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Anya Kamenetz

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#OccupyEverywhere: University of the Streets

Posted: 10/14/11 04:28 PM ET

Although I live in New York, I stopped by Occupy Seattle on Tuesday night--I was in town for a launch event for The Edupunks' Guide, my new free ebook for independent, free and open learners.

Seattle is no stranger to street protests. About 100 people were gathered right downtown in the cold and rain. It's a lot less crowded than Liberty Plaza in New York, and they have some creature comforts too: porta-potties (paid for, I heard by the unions!) and bullhorns for yelling at traffic, although they use the "human mic" technique to make speeches in the square.
I chatted with a warm woman named Katia whose nickname is "Mama Dreads."

She estimated that about 80% of the people spending the night in this space come from Seattle's long term homeless youth population. Patrick, a homeless kid sitting next to her drying off his feet and wrapping them up in plastic bags for the night, confirmed that almost all his friends were here.

Katia, who's been hanging out and photographing these kids for the past six years, said the situation has advantages for everyone.

The homeless youth hold the space 24/7 so the occupation can continue, they have food donated every day, enhanced safety at night, and the aforementioned porta-potties.
And above all, she said, they are learning about politics, economics and world issues in conversation with all kinds of people all day, as well as sharing their own knowledge about living on the street. "I never heard them talk about politics before. Not ever. It was 'how do we get drugs, how do we get alcohol, does this girl like me.' "

Since education is my beat, I'm interested in one major way the occupations are functioning for the people involved: as a nationwide free school or teach-in, a university of the streets. I'm not just talking about when famous academics like Cornel West or Slavoj ZIzek stop by to give a lecture, but about the all-day seminars.
Take people out of their normal routines, put them together in a context of multiple issues of immediate concern, and they talk and exchange ideas and sometimes come up with solutions.

College debt has emerged as one of the major issues of this protest, and the young people involved are discovering two things: that education can be free, and that they can educate themselves and each other.

Even educators are getting involved. At #OccupyWallSt, a friend and professor taught a class on the stock market this week, and she heard of an ex-Lehman banker teaching one on the Glass-Steagall Act.

And my sister, a Yale graduate, writes from OccupyNola (New Orleans) : "I have been there for up to 15+ hours a day the past week. I can already tell you that it has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I have learned so much, about the world around me and about myself."

 
 
 

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