#OccupyWallStreet as a Global Unconference

In 2005, I had the opportunity to attend my first Foo Camp. It was an eye opening and mind expanding experience.

Foo Camp is unlike any conference I’ve attended before or since.

There is no set agenda. The attendees come from all walks of life- startups, BigCos, technology, healthcare, government, non-profit, artists, entertainers, executives and individual contributors. The agenda emerges throughout the weekend as ideas are shared and discussed but is consistently threaded around the theme of technology. The cross pollination of perspectives from diverse fields is fascinating as different viewpoints descend on various problems and opportunities throughout the weekend. Some participants engage deeply, others hang out by the fires strumming guitars and others play Werewolf.

Foo Camp was the first of what became known as the Unconference movement. Over time, organizers have tried to put some structure around what constitutes an unconference. My friend Andy Weissman pointed me to the rules of an unconference and, as you might expect, they’re kind of un-rule-y:

The basic ‘rules’ of the Unconference……

(1) The people who come are the best people who could have come.

2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.

3) It starts when it starts.

4) It’s over when it’s over.

5) The Law of Two Feet (“If you are not learning or contributing to a talk or presentation or discussion it is your responsibility to find somewhere where you can contribute or learn”).

As I mentioned here a few weeks back, I’d planned to visit Zucatti Park to feel the pulse of #occupywallstreet for myself. I had a chance to do that Oct 12, less than a month in to the occupation.

As I exited my cab I heard the drum circles pounding, saw the signs posted and saw the tarps strung creating a scene akin to the tents of Foo Camp. Drawn to the activity around the drums I saw a sea of homeless or lost kids dancing, moshing and raising clench fists. It’s an easy group of participants to focus on and dismiss.

But, as I spent more time in the park that night, clearly they were the side show.

Funny thing is the main event looks very different than what the media is used to covering. Rather than a keynoted conference with a set agenda, #occupywallstreet has a distinctly similar vibe to Foo Camp.

There are information desks at the front and rear of the park to direct participants to the various working groups popping up around the camp. Each working group is just that- a group of people working on a functional or philosophical aspect of the occupation. Some groups are working on a set of demands, others are defining and supporting a media strategy, others are manning first aid stations and stocking a cafeteria.

What the media seems to be focusing on is the lack of agenda or clear set of demands. Viewed through the lens of the unconference, that’s a feature not a bug.

The working groups I sat in on were actually not talking about taking down individual bank executives or focusing on a single industry; rather, they were exploring the root causes of corruption and influence in our government and how to tear them down. They were talking about foundational principles, not government welfare. They were talking about the inequality of institutions and individuals.

I’m sure there were more militant working groups that I missed out on but, like any unconference, I could have simply exercised the Law of Two Feet and stepped out when I thought the discussion was becoming unproductive or when I felt I had nothing to add.

When I left Zucatti Park that night I had the distinct impression that #ows was every bit as important as I thought it was before my visit. But, I also realized that it was important for a different reason than I had assumed.

Stepping into Zucatti I imagined #ows emerging as a single movement. That it would find its leader. That it would become its own political organization that would have the potential to put a leader in the White House.

Leaving Zucatti I think it’s much bigger than that. #ows is setting the table for a conversation threaded around the truly broken systems we’ve been ignoring for decades. Exposing the corruption that has influenced our system for decades. And giving a voice to a large group of global citizens who have been too apathetic or too disenfranchised to speak up. It isn’t going to be the single movement that topples the US government. But it is a tributary into a global river of discontent. And that river is spilling over its banks. Toppling dictators and influencing leaders around the world.

As with any unconference, #ows invites all to participate. The more points of view and expertise show up, the greater potential to impact change becomes.

In the end, I don’t fit squarely into the camps of either the 99%ers or the 1%ers. But I am off the fence. I do see a world I’m angry to inherit from the prior generation and embarrassed to hand over to my kids. Sure #ows is small. Sure it’s messy. Sure it’s easy to dismiss. But anything truly disruptive is.