Much has been said about the achievements of the Occupy movement – that it changed the narrative both in the realms of political campaigns and at street level; that it awakened, engaged and activated the millennial generation; that it scared the shit out of those in power.
All these things are true but often asserted by those who looked in from outside the encampments, rather than those who were co-habitating within them. Without intending to detract from those externally affected and inspired by it, the experience inside each Occupy was exponentially more insightful as it gave a real-world example of how a different society could function, from within its embryo.
With this new series “Occupy Achievements” we intend to explore and translate, from an insiders perspective, some of the most significant social achievements of the Occupy movement and expand its acknowledged successes to include these major factors.
At the four autonomous occupations born from Occupy Auckland specifically, we witnessed and participated in the creation of new systems of employment, social justice, education, economics and distribution of resources, political representation and media.
These topics and more will be covered within the series. The first part was “Occupy Achievements; Proving Unemployment Is An Illusion”
Always a Teacher, Forever a Student
It is said that the best instructors are “always a teacher, forever a student“. At the Free University offered by Occupy Auckland, everyone was able to be a teacher, and a student, and the roles were entirely interchangable at any given moment.
In fact, the rigidity of tertiary institutions as we know them was nowhere in evidence, yet the Free University functioned seamlessly – proof that organisations can be formed, grow and flourish without any fixed budget, staffing, infrastructure, rules, policy or resources – other than voluntary human resources and whatever was gifted by supporters.
At a physical level, the Free University was little more than a few workshop tents with a large whiteboard in the middle. The whiteboard contained information on what lecture was being held in what tent, by who and at what time.
Other fundamental points of difference between the traditional university structure and the Free University, included:
There were no barriers to entry. You didn’t have to complete 13 years of prior education, have achieved good grades in a prior educational facility, or sit an entrance exam. There were no forms to fill out, no personal data was gathered on you and your ability to attend wasn’t dependent upon your or your parents ability to pay.
It didn’t even matter if you were a citizen or a resident. All you had to do was be a living breathing human being, be present and willing to learn/participate.
Because of this, people had the opportunity to access advanced information and be instructed on it in an approachable way, who never otherwise would have. This created a level playing field for the participants which in turn fostered a mutual respect. There was no ‘A’ student, no teacher’s pet. No one knew or cared whether you were homeless or had a PhD or both. Everyone had the same access to learning and the same opportunity to participate, without prejudice.
What good is a Free University if it isn’t Free? Not needing to pay for classes or for textbooks or even for the lecturers themselves, meant every person present was there entirely voluntarily, because they wanted and chose to be. Noone was obliged or obligated to do anything other than precisely what they wanted to.
Of natural causes, as some humans tend to do, resources were offered to the university in the form of impromptu gifting – where people could see a need, they attempted to fill it. This was viewed as a bonus rather than a neccesity. Whether it was something a lecturer could use as a pointer, or more cushions for students to sit on, or some other physical tool or minor comfort, the basic generosity of the human spirit came through to fulfil whatever need arose, without any actual money being involved.
Education without transactions: just the passing of knowledge, from the learned to the learner.
As the Free University had no compulsion to attempt to make money itself, it didn’t have a need to ‘control’ or quantify the learning environment in order to manipulate it to become profitable. This allowed its organisational structure to operate as a horizontal hierarchy on a purely voluntary basis. Nothing needed to be mandated, as there was no accounting to be done and no one to account to.
No prior teaching or learning experience was required. There was no academic qualification, age or other demographic restriction on either students or lecturers.
The qualification for becoming a student was that you wanted to learn something about a listed topic, and chose to attend the lecture.
The qualification for becoming a lecturer was that you knew something about a topic and wanted to share that knowledge. There was no pre-requisite for lecturing, other than possessing some knowledge and/or having practical life experience to relate about your topic, and having the desire to share it.
If you wanted to lecture on a topic, you went to the communal whiteboard and wrote the name of your topic into an empty timeslot, and then anyone who wanted to learn about that topic came to your lecture.
This meant that people who never dreamed in their lives they would ever be in a teaching role, including myself, were given the opportunity to stand in front of an audience, speak their knowledge or their truth, and then interact with that audience just as a “normal” (read: commercial) lecturer does with their students.
The lack of organisational form meant that there was no restriction on content. Lectures could be (and were) on any topic imaginable under the sun, with no apparent sequence. Due to the lack of dependence upon standardised textbooks, such as are found in a for-profit learning institution, the lessons imparted tended to rely heavily on relaying real world experience rather than pre-approved and universally accepted academic truisms, although as a number of “normal” university lecturers also donated their time to the Free University, there was some cross-over.
The lessons tended to follow the thought patterns of the lecturers, in conjunction with the direction of questions asked by the student, rather than any pre-set format. Therefore the same lecture could be given twice but impart different information based on the interactive nature of the sessions as rather than lecturing to 400 or more students packed into a theatre, teachers were talking to two dozen students in a tent.
The Democratising Effect
The voluntary nature and level playing field of the institution had a democratising effect. If someone attended a lecture and didn’t like it, they could simply leave. If they went to a lecture and felt it was too basic or too advanced, or that they themselves held more comprehensive knowledge or wanted to lecture on the same topic but from a different perspective or vantage-point, they could go to the whiteboard and schedule their own session with no harm done.
Therefore the focus wasn’t on expectation of others but willigness of self.
Everyone was equally empowered to benefit and equally empowered to give.
Because the entire structure was non-punitive, the major stress factors were removed. There was no one to please or to impress but yourself. Nothing to gain but your own intellectual enrichment and the intellectual enrichment of others. Zero incentive to compete against your fellow humans. No scarcity. No judgement. No “right” or “wrong” answers; no examinations. No forfeiture, monetary or otherwise. No exclusion.
The End Result
The wonderful thing about such an open platform is that you could change or better put, expand your primary field of interest every day of the week. Imagine a university where you studied architecture one day, mathematics the next, music the following, social media techniques and political organising… the list goes on.
The inherent freedom in the facilitation inspired true learning – learning based on genuine willingness to give and to receive information. This in turn fostered a comeraderie between teachers and students as they recognised that their roles were interchangable. No one was better or greater than the other.
Unfortunately, just like the success of the other radical and revolutionary ideas put into practice at the occupations, all of the above constituted a serious threat to the status quo of the corporate state. Which clearly has a stake (many, in fact) in NOT allowing free education – be it monetarily free, or free by the measures entailed above.
Therefore, like the libraries and the other people-powered and people-resourced mechanisms of the occupations, the Free University was ultimately smashed to smithereens during the violent evictions of the occupations by a mixture of police forces and private security contractors.
While the captive mainstream media tried to make out that the evictions were targeted at unsavoury social stereotypes, what they were actually eradicating was the embryo of our new society.
When they deconstructed, smashed, and cleared out our learning tents, our whiteboards, our tools of information sharing, they were culturally as much as physically robbing the populace they were being paid to oppress.
But for those of us who remember what was achieved, whose lives were positively affected by the compassion and mutual aid engaged in at the occupations, whose imaginations were ignited – we do not forget. The evictions only served to scatter us like seeds on the wind – seeds that now propagate far and wide, and as the messages of Occupy continue to spread and penetrate, the work continues.
TO BE CONTINUED….
Written by Suzie Dawson (Member)
OCCUPY AUCKLAND MEDIA TEAM