Occupy, Simply ‘Occupy’

“Occupy Wall Street” has changed from an advertised brand of public-action therapy in Manhattan to a generic social drug called “Occupy.” The new drug is being prescribed and administered in cities far and wide, in this country and now abroad, by self-licensed community healers who have decided that current public policy remedies are damaging their nations’ health. This is getting more interesting by the day. Lech Walesa is flying from Poland to New York in response to the big question: “Which side are you on?” Entrepreneur Russell Simmons of Def Jam and Phat Farm spoke up for the action this week. More and more “known” people are lending their support. Right-wing commentors are increasingly agitated by the protests. The amorphous nature of the complaint is allowing all kinds of folks to fill in the blank with their own squawk. It’s one thing to hold that 3 percent is an acceptable, normal unemployment rate, but another thing for the Congressional majority to act as if 10 percent is acceptable.

When I graduated from college in 1976 the economy in Lowell, the state, and nationwide was hurting. One part of the federal response was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which provided funds for jobs in public agencies and nonprofit organizations. There may have been a private-sector component to CETA, but I’m not sure. Many twenty-somethings in Greater Lowell used the CETA opportunity to get into the workforce and gain experience. I know people who were placed in town halls, school departments, mental health agencies, social service organizations, and the like. I was hired for the first time as a writer through a CETA position at then-ULowell. When my contract expired, and the term was limited, I moved on to a nonprofit organization management position and other jobs as I moved ahead. The CETA program was short-lived and in some places was criticized for abuses and patronage excesses, but I know many people, unconnected politically, for whom it was an important part of the social safety net.

In Lowell, CETA was used in progressive ways. The Human Service Corporation in the late 1970s created an artist-jobs program called CityFair with about 10 full-time jobs for city artists who taught workshops in schools, provided graphic design for City Hall materials, demonstrated crafts and fine arts at festivals, and contributed in other ways to the public good. I applied to CityFair to join the group as a creative writer, but was rejected by the program manager: No poets need apply. Fortunately, my application to work as a writer was picked out by Linda Frawley of the then-ULowell Public Relations office, where for two years I learned how to be a news reporter and publications editor. Since then, I’ve worked in a series of public- and private-sector jobs, including being self-employed and running my own small business. Many people today, some with degrees and others with workforce experience, would grab a lifeline from an updated CETA.