Building a community

Since its beginnings on Sept. 17, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has grown and spread from Zuccotti Park to cities around the U.S. and select cities abroad. All occupations are formed by citizens who are disturbed by the consolidation of wealth in the top 1 percent of the population. That the various manifestations of the OWS movement speak to a common concern among many Americans cannot be denied, and the fact that the movements have garnered significant skepticism and criticism from both ends of the political spectrum is also indisputable. 

I spent the night of Oct. 22 at OWS in Zuccotti Park, New York City. From the pathway around the Park looking in, OWS looks like utter chaos. But what is often left out of the media portrayal, and what visiting tourists fail to notice, is the intricate network of organizational structure that allows such a chaotic physical environment to form a working, functional community that accommodates the needs of an extremely diverse group of people.

OWS, like Williams, is an intentional community. The phrase describes any group of people that comes together and works to build a livable place for themselves and others. Within the chaos of tents, tarps and signs, OWS has an extensive library, a kitchen, a comfort station, first aid stand, informational table and sanitation station. There are 79 working groups listed on the NYC General Assembly website and each group is responsible for taking on some aspect of OWS life.

At the College, we have College Council (CC), All-Campus Entertainment, the Minority Coalition (MinCo), Dining Services and Facilities, among many other student and administrative groups. Students are encouraged to be leaders in the first three groups, and to be part of the first four. As students living mostly on campus in a small town, we spend the vast majority of time engaging in Williams-related activities or events. How, then, does Williams compare to OWS as an intentional community?

The Committee for Undergraduate Life (CUL) conducted a study last year of student satisfaction with the first-year residential system; that found that students are by-and-large satisfied with the entry system. However, when it looked specifically at non-drinkers, non-athletes, first generation students and students on financial aid, CUL found significantly less satisfaction. While the College is meeting the needs of first-year students who fall into either majority or privileged groups, it fails to address the requirements of those students most likely to need such support.

During the College’s mental health awareness week, Break the Silence, many students expressed dissatisfaction with the support they received from Psychological Counseling Services and articulated a difficulty in finding friends with whom they were comfortable going to for support. In such a small, intimate community, we feel that we know everyone. Yet frequently, students still manage to get lost through the cracks, hiding in their room without someone to make sure they are all right. While these may be isolated cases that do not represent the College as whole, it is irresponsible to assume that we ought only to be concerned with the needs of the majority of students on campus.

While I am sure that many students will disagree with this statement, I believe that the College is failing as an intentional community. OWS, in contrast, is succeeding. People who visited the Occupation and then returned to the College long to go back, not just to support the cause, but also to be a part of that community again. The College’s failure is even more disturbing considering our significantly lower levels of racial, class, cultural and sexual diversity compared to OWS.

Why is OWS more successful than Williams? There is a palatable energy in Zuccotti Park and people there are seeking to create change and invest wholly in organization, structure and service. The General Assembly (GA), an open forum where citizens bring proposals and updates from working groups to the whole meeting, allows the consensus-driven process of direct democracy. While the process is inefficient, it guarantees that the needs of all citizens are valued and considered. OWS is not perfect, but problems are constantly addressed and challenged at the GA. Pure agreement on all issues, at OWS or the College, is unrealistic, but consensus does not necessitate agreement.

Furthermore, the Occupation is new. Its citizens are ready to dedicate vast amounts of time and effort to make the model work and they throw themselves completely into making the community work because they are there, to a large extent, specifically to create a community.

As students, we did not matriculate at the College to participate in a community-building project. We are here to study, learn and go on to find jobs. Extracurriculars such as CC or MinCo are secondary activities. While we have strong organizational support from the deans and the Multicultural Center, among others, administrators cannot substitute for the direct contributions of marginalized students to the community-building process.

Nevertheless, we should constantly remind ourselves that the College is an intentional community, and our input is necessary for it to function. While this is tiring, it is also empowering. The College is what we make it, and we have the ability to turn this school into a place that is welcoming and accommodating for all types of students.

 

Carrie Tribble ’13 is a biology major from Honolulu, Hawaii. She lives in Garfield.