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Learning to Be Happy, Part 2
Little pressure here: our humanity depends on it

by DK Holland

We are drawn to work with people, often strangers, in order to solve problems we care passionately about. Dilemmas we can't resolve alone. The “liberated” Liberty Square, a sliver of land in the midst of the most expensive property in New York City’s Financial District—formerly called Zuccotti Park after the park’s developer—where OWS was birthed is two steps from the Federal Reserve, one step from Goldman Sachs and Ground Zero. A human beehive in the middle of a hornet’s nest, Liberty Square survived against the odds for two months. This tarp town was a combo of human ingenuity and technology with a clinic, kitchen, library, media center, press center, meditation tree with lots of tents and air mattresses. OWS learned to be a tribe there, neurons firing, empathy flowing, in the process that helped early Homo sapiens build trust and love, to bind their tribes together.

The new trans media generation is used to hearing/digesting/sorting out many disparate voices, opinions, mindsets. It’s part of modern cognitive development. The younger generation can also use their wild imaginations to make the impossible possible. I met a man holding the hand of his seven-year-old daughter, Rose, at the edge of the square. It was her choice to come. They looked daunted, had yet to take the plunge and immerse themselves in OWS. I asked the girl, “What can kids do to help, Rose?” Without hesitation she replied in earnest, “Kids can fly and they can become invisible!” Thank you Harry Potter.

Many young kids visited the square with teachers and parents as word spread about its liberation. Some brought homemade cookies to share. Mostly they observed adult OWS protesters in constant communication, sharing, debating, expressing indignation and despair over the injustices in our American system while being intoxicated with the sheer happiness of being in community. The kids could see that all were welcomed into the square, known, unknown, even the troublesome misanthropes were included in an ideological group embrace. On November 15, the residents of Liberty Square were evicted, 200 of its leaders arrested.

OWS has chosen to organize in an ultra democratic Quaker structure; committees meet separately but then convene as one “leaderless” General Assembly (GA) to achieve consensus in all their major decisions. Since amplified sound systems are not allowed, they repeat all messages in a bucket brigade of voices—the creative system now known as the “human microphone.” When those in the GA shake their hands over their heads it means “approval.”7 The non-hierarchical Quaker process is slow and ponderous, but it’s also as egalitarian as you can get. If maintained and honored, it’s incorruptible since there are no significant power struggles or jockeying for position.

The OWS protesters (or change agents to put a positive spin on it) are learning to organize in a new way, retraining their brains to look at the world differently. Jason Ahmadi, who is also on the board of the War Resisters League, lived in Liberty Square since day one. He serves on several of the working committees including the non-violent communications mediations team. He says, “Liberty Square was created to have peaceful dialogue. It was hard to maintain a combative attitude there. Empathy is created as mirror neurons fire. The beauty of being human is that we can transcend our animal nature, we have consciousness that shows us we have a choice.” I sat with the well-dressed Ahmadi in the square. He was wearing flip flops. It was a chilly fall evening. “Where are your shoes?” I asked. The police had taken his shoe strings and then one shoe got ruined. “You’re going to need shoes. It’s getting cold!” He seemed unconcerned saying, “I’ll go look in the donations bin later.” He went on, as if his comfort were unimportant, saying, “Everything is organized to be horizontal and transparent at OWS. There are leaders in OWS but there is no power on top of someone else.” I asked about the Occupied Wall Street Journal, by far the best designed communication vehicle of the movement; yet it’s not the voice of OWS, since it hasn’t been vetted by the GA.

The Canadian-based magazine Adbusters is credited with sending out the clarion call to start a revolution on September 17 by publishing a now iconic image of a ballerina pirouetting on the back of a huge brass bull as troopers in gas masks stand menacingly. The bull, symbolizes the confidence of the stock market. This brass sculpture has been a tourist attraction for years, just blocks from Liberty Square. Some artist sculpted it. Some photographer shot the photos. Some designer designed the poster, some designer designed the journal. Each has had massive impact. This is the power artists wield.

A good friend of mine, a high achiever in the world of Wall Street as well as a humble food co-op member, said recently, “We’re all little people and it’s a big world—it’s what we think we can make of ourselves in it that drives us. We all die in the end.” Yet Derek Parfit, thought to be the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world, says personal identity doesn’t matter. The self is an illusion. What matters is a future we will not inhabit. But if ego doesn’t matter, where do we find impetus for change? A lone street vendor in Tunisia gave up his life, inspiring the Tunisian revolution that inspired the Arab Spring including the occupations of Tahrir Square and Liberty Square. The Occupy movement has since spread around the world. The butterfly’s wings have flapped. The gutsy, passionate people of all these countries—the 99 percent—will not rest till they witness change they can believe in. They are willing to give up everything, even their own lives. They want what we all want: to be happy, they want self-rule, direct democracy. We may be on different sides of the planet but on this we are in accord. And, in this complex world, full of irony and contradiction, pain and suffering, Parfit would point out, if we can agree on what we value, that is the hope for the future, for happiness. CA

3.    WGBH Nova: Becoming Human, a three-part series.
5.    Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death and Technology. Educator's Edition available ( and join the conversation at
6.    Design Issues: "Thinking in Systems: Design and Otherwise, Part 1," Communication Arts, (July/August, 2010) p. 18; Design Issues: "Thinking in Systems: Design and Otherwise, Part 2," Communication Arts, (September/October, 2010) p. 21.
7.    Known as Quaker applause, used at the rise of Silent Meetings to acknowledge a positive event while maintaining silence. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.