Critical, confused, and eager to involve myself in activism in New York City. This is how I would describe myself four months ago. I had just graduated from college and started my first full-time job as a case manager, working at a non-profit dedicated to advocating for the homeless.
When I began working, I was highly concerned with filling the role of a radical or anti-oppressive case manager. I decided I would intentionally discuss macro social structures with clients, encourage them to attend protests, inform them of community-based organizations in their neighborhoods to join, discuss capitalism, racism, classism, and sexism with them, and openly address my own privilege as not only as a white heterosexual woman from a upper middle-class background, but also as their case manager. I came to the position with experience as a tenant organizer. For my undergraduate thesis on community organizing, I read literature on the non-profit industrial complex and its limitations for enacting radical social change. I believed that in a more ideal world case management would cease to exist because social services would be readily available, easily accessible, and effective in dismantling oppressive structures.
However, as I learned more about my role as a case manager and as I watched the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement emerge, my notions of what a radical case manager is or should be shifted. Just over a month after beginning my job, the OWS movement began. Feeling insecure about my role as case manager, overwhelmed by a heavy case load of clients, and skeptical of the limits of social-service based agencies, I found myself at OWS daily after work. Remarkably, people were taking to the streets, utilizing new tactics, such as occupation and consensus-based decision making, on a large scale, and vocalizing their anger about the American political climate in direct ways. I was inspired by the movement, having been present on day one and witnessed it evolve into an organized, increasingly diverse movement that did not conform to or have to deal with the limits (such as restrictions imposed by funders and the state, bureaucracy, hierarchy of job positions, etc.) of non-profit social-service organizations.
Despite my excitement over OWS, I thought to myself over and over: could I see my clients at Zuccotti Park? Would they feel comfortable? How is this movement serving them? How do they fit into the 99%? As the movement began to receive more criticism for being predominately represented by white, male, privileged college students, my concerns about the exclusivity, language, and image of the movement increased. While I participated in several marches with my organization in solidarity with OWS, very few clients attended. Clients were too busy to involve themselves or, I speculated, turned-off by the whitewashed and oftentimes spectacle-like image of OWS.
For obvious reasons, it is troubling that a movement that claims to be fighting against economic greed lacked so many marginalized voices and oftentimes failed to adequately include racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia into its message and analysis. However, movements like OWS can, potentially, practice new forms of direct action, act without having to conform to the non-profit industrial complex, and spark the radical imagination necessary for envisioning a world without capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. One of my favorite signs at OWS read: “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible”- a statement which underscores the necessity of acting towards and imagining a radically different world. As Angela Davis so poignantly put it during a speech to OWS, the movement must encourage the public to “imagine a world outside of capitalism” and to build a “complex unity” that recognizes the differences within the 99%.
Simultaneously, OWS runs into challenges that community organizations might better address. Community organizations and non-profits, for all their flaws, have the potential to act as long-standing vehicles for social change, can put the time and effort into reaching out to and gaining the trust and leadership of marginalized communities (many such organizations are led by traditionally marginalized groups), and can provide tangible resources to oppressed communities. While OWS made efforts to work with community-based organizations and non-profits (although sometimes in paternalistic ways), it is important that the movement and community-based organizations build upon their strengths so that social change occurs in a variety of forms- from providing a service to a client to occupying a foreclosed home.
Over the course of OWS unfolding, my ideas on radical case management shifted. I found I was too busy meeting the needs of clients to constantly incorporate political projects directly into case management. I also found that overt political conversations could make clients think I was pushing my own agenda onto them. When relevant, I share my political perspective with clients, but more often I find that acting as a good case manager-advocating for clients, practicing supportive listening, empowering clients to act as their own advocates, and working with clients to not just survive a fundamentally flawed social and political system but work towards happiness and stability-is in fact an essential and transformative way of enacting social change. Oftentimes, I feel that my clients do not need to be lectured on oppression-they are well aware.
As an activist whose ideal visions of the world are anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and feminist, I believe in the necessity of revolution. Revolution can take unexpected forms: small acts of change need not be underestimated. Thus, the importance of working on personal levels with individuals struggling under and resisting oppressive social structures. OWS, while oftentimes frustrating, has forced me to reflect on and strengthen my belief in the radical potential of case management. Case management must include radical visions and demands at personal and interpersonal levels, and at larger, macro-levels. When working against an oppressive social service system, it is essential to make demands that might be construed as “impossible” by hegemonic forces, but are in fact necessary for the oppressed and for society at large to truly resemble the world we imagine, the world we want, and the world we so desperately need.