FOR the 100%?

Americans Don’t Like Cheaters

After all, Van explained, Americans don’t hate rich people. When Steve Jobs died the entire country took pause to recognize his business genius.

“Americans don’t mind winners, but they hate cheaters.”
–Van Jones

In other words, Americans don’t mind if you buy yourself a yacht. But they do mind if you buy a Congressman, if you rig the game so only you can “win.” By finding and maintaining the moral distinction within this movement, OWS can have a lasting impact.

Sustaining the Swarm

Starting a swarm is hard, in fact no knows exactly how you do it. It takes a perfect storm of social conditions: economic turmoil, the disappearing middle class, government cuts to essential programs.

However hard it may be to start a swarm, the greater challenge is sustaining it. In studying the Tea Party Van has identified how it managed to overcome that hurdle.

So, how to sustain the swarm?

Meta-brand: A central element of the Tea Party’s success has been that the Tea Party itself has became a meta brand. That means that long-standing organizations don’t have to be absorbed into the Tea Party, they could maintain their identity and affiliate themselves with the Tea Party. Likewise, the Occupy movement allows for that same fluidity of association.

Shared Activity: A second feature is that the swarm must have some activity that people can do together. Both the Occupy and Tea Party movements have galvanized their supporters through ongoing demonstrations and protests.

Support Centers: As Van explained, right behind the swarm are the support centers, well-structured organizations providing trainings and articulating themes for participants. These support centers can be established organizations that, by responding to the needs of the swarm, can be seen as behaving unpredictably.

Media Support: A sustained swarm also requires ongoing media coverage to keep the conversation alive with the public. The Tea Party saw this support with regular mainstream conservative media coverage. The Occupy movement has enjoyed considerable coverage to-date, but risks losing the limelight soon.

Funding: The final element that Van cited to sustain a swarm and transform the collective discontent into political power is, of course, funding. The Tea Party has had the ongoing support of large conservative funders, and if the Occupy movement is to carry a message forward, it too needs backers (and not pizzas).

As Van observed, OWS currently only has 2 of the 5 features (a meta-brand and shared activity) towards sustaining its energy.

What Can Funders Do?

When asked, “What can funders do?” Van responded:

  • Go to a protest, listen and understand their needs.
  • Look to organizations that pointed out the Equity problem a long time ago, for groups who have a track record (deep knowledge) on the issue, groups that can play a translation role between the people protesting in the street and the political elites in Washington.
  • Look to small groups that are already supporting OWS, those organizations need bolstering.
  • Soon we’ll start hearing political candidates adopt the 99% rhetoric. There will be training needs to disseminate these articulated messages.

The Big Picture

The next generation is coming and they’re going to do things differently.

One example is’s White House protest. On November 5th the environmental group held a protest of 6,000 people who surrounded the White House to protest the Keystone pipeline. Surrounding the White House to protest may sound incredible, but quickly on the tails of the protest (and in the 11th hour) the Obama Administration announced it would postpone any decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 election.

The up and coming generation needs jobs.

But if you look at the economic numbers you know there aren’t enough. Van predicts this can result in the formation of an informal economy. While an informal economy in the past has meant crime, there is the chance now to have a positive informal economy thanks to the social entrepreneurship characteristics of this generation. He cited collaborative funding platforms such as KivaKickstarter and IndieGoGo as just a few examples. The Occupy movement is a movement about economic change and needs this innovation and social entrepreneurship to aid in that transformation.

Occupy Wall Street is evolving.

Occupy Wall Street is a populist movement and its message of economic equity is resonating. While it’s less than 11 weeks old, it is maturing rapidly. For example, in early November the Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly in New York has established a Spokes Council as part of its governing apparatus.

Local Governments Are Feeling the Pressure

Here in the Bay Area the Occupy protests have been set up across from city halls instead of across from financial institutions. This creates a quandary for progressive politicians and has the impact of taking the movement message. The violence at the Occupy Oakland camp has been cited as the reason to dismantle the the encampment.

Psychologically all leaders need to get ready. The usual tactics won’t work with this unusual movement.

Times They Are A-Changing

Occupy Wall Street has tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment and has great potential to initiative societal change. There is potential to galvanize many, seemingly disconnected, elements of society under this umbrella: from the veterans returning from overseas, to farm workers in middle America, to the men and women who have been unemployed for the last 3 years. But OWS needs to channel itself into action and that’s where it will need support–financial and otherwise.

“That thing, that thing we’ve been waiting for all our lives…it’s starting to happen.”
–Van Jones