(Photos by Alan Gilburg)
On Saturday, November 19th, the school cafeteria of Josiah Quincy Elementary in Chinatown was filled to capacity with the bustle of conversation, the aroma of lentil stew, clustered café tables, and the bodies of more than 260 participants in the “Occupy Boston Summit.” Another 65 individuals exchanged ideas in a nearby “over-flow” room, and still more weighed in online as the event was Livestreamed.
“This turn-out surpasses all of our expectations,” organizer Maureen White told the crowd.
All of those gathered in the cafeteria had come out to join a community-wide conversation about the challenges and opportunities currently facing Occupy Boston. The dialogue included school teachers and longtime activists, college students and artists, war veterans and suburbanites, civic leaders from Chinatown and occupiers who had traveled from Occupy Wall Street – and of course many who had walked over from Dewey Square on what was Day 51 of Boston’s occupation. Attendees had access to translation services in Cantonese, Spanish, and Portuguese, and onsite daycare was provided free of charge.
As the original “call” for Summit made clear, the purpose of the event would not be to settle on a single course of action: “It would not be a GA or a decision-making session” but rather a chance “to ask ourselves some key questions about how to make the Boston branch of the Occupy movement sustainable, so that we can continue to have space to address the widening inequality in our society.” With tough choices on hold, participants could share divergent opinions freely.
Suzanne Lee kicked off the four-hour event with an inspiring welcome that drew connections between Occupy Boston and the 150-year history of activism and community-building in Chinatown, a neighborhood that “the city ignores, the city overlooks.” Lee had served as the principal of Quincy Elementary for ten years. “Let’s make sure these doors remain open,” she said, referring to the school and other centers for community life.
The diverse group at the Occupy Boston Summit was about to practice “the ancient art of conversation,” in the words of head facilitator Melinda Weekes. “We’re going to tap into our collective intelligence, the expertise and knowledge right here in this room.”
Weekes and co-facilitator Andrea Nagel guided the afternoon’s series of discussions, which dealt with topics on many people’s minds. “What is our story at Occupy Boston?” “What values do we want to live by?” “What must we do to take Occupy Boston to the next level?”
Participants then broke into groups for periods of small discussion, punctuated by the larger “harvesting” discussions in which they would share their ideas with the summit as a whole. One spokesperson, speaking into the wireless microphone that circulated through the room, recommended finding “a balance between the logistics of survival and our vision of the future.” Another, imagining what they would tell their grandchildren about the movement, said: “We changed the conversation, and therefore we changed the world.”
After each topic’s discussion concluded, participants were invited to stand and mill around, finding their way to new interlocutors.
Ideas were various, but several currents of agreement emerged over the course of the afternoon. For one, Occupy Boston seeks to keep growing. More participation, more diversity, more civil disobedience, and more outreach in neighborhoods and suburbs are needed.
Plenty of comments touched on the encampment in Dewey Square. With the camp’s long-term future uncertain, occupiers called for more supporters to spend time there – to put in a shift in the Food Tent, attend meetings of the General Assembly, spend a night onsite, or simply pick up trash.
Alongside these invitations, members of the Summit also strategized about decentralizing the occupation, asking how the movement might take root in disparate locations. Participants suggested that suburbs, universities, and the neighborhoods of Boston could all add distinctive energies and view-points.
While these dialogues unfolded, volunteers with crayons and markers gradually filled an enormous banner as a record of the participants’ ideas. Sticky notes inscribed with values overlapped one another on the cafeteria wall, forming a mosaic of ideals. Among them were compassion, active democracy, redistribution, non-violence, the end of complacency, transparency, and collective liberation.
In voicing their strategies, hopes, and disagreements, those who chose to identify themselves with Occupy Boston on Saturday afternoon helped to articulate the future of the movement. Such conversations, the summit suggests, will be ongoing.
To read more about the Occupy Boston Summit, visit http://wiki.occupyboston.org/wiki/Occupy_Boston_Summit.