Two women leading the future of the Occupy movement have never slept in a park. In fact, Liz Butler and Joy Cushman say the global movement that spread from New York’s Zuccotti Park last fall came as a fortunate surprise to progressive organizations like theirs, which were in the process of planning something similar for the spring of 2012.
Now, Butler, director of the Network Organizing Project at the Movement Strategy Center, and Cushman, organizing director for the New Organizing Institute, are harnessing the momentum from Occupy and bringing organizations together to train 100,000 activists to participate in the “99 Percent Spring” planned to start next month.
“In the last year, we’ve seen the kind of mobilizing and shifting of the frame that we haven’t seen in decades,” said Butler, who has been organizing progressive campaigns for more than 20 years.
Moving beyond parks—after city police shut down most encampments—will take more organizing than the previously leaderless movement had needed. Butler and Cushman are training protesters to sit-in at bank shareholder meetings, occupy homes in danger of foreclosure, pressure banks to modify mortgages, publicize information about tax dodgers, and visit congressional offices without an invitation.
The pair maintains that they are mobilizing the movement, not leading it.
“Because of the work I did, I know people that I would define as linchpins in what was happening on the ground in Occupy Wall Street,” Butler said. “They would never publicly say that because the movement is about a lot of people, it’s not about an individual.”
Cushman says it’s important to teach activists a narrative they can use to tell about their own economic struggles and the values they’ve developed as a result. She grew up a conservative in the Baptist church in Maine, where she learned early the importance that values play in helping people make sense of their experiences and turn their beliefs into action.
Cushman’s turn toward progressivism came gradually—she credits her college professors—and she started working with churches in Massachusetts to campaign against predatory mortgage lenders in 2004. She continued that fight until 2007, when she began working with the Obama campaign.
She said she is not disappointed in President Obama’s failure to address everything on the progressive agenda, but rather is motivated to continue pressing for change.
“It is easier in some ways,” Cushman said of having Obama in the White House. “But it’s also our responsibility to stand up for ourselves and our families.”
Progressive groups like Cushman’s and Butler’s have capitalized on Occupy and are continuing to play a strong coordinating role in the 99 Percent Spring movement. Groups like the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers, Rebuild the Dream, and Greenpeace helped spread the word about new Occupy sites, police movement, and health and safety concerns to Occupy participants this fall.
The 99 Percent Spring will depend upon such organizations—and those who fund them—to reach Cushman and Butler’s goal of training 100,000 people during the week of April 9-15. They are reaching out to organizations that can host training sessions and to individuals and churches for donated space. What comes out of the training sessions, Cushman and Butler say, is not up to them. Their goal is to empower new activists to tell their own stories of economic hardship, learning how they fit into a national narrative of economic injustice, and use nonviolent action to take these grievances to the 1 percent.
This article appears in the March 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.