A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school. The intervening years had been brutal to the city’s school budgets—down about 14 percent on average since 2007. A virtual hiring freeze has been in place since 2009 in most subject areas, arts included, and spending on art supplies in elementary schools crashed by 73 percent between 2006 and 2009. So even though Joe’s old principal was excited to have him back, she just couldn’t afford to hire a new full-time teacher. Instead, he’s working at his old school as a full-time “substitute”; he writes his own curriculum, holds regular classes and does everything a normal teacher does. “But sub pay is about 50 percent of a full-time salaried position,” he says, “so I’m working for half as much as I did four years ago, before grad school, and I don’t have health insurance…. It’s the best-paying job I could find.”
Like a lot of the young protesters who have flocked to Occupy Wall Street, Joe had thought that hard work and education would bring, if not class mobility, at least a measure of security (indeed, a master’s degree can boost a New York City teacher’s salary by $10,000 or more). But the past decade of stagnant wages for the 99 percent and million-dollar bonuses for the 1 percent has awakened the kids of the middle class to a national nightmare: the dream that coaxed their parents to meet the demands of work, school, mortgage payments and tuition bills is shattered. Down is the new up.
But then in these grim times, something unexpected happened: at first scores met in parks around New York City this summer to plan an occupation of Wall Street, then hundreds responded to their call, then thousands from persuasions familiar and astonishing, and now more than 100 cities around the country are Occupied. In the face of unchecked capitalism and a broken, captured state, the citizens of Occupy America have done something desperate and audacious—they put their faith and hope in the last seemingly credible force left in the world: each other.
Sometime during the second week of the Occupation, Joe took that leap. Within his first hour at Liberty Park, he was “totally won over by the Occupation’s spirit of cooperation and selflessness.” He has been going back just about every day since. It took him a few days to find the Arts and Culture working group, which has its roots in the first planning meetings and has already produced a museum’s worth of posters (from the crudely handmade to slicker culture-jamming twists on corporate designs), poetry readings, performance-art happenings, political yoga classes and Situationist spectacles like the one in which an artist dressed in a suit and noose tie rolled up to the New York Stock Exchange in a giant clear plastic bubble to mock the speculative economy’s inevitable pop.
Alexandre Carvalho, a Brazilian doctor who worked in Rio’s favelas and was one of the original organizers of Arts and Culture, explains that the group’s praxis revolves around two principles. “First—autonomy, horizontalism and collectivism. We’re nonhierarchical, self-regulating, self-deliberating and self-organizing. Everyone is creating their own stuff, but we’re connected to a larger hub through the Arts and Culture group.” The second principle is something Alexandre calls “virgeo,” a mashup of “virtual” and “geographical.” “We try to have both an on-the-ground conversation and an online conversation so that people all over the world can send their ideas and respond to our work.” The same concepts apply, more or less, to the other culture working groups at OWS—from Media (which shoots video for OWS’s livestream, documents direct actions and produces educational videos) to the Library (which has received more than 3,500 books, all logged in an online card catalog, from the nearly complete works of Noam Chomsky to Creative Cash: How to Sell Your Crafts, Needlework, Designs and Know-How).