At a holiday dinner with family, the conversation turned to the Occupy Wall Street movement. My mother made a comment about how the spirit of the movement had seemed to have somewhat come and passed, the protests seemingly swept away by other distractions and the chill of winter. I found myself a bit disturbed by the comment. While it may be true that the huge crowds have significantly decreased, as has the accompanying media coverage, there is no question that some hugely transformative seeds have been planted that are only beginning to sprout.
Time Magazine verified this by naming The Protester their "Person of the Year" - it has been inspiring to witness the uprisings that have swept the world and our nation, and the commitment and the martyrdom of empowered citizens passionately driven to action. The movement was birthed quite dramatically by Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street merchant who finally had enough of corruption and set himself on fire. That became the catalyst that lit a spark that set off the Arab Spring which toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and continues to reverberate in other countries, and has become a global movement of people power, which goes by many names.
One of the criticisms of the Occupy movement here in the U.S. has been that there is no clear cut agenda. But that is what makes the movement so dynamic and exciting - it is decentralized, still evolving, and incorporates many different important causes that need addressing. It is an expression of democracy in action - if you look at the makeup of the protesting crowds, it is a melting pot of different ages, races, classes, cultures, and beliefs. And it has been mostly a peaceful movement, at least in the U.S., which is why we were all so shocked to see the image of a police officer in riot gear blasting burning pepper spray into the eyes of passively seated protesters at the University of California, or hearing about the spraying of an elderly woman and a pregnant woman at other Occupy protests.
The frustration people are feeling over the lack of jobs and the economic crisis, the glaring inequities of the 1%, the corruption of the banks, and our dysfunctional political system, has awakened us from our apathy. As a people, it is up to us to build upon the momentum of this galvanizing and hopeful movement, to take advantage of this moment in history that calls for honest reflection, discussion and debate, and to feel our power in creating the change we want to see in our lives and the world. As Arianna Huffington told me, "This is one of the biggest stories of our time - one that we cannot afford to ignore, and one that we in the media must do a better job of covering." Whether traditional media covers it sufficiently or not, alternative, people-driven media using the Internet, YouTube and social media has become an unstoppable force.
To help till the fertile soil, I asked a variety of well-known public figures the following questions: how do they think we can funnel some of the anger and outrage people feel into positive change? What new paradigms or shifts do they see emerging? Here are some of their thought-provoking answers.
Reflections from Arianna Huffington, Nancy Pelosi, Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson
"The Occupy Wall Street movement is an expression of an essential truth in our society today: the solutions we need are not going to come from the halls of government or from the top-down institutions that continue to fail us. But there are countless women and men across this country using their skills and gifts every day to bring about positive changes in real, tangible ways. But that doesn't mean we don't need the leaders of our political institutions to enact real, large scale solutions, or that we should let them off the hook. But what we're seeing is people reacting to the realization that Washington is too broken to initiate change -- all it can do is ratify change. So the people will have to do the heavy lifting and force Washington to do it. This is one of the biggest stories of our time - one that we cannot afford to ignore, and one that we in the media must do a better job of covering."
Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic leader, first female Speaker of the House
"The level of civic engagement we've seen from ordinary Americans in recent months has strengthened our democracy. Americans must come together to demand the change they want to see in their lives.
Women have always been agents of change, or what I like to call 'magnificent disrupters.' They are unsatisfied with the status quo, and always demanding progress - on behalf of their children, their families and their communities."
"It's very important that it exists. The Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Patriarchy movements are very, very positive. They've caused a discussion in this country about the disparity between rich and poor that was not happening before. Both have made me feel very hopeful. We have to translate them in every way we can, in how we use our dollars, what we buy and what we don't, and how we use our votes, and how we use our time, our language, our neighborhoods. We have to make each of our days resemble as much as possible, what we want in the future."
"I think there are real challenges in the world that all of us are facing - challenges for employment, challenges for creating peace worldwide, challenges for making sure the American promise is still true for everyone. The question I ask is, if you have really big challenges, don't you want to use the talent of the entire population to rise to those challenges? I think women have more opportunity than ever before, but what we don't see is increasing numbers of women making it to the top of any industry anywhere in the world. So my goal - and I think it's not just my goal, it is a goal so many of us share, men and women alike - is to make sure we are harnessing the talents of everyone -- of men, of women, of everyone - regardless of gender or race or location - to solve the world's problems."
Alice Walker, author, poet and activist
"What is our greatest fear? That we will be harmed. What is our greatest threat? The escalation of cruelty. What is our greatest need? To believe we are worthy of the joy that is possible in this life. Time Magazine was right to name protestors Person of the Year, for we have collectively left our couches for the trenches and the streets, which means we are beginning once again to believe in ourselves. There is only us to muddle through whatever madness is thrown our way. May we muddle steadily, happily, soulfully: may kindness be the compass. And may all listen without hurry for consensus to be heard."
"Occupy Wall Street is the up welling of moral outrage at social and economic injustice from the collective consciousness. Now it is time to think of solutions that also come from the collective consciousness. It's time to be the 100 percent."
"If we're changing the basic First Principle of 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people,' to 'government of a few of the people, by a few of the people, and for a few of the people,' then that should certainly merit a debate. To me that's what Occupy Wall Street represents: the wail of democracy when someone is stepping on its foot. The wail appears now as anger and sometimes misplaced outrage, but that kind of messiness is not inherently a bad thing. I prefer the messiness of democracy any day, to the relative complacency that has characterized the response of the American people to the systematic threats to democracy over the last few years.
What appears sometimes as a negative thing can in fact be a positive one: there is nothing negative about yelling 'Fire!' if indeed the house is burning down. You can't pour pink paint over a pile of junk and call it spiritual. The fundamentally positive paradigm in life is one in which we make love the bottom line, but that often emerges from the horror of realizing that it is not that now. You find your passionate conviction to feed the starving children of the world when you realize first that 17,000 of them are dying of starvation every day. So there is an intimate relationship between outrage over what's wrong, and the positive energy to make things right. Not all moral outrage is born of anger. Much of it is born of love.
Love can't just be the goal; it has to be the means as well. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'You have very little morally persuasive power with people who can feel your underlying contempt.' The point is not to not feel the outrage; the spiritual point is to feel it and then surrender it to a Higher Power; then, instead of a self-indulgent emotion, the energy turns into a positive, mature and sober force for good."
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. Her new book, based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women, is titled "Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice".