A glass half fullThe Occupy Wall Street movement has captured the curiosity of the media, as well as the imagination of social change activists across the country. This is in no small part because of the new model of organizing that the 99% are testing.

I recently participated in an open-mic discussion about Occupy Wall Street as a “leader-full” (as opposed to a leader-less) movement. Hosted by the New Organizing Institute, the forum brought together a diverse audience of progressive activists who shared their experiences working within this communal method of protesting.

The Sunset of the Leader as Hero?

Traditional protest movements had clear, visible leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez. Candidate campaigns typically operate on a “top-down” model, with an inner circle of people calling all the shots and doling out very specific tasks to volunteers. Over many years, these campaign models essentially trained the media and the masses to expect attractive spokespeople rattling off poll-tested talking points. As a result, the Occupy movement is under a lot of pressure to put forth credible leaders who will supply a list of demands.

Goodbye Hierarchy, Hello Network

But OWS operates on an entirely different model. If it had an organizational chart, that chart would be round. Leaders remain behind the scenes, and decisions are made on the ground, by the participants. And while it’s true that Twitter has replaced the phone tree for peer-to-peer communications, the real power of online communication is what it enables people to accomplish offline. So, although protesters are uploading photos to Facebook and posting cell phone videos to YouTube, OWS really is an on-the ground experience. That’s where the decisions are made, and where strategy is decided. And while there is no ability for someone to come in and run the show, there is room for anyone to step into a leadership role. Many contend that this model of shared leadership makes the movement more resilient and more easily scaled, because there is no single leadership bottleneck.

Pros & Cons

This model is proving challenging for some, and inspirational for others. Several forum participants expressed frustration with a lack of direction: (Comments paraphrased.)

I’m concerned about the Occupy movement. Usually in a campaign, there’s a clear consensus, a clear ask. How can we measure the outcome when we don’t have a clear goal? How will we know if and when we’ve succeeded?

I’m less interested in whether we’re using Twitter or Facebook, and more interested in the fact that we’re getting pummeled politically. Where is there room in this process for a discussion about actually getting things done?

Without a goal, this is mainly a spectacle. I noticed there has been a move encouraging people to withdraw their money from big banks, and that’s great. But it took two months for that to happen.

Despite these frustrations, others actually saw the movement’s ambiguity as a benefit.

The occupy movement has changed the dialogue in this country. The majority of Americans agree with the general sentiment of Occupy. Once we start getting specific on legislative requests, we lose people. You can see this with the Anti-War movement. People look at them and say, ‘We know what they’re about, so we don’t need to pay attention.’ The real power of Occupy is that it is inspiring others who agree with the general sentiment to step up and do something about it, such as the ‘move your money’ day.

The civil rights movement didn’t start off with one goal. It started because people were pissed off and said, ‘We’ve got to do something.” Eventually, goals came from that, but it took a while.

Not having goals and talking points is a strength. It inspires people to join for their own reason.

Whether you call it a leader-less or leader-full movement, the media and the masses are going to continue pressing OWS to produce leaders who will articulate clear goals. Many inside are urging OWS to resist that pressure. So is Lemony Snicket, a prolific children’s books author, who recently published “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance.” Observation #10 states, “It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.” Perhaps the real victory of OWS is the shift of the power dynamic around who gets to be heard on the economy and our nation’s values.

(Image courtesy of flickr user Michael of Scott)

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Renee Renee Alexander is LightBox Collaborative Collaborator and thinks Lemony Snicket should rule the world.