Last month, Council member Gordon Smith asked OccupyAsheville to designate representatives who could deal with city officials. OA declined. It was a less in-your-face response than Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper received from Occupy Denver: That group appointed Shelby, a border collie, who duly requested a meeting with the governor.
Viewed from the outside, such moves might easily be interpreted as little more than an insult, but that would be a mistake. Increasingly, anti-authoritarian movements are choosing to do without designated leaders.
Egypt managed to rid itself of the Mubarak regime despite the lack of official opposition leaders. In the U.S., the Occupy movement has already changed the national conversation, contributing to the success of Bank Transfer Day and inspiring environmental activists in their successful push to forestall the Keystone XL pipeline.
White-collar IT worker Tom Adams probably speaks for many in Occupy Asheville when he says, “If the public is persuaded that we’re incapable of being leaders ourselves, then we must rely on a ruling class to make the ‘important’ decisions. It’s a method of preventing self-sufficiency and creating dependence: dependence on others to ‘save’ us.”
Occupy and similar grass-roots movements around the globe often describe themselves as leaderless. But Victor Ochoa, a point person for Occupy Asheville’s outreach work group, explains: “When we say a ‘leaderless movement,’ we don’t actually mean a leaderless movement in the true sense of the word ‘leader.’ A true leader is somebody that people are naturally drawn toward. … True leaders do not exclude others from becoming leaders themselves: They encourage the leadership qualities that exist within everybody. … We’ve forgotten that there are those who genuinely fight for the betterment of humanity and not for their own selfish interest. In this meaning of the word ‘leader,’ Occupy is by no means a leaderless society.”
Version 1.0 of the Occupy movement’s organizational model was borrowed from Europe and the Arab Spring, notes Asheville resident Tracy Kunkler. It consists of a wide-open democratic forum called the General Assembly, which operates on a consensus model of decision-making rather than a majority vote. One or more trained facilitators help the group move through its agenda, but the facilitators are just that — they assist; they don’t lead.
“The facilitators are there to make the meetings run more smoothly and help people express their own leadership skills,” Kunkler explains. The facilitation team changes from GA to GA, partly because it’s hard work. Passing the role around allows more people to develop their skills. In addition, she notes, “There has been a desire on the part of some folks to not have consistent facilitators, because some people do think they get equated with being leaders.”
Kunkler agrees that one way to look at the leadership paradigm shift being explored right now is disempowering the concept of “leader” as a person or personality. Instead, a leadership role is empowered, and various people can fill it. Everybody has some skill or other to offer. Occupy is, among other things, a learning lab in how best to collectively develop and utilize these dispersed skills. To what extent can leadership become a group rather than a personal function?
Confusion can be a good thing
Reinvention at such a basic level can sometimes be chaotic, and Occupy Asheville’s rapid growth soon overwhelmed the simple General Assembly model. Since everyone at a GA has an equal voice and there are always new people, it proved a gold mine for new ideas but less than ideal as a way to make lots of detailed decisions.
Work groups sprouted up, sometimes taking on projects that, unbeknownst to them, were duplicated elsewhere. As of this writing, major efforts were under way to improve coordination and the group’s decision-making agility.
OccupyAsheville participant Steve Norris sees this organizational fluidity as natural in a group that’s all of 2 months old. He also believes uncertainty has a positive side. Because strong personal leadership has not emerged, “We’ve tapped into a lot of creativity coming from a wide spectrum of people. That’s important: We’re all in some sense equal, though not necessarily in terms of particular skills. We can use those to empower ‘infinite hybridization.’ Followers in traditional organizations are more passive in relation to their leaders.”
Robert Zachary, a veteran of the civil rights movement, provides a long historical perspective. “I’d take you back to pre-Revolutionary America. … We had so many different factions, groups. Then the Continental Congress took many ideas from African captives, Native Americans, the French. We don’t hear much about that, but they took those ideas and eventually turned them into the Constitution. Today’s movement runs the gamut of peoples and ideas too. This is part of Americana.”
Although the civil rights movement is often remembered for the leaders who emerged from it, Zachary takes a different view. “Many of us have looked for this day, when all become leaders from their center. It’s catching authorities off-guard. In the Arab Spring, you could see a lot of that emerging. This is a harmonious movement from the Earth. The Earth doesn’t need leaders: It needs peoples to get in tune with it.
“You didn’t historically have leaders among African and Native American peoples — you had movements. Civil rights was a movement; people think of Dr. King as a leader, but the people moved Dr. King. You could see him frightened sometimes, and then the movement moved him; that was true around the country. … Today, we call it Occupy.”
— Freelance journalist and fiction writer Michael Hopping lives in Asheville.