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Occupy Main Street: Desperately Seeking Democracy

10/22/2011 05:07 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2011

It's not about anarchy. It's not about ending capitalism. It's not about the rich versus the poor. It's not even about Wall Street.

The small and courageous group of protestors in downtown New York's Zuccotti Park is fighting for something really simple -- something most of us in America have taken for granted: democracy. At least that is what the dozen or so Z Park occupiers braving the elements told me in the wind and rain earlier this week.

We have heard a lot about the movement Occupy Wall Street. The powerful and profound story of a handful of out-of-work college kids that lit a fire in the hearts of America. It has echoed the cry of freedom heard around the world. Occupy is about power in the wrong hands, the misuse of power in the "right" hands and the loss of power by ordinary people who were promised at birth "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," yet somehow never saw it delivered. I realized as I interviewed the young and restless activists that, in many ways, they were reigniting that promise for all of us.

This week, the Occupy Wall Street movement has drafted a "99% Declaration" calling for a National Assembly and outlining 20 points of necessary change. The document is a rational exercise in the democratic process calling for immediate solutions for everything from ending the wars to reinstating Glass-Steagall. I dropped by the Z on a dreary and wet New York day to see how the movement had progressed.

I haven't been down to the park from my Flatiron haunts for a couple of weeks and was amazed by what I saw. The park was filled with more than the handful of homeless and young kids sleeping on the asphalt only weeks ago. It had swelled to hundreds strong; people meditating in circles, praying in unison, singing together, laughing, talking and dedicated to a cause that is growing more important by the day.

Make no mistake: this is a movement that has staying power. Make no mistake: this is a passionate plea for liberty and justice.

Many of the mainstream media reports on OWS portray a group of lost souls that have no idea what they want, no clear focus or demands, no deep insight on their purpose. I went to the Z to find out for myself whether these were just "whining spoiled children," as one corporate exec claimed. Or if these were "lost aimless kids with nothing else to do" as others have said. Or whether they were violent revolutionaries intent on destruction and mayhem.

Of the dozen or more young protestors I spoke to, I was encouraged to find they were none of the above. They were articulate, intelligent and clear in their purpose and conviction. In a sense, as Americans and global citizens, we can be proud of what they represent, because they speak for us.

Three of the protestors captured my heart and seemed to capture the movement: Nathan, Claire and Paul. Each spoke of the urgency of the moment, the sad state of our dysfunctional government, the loss of hope that our leaders are capable of fixing a broken economy or a disillusioned nation. Paul, age 23 from New Hampshire, spoke of the suffering his family is going through with layoffs, unemployment and foreclosures. He seemed to be standing up for his parents and speaking for them. "We don't have equal opportunity," he said. "We don't have a fair deal. We are speaking up so the government can hear us."

Claire, a sweet, cherub-faced, 24-year-old gal graduated from college two years ago with a degree in neuroscience and mathematics. She taught math for a year before dropping everything to join the cause. "It's important to advance the frontier of science... but I feel like our society has more immediate problems than that." She explained: "This is the first time I feel there is a legitimate chance for restoring democracy. Democracy means everyone's opinion has to count as much as everyone else's. We can't even claim that's true anymore. We have legislated against it... Wall Street is a symbol for the anger that a lot of us hold towards corporate misconduct and the kowtowing to private interests that's being done by government... People claim democracy and capitalism. It seems, at times, they are not really compatible." Claire spoke of the possibility of "clean capitalism," where "Any change has to begin with campaign finance reform and completely reforming the electoral process."

The age of the protesters ranges predominately between 18 and 27. There were 30-somethings, 40-somethings and older present in the park, but most were 20-somethings willing to sleep on the wet cold ground and fight for a cause not dissimilar to the young and barefoot army that birthed our nation. Nathan Shepard from Washington State said his mother was struggling with a heavy mortgage burden; friends are saddled with student loans and family members are being foreclosed upon.

Nathan: "I see a government and economy, this whole political system run by big business. You have these lobbyists who can funnel millions and millions of dollars into both ends of the spectrum. It seems to me that our vote doesn't really count anymore. You can vote for one guy or the other, but when it really comes down to it, it's like they are chosen. They have literally millions of dollars funneled into their campaigns. Barack Obama had a record number funneled into his campaign. He got us all riled up on change, positive E, hope and all of that. He used all the buzz words. In the end, not much has changed... We can't really do much else than take to the streets anymore." Nathan is 18 years old.

I came away from Zuccotti Park deeply moved by their youthful courage and saddened by the state of the world they have inherited. Anyone over the age of 30 has contributed to an economy that, as one 23 year-old New York man explained, has shut them out. "We don't have the same shot we had three years ago; we don't have the same shot we had five years ago. We are the children of tomorrow. If we don't have a voice, who will speak for us?"

I felt the pain of these young people and could not imagine what it must feel like to only know the world as dark and grim as it is. If we look at America through their eyes, an 18-year-old protestor would have been seven in the year 2000. He or she would have witnessed the greatest election fiasco of our lifetimes. Who can forget "Indecision 2000?" They would remember a war that 49 percent of the nation vehemently opposed. A war that was supposed to last three months and eight years later has no end in sight. A banking collapse of a magnitude that none of us could have imagined. A banking bailout that none of us could do anything to stop. A promise of hope and change that never arrived. No wonder they feel that protesting is the only option left.

At least we knew something better. In the 1980s and '90s, the world was wide open... you could find any opportunity you wished for and make it your own. We have seen a better world, so we know it is possible. These young protestors are hearing their parents say the world is a mess. So what hope do they have? It's up to us to give them hope.

Nathan explained, "People ask us, what are your demands? I honestly think that's silly. If you are a patient and have something wrong with you, you don't go to a doctor and ask, can I have this medication> You tell them your symptoms and they help with your problems. We shouldn't be the ones figuring this out. We are the ones getting hit by it."

All of us living in this country understand we face a serious problem: a broken financial system and a dramatically dysfunctional government. We created this mess, whether by apathy or action, and we must to be the ones to fix it.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors have started a national conversation on how to remake American democracy. A system where each citizen really does have an equal voice and everyone, no matter what age, creed, or economic status, on Wall Street or Main Street, has equal access to the Dream. Because that is what America is made from -- a promise and a dream.

"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive." That sentiment was uttered by none other than revolutionary and founding father Thomas Jefferson and is currently kept alive by the passionate protestors in downtown New York's Zuccotti Park.

It is up to the rest of us to show these disheartened kids that what they were taught in their 9th grade American History class, the promise of the unalienable rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is real. "How are long are you going to be here?" I asked a handful of occupiers. "We are going to be here until the end." For the Zuccotti Park protestors, the hope of rebuilding America to the land of equal opportunity is something worth waiting for.

To watch videos of my visit to Zuccotti park, please visit Good Business International, Inc.

Monika Mitchell is a renowned thought leader on socially responsible business and the co-author of a soon-to-be-released book, "Conversations with Wall Street: The Inside Story of the Financial Armageddon and How to Prevent the Next One."(ebook October, print November) editor@good-b.com