Yale Working Group sets its own course

Students with the Occupy Yale working group stood outside a Morgan Stanley info session at the Study Tuesday night, holding signs encouraging students to think outside of consulting and finance as they look to their careers.

When Sophie Nethercut ’14 arrived at the now-infamous Occupy Morgan Stanley protest on Nov. 16 last semester, the chants had already started.

“There’s something so powerful about being in a place where 50 people are reciting the same thing over and over,” Nethercut said. “‘Twenty-five percent is too much talent spent!’ – to join in and be a part of that was inspiring; it mobilized people.”

That protest was the high point of a budding movement comprising Yalies who sympathized with the Occupiers on New Haven Green. It seemed like a clear statement to this campus: We will question your systems, your choices; we will not be silenced.

Last Wednesday, March 21, the Yale Working Group for Occupy New Haven held its first meeting in over a month.

Four people attended.

Organizer Marina Keegan ’12 said she was impressed with the turnout – the meeting a month prior had an attendance of just one: her fellow organizer, Alexandra Brodsky ’12. “I couldn’t make the time,” Keegan explained. Neither, apparently, could the other 50 volunteers who swelled the ranks of working group meetings only four months earlier.

“At this point, to call the working group an organization would be somewhat misleading … This organization really hasn’t existed this semester at all,” Keegan said, her tone flat and factual.

With Occupiers and City Hall awaiting the decision of U.S. federal Judge Mark Kravitz on whether the protesters must leave the upper Green, what happened to the Occupy movement on this campus is unclear at best, a murky tangle of volunteer fatigue and failing support for Occupy as a movement.

“We’re still engaged,” said Brodsky. “A big problem we’re dealing with is just dwindling numbers – there’s been some discussion with people on the Green about a Yale rally in support of the Occupiers, but we’re scared a lot of people wouldn’t show up.”

Keegan, a seasoned organizer who served as president of the Yale College Democrats from 2010-’11, said she believes the Occupy brand is now more a hazard than a rallying point. If one were to organize a protest, she added, she feels certain that an invitation email without any mention of the word would receive better feedback than one with stated ties to the national movement and the encampment on the Green.

“There was a period of time where the risk-averse Yalies that we are sort of said this is something it’s okay for us to support,” Keegan said. “Now, we’ve shifted back into the category of, ‘If you are supporting Occupy, you’re dumb; you don’t know anything about the economy.'”

Where it all began was, inevitably, a talk. According to Brodsky, students who wanted to help out, members of the Democrats, and volunteers with Dwight Hall, became increasingly curious about the encampment staring Phelps Gate in its Gothic face. Yale students needed an outlet to discuss their feelings and Keegan wanted to provide one. She and Thomas Smyth ’12 organized a panel called “Occupy Wall Street?” The question mark at the end, she added, was deliberate.

Attendees had the option to place their names and contact details on a sign-up sheet at the end, and scores did. Soon, Keegan said, Working Group meetings were being held in Dwight Hall, with a regular group of around 40 students across Yale College, Yale Law School and the School of Forestry & Environmental Science. Volunteers began to participate in the consensus-based decision-making process that defined Occupy, and that Keegan and Brodsky both said they wanted to implement in the working group itself.

“So now we have this panlist that has a couple hundred people on it,” said Brodsky. “It was a really interesting group – we both had people who were upperclassmen involved for a number of years with social justice issues at Yale, and some students who had found that the Yale approach to social change wasn’t a model they found compelling.”

But what this newly galvanized group could focus its energy on was unclear. Brodsky said that, in her position as co-coordinator of Dwight Hall, she liaised with campus groups like the leaders of the Harvest pre-orientation program to gather tents for Yalies who sought to stay out on the Green. On the other hand, she added, identifying how exactly to bring Occupy values from the Green to campus was difficult.

“A lot of the things that people on the Green were focusing on was community-specific and made sense, but didn’t resonate with Yale students who didn’t have jobs, and didn’t know about living on minimum wage,” Brodsky said. “The challenge was to stay rooted to the larger New Haven and national movement, while addressing concerns we felt we were in a position to speak to.”

That ‘challenge’ is at the root of a larger identity crisis for the group, which seemed uncertain about whether it wanted to be an ‘Occupy Yale’ group or an organization in support of the camp on the Green, said Martina Crouch ’14, who became involved in Occupy New Haven after being put in touch with some of the protests’ initial organizers. Brodsky and Keegan both maintained that the group consciously chose to define itself as a the Working Group for Occupy New Haven.

Crouch said the working group emerged after some weeks of individual Yale students coming down to the Green to have conversations or set up their own tents.

“They were not a separate entity; they wanted to merge with Occupy New Haven,” she added. Yet when members of the group came to a general assembly on the Green, Crouch said, the “mixing” between them and Occupy New Haven-ites (a phrase Crouch said she prefers because it is more specific) was “minimal.”

Brodsky said the two groups were enthusiastic to work with each other, but that the specific interests of Yalies and Occupiers soon began to diverge. She gave one specific example:

“We didn’t use the 99% language in our own protesting, because that would be a lie,” she said. “It’s not true that everyone protesting comes from very wealthy families, but we have to acknowledge that Yale students are, by many standards, privileged.”

On Nov. 16, two rallies ran into each other on Chapel Street. One was made up of Yale students demanding that their peers rethink their decision to attend an information session for one of the most powerful financial service firms in America. The other comprised residents of the makeshift tent camp on the Green, staging one of the direct actions they see as as critical part of their movement.

Both marches had Occupy in their name. But, according to Crouch, they didn’t have the same information.

“It seems really fucked up that we didn’t talk to each other, and we started to realize that they were separate,” said Crouch, who served as a liaison between the Occupiers and the working group for some time.

Sarah Cox ’15, who attended the Occupy Morgan Stanley protest, said she felt that the extant distinction between the two groups was a “setback” for the Yale working group. “Students didn’t participate, and we could have done more to bridge that than we did,” she added. “There was some discussion about whether we were ‘Occupy Yale’ or the Yale Working Group of Occupy New Haven, but it felt more to me like Occupy Yale – we worked with Occupy New Haven, but it felt like that was failing.”

Still, to the actual founders of the group, causing Yalies to think about what Brodsky calls “their complicity in these issues, and the ways in which Yale contributes to economic inequality” was a key marker of success.

“There have always been self-selecting groups talking about finance, and we wanted to take these private conversations and made them public,” Brodsky said. “Four hundred fewer people applied for finance and consulting internships this year than in the past, and I think that shows we did have some effect with our attempts to advance a critical project to the whole campus.”

Keegan said the success of the Occupy Morgan Stanley protest, which received significant coverage in national media outlets like The New York Times and inspired similar events at campuses such as Princeton’s, left her hoping that that challenge to the finance and consulting business could become an annual event.

Such a future is far from assured, considering how the working group has fared over this semester. Nethercut said she appreciated the protest and the Working Group’s recognition that people going into finance “aren’t evil,” but questioned how much commitment protesters have beyond the event last November.

“The march was an hour of someone’s time, but are people willing to devote weeks and weeks of action?” she added, becoming increasingly animated in her chair at Blue State Coffee. “I think that question is critical. Look at the students involved in Yale for Occupy – that’s what happens: people aren’t willing to commit.” Nethercut is now involved with the activist group Students Unite Now, a reincarnation of the former Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

Crouch is fairly disappointed with Yale students as well, portraying the Occupy Morgan Stanley protest as a definitive moment when she felt that the working group and its volunteers failed to engage the Occupy New Haven-ites.

“Obviously, if people on the Green are doing an occupation movement and you’re doing something about occupation, I don’t see how you would conveniently forget. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to divide themselves, but I think they were interested in pursuing their own agenda,” Crouch said.

This month, with Occupy New Haven’s legal status in question and a number of rallies planned in support of the camp, the absence of Yale students in what has become a significant city news story is striking. Could a Yale Working Group for Occupy New Haven that embraces their fellow activists on the Green have helped the protesters extend their occupation?

“It’s a pretty subversive thing to be involved in, and I can see why people who don’t see themselves as subversive don’t want to be seen as part of it,” Crouch said. “I personally think it’s too much of a maintenance of a comfort zone, just because of a fear of how they’ll be publicly received. I don’t know if that’s an excuse enough.”

Meanwhile, back on campus, Keegan responded to my question about what went wrong with a pause and then a definitive statement that suggests part of what differentiates Yale students’ approach from that of the Occupy New Haven-ites they seem uninterested in protecting.

“It’s really hard to have an organization without leaders,” she said. “Alexandra and Joe [Breen ’12, another co-coordinator of Dwight Hall for 2010-’11] and I, three of the people doing Occupy, were used to being in charge, and leading our organizations that are really productive and efficient. We didn’t do a very good job of being in charge because we weren’t in charge – nobody wanted to kind of take on that role, because it was seen as being against the movement.”

Keegan’s prescription is clear: “It would have benefited from somebody being in charge; sending emails, doing outreach. My instinct the whole time was to institutionalize the whole thing.”

At the same time, Brodsky said, it is possible that Yale students simply could not relate to the Occupy movement enough to be active, committed members of an organization like the Working Group. “I don’t think that Occupy fits the Yale structure of disagreement, which is this idea of having quiet arguments over dinner where everyone leaves as friends,” she added, also citing the idea that Yale students could be made to feel uncomfortable by the movement.

“Occupy doesn’t like us,” Brodksy said. “We like, as a campus, to think that we’re on the right side of things, and we’re good liberal group – it’s really scary to think that maybe that’s not true.”

Crouch, who remains involved with the protesters on the Green, said she believes the key factor is that Yale students are “much more socially concerned than they are socially involved.”

With Occupy New Haven’s current legal status allowing them to remain on the Green until April 9, pending a final decision, any involvement could be key.

The working group may not be on the Green; it may not be drawing droves of new volunteers. But Yale’s campus is already seeing at least one more tangible result of the group’s waning presence — last Wednesday marked the first panel in a new collaboration between Undergraduate Career Services and Dwight Hall, suggested by Keegan and Brodsky in a meeting with UCS Director Allyson Moore.

“We discussed additional ways to heighten student awareness and increase the visibility of less moneyed fields, such as the non-profit sector,” Moore said in an email. “[At the] Careers in Non-Profit Alumni Panel, the alumni panelists were positively wonderful; they represented a good cross-section of nonprofits, and shared a great many insights and tips with students.”

Brodsky said she’s aware that Yale is never going to stop corporate recruitment. She plans, however, to work with UCS to to inform students’ understandings of the ways financial services recruiters work, and boost opportunities for alternative careers.

“Occupy Morgan Stanley, I think, came off as really aggressive — an in-your-face kind of activism,” said Nethercut. “I think that has its place, but there need to be less aggressive ways to get the message out — but who wants to attend an informal debate, or even a more interactive panel about this? There are certainly those [events], but it’s the people who are already involved [in social justice] that go.”

“A very positive outcome of our meeting is the new collaboration between UCS and Dwight Hall,” Moore said. “I do wish that more than 30 students had attended, though.”

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