April 5, 2013.
We Are the “Liberty Plaza”
It’s so good to be here with all of you.
Earlier today, Sam Anderson talked about power, Kevin Kumashiro talked about movement, and Karen Lewis talked about action. Now, I would like to talk about public space, which, I believe, is a precondition of all of these.
Given that this event is called “Occupy DOE,” it may make sense to talk about the Occupy movement first.
How many of you have been to so-called “Liberty Plaza” during the Occupy Wall Street? How many of you have seen Zuccotti Park after the movement?
Of course, Liberty Plaza and Zuccotti Park signify the same geographical space, but I ask this question because Zuccotti Park and Liberty Plaza—that is, Zuccotti Park during the Occupy—are two fundamentally different spaces. If you go there now, you would not believe that the space used to be the home of the Occupy movement, with hundreds of people and tents, library, kitchen, and various centers providing unique workshops. It was so lively with all the engaging conversations, music, and activities. Liberty Plaza was huge and I even remember feeling lost at one point. On the other hand, what strikes me about Zuccotti Park today is how small it looks. It looks stunningly empty, cold, and lifeless. The holiday season Christmas lights and ornaments put up by the City seemed nothing more than a disgrace.
Looking back, there was something so symbolic about how Occupiers renamed Zuccotti Park “Liberty Plaza.” What it signified was that the name Zuccotti Park became no longer sufficient to represent their lived space, and that the space they created had become fundamentally different from what was previously known as Zuccotti Park.
Now, I have a great mentor named Maxine Greene. She is a philosopher of education and imagination and continues to teach today at the age of 95. I work closely with her as her teaching assistant, and she is one of the major reasons that I do what I do today.
In 1988, Maxine wrote a book called The Dialectic of Freedom. Just as Kevin Kumashiro urged us this morning to question the “common sense” to which corporate ‘deformers’ are appealing in order to sell their policies, Maxine starts the book by disrupting two fundamental assumptions of U.S. society. First is freedom. She points out the tragedy of how Americans think they are born free. The false assumption of freedom—that it is something endowed by the government at birth—anesthetizes Americans, depriving them of direction and agency. Second, she conceptualizes public space as a pre-condition of freedom and troubles the widespread assumption that public spaces already exist in parks and squares. Do they? What is so public about the empty Zuccotti Park today?
Maxine believes that authentic public space is not a physical space but something that emerges among individuals when they come together in plurality with a sense of incompleteness and possibility. First of all, an authentic public place would not be possible in a totalitarian community where people are denied their individualities and forced to think in the same way. Look at us. Today, we have gathered here from various places: New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, California, Oregon, Denver, not to mention Japan where I come from. We have different backgrounds, experiences, voices, and perhaps we may disagree even on some of the educational issues. Yet, improvisational, collaborative art forms like jazz helps us understand that our individualities are in fact the very ingredients of beauty and possibility. Just like jazz musicians who come together with different instruments and musicalities, we will make music together, listening carefully to each other, attuning to the rhythm and sound played by others, adding each of our unique note to the music, sometimes provoking, pushing back, redirecting, imagining and resonating. This is an open-ended undertaking that requires participants’ willingness to take risks, but this unpredictability at once becomes the music of possibility that takes musicians to places where they cannot go alone or ever return. In this sense, an authentic public space is like jazz that emerges like chemical reactions among diverse musicians.
However, a coming together of diverse individuals alone does not lead to the creation of a public space. There needs to be a strong enough force that holds them together amidst the differences and dissonances, so that individuals would patiently listen to each other in an effort to create harmonies. This force often takes the form of shared struggle. A legendary jazz musician Wynton Marsalis has once said that what draws many Black musicians into playing jazz is their exclusion from participating in the American society and their longing for a civic participation.
The “sense of incompleteness” manifests itself in the form of resistance when it is shared among individuals who come together. One of the books Maxine often refers to is a novel by Albert Camus (1947) called The Plague. The plague suddenly breaks out in a society much like ours, where people are preoccupied with earning money and entertaining private hobbies. To prevent the plague from spreading, the entire town of Oran becomes segregated from the external world. With no trains coming in or going out, no guarantee that the town gates will ever be reopened, the people of Oran gradually find escape in pleasures and extravagance. Cafes and restaurants are quickly filled and the streets become crowded with drunk men and women. Regardless of these gatherings of people, the first time a public space emerges in the novel is when a group of individuals—a doctor, clerk, tourist, journalist, and others—come together to create a “sanitary squad.” Not knowing what they can do or how effective they can be, they come together because of a shared urge to fight the plague.
A geographer Don Mitchell calls our attention to the notion of “public” and says, “it is by struggling over and within space that the natures of ‘the public’ and of democracy are defined.” Today, we have gathered here with a sense of incompleteness and the urge to fight the plague. Yet, it is this very sense of incompleteness that unites us and at once embodies our possibilities. Paulo Freire (1970) reminds us, “Hopelessness is but hope that has lost its bearing.” Maxine, too, urges us to be patient and see the dark always in a dialectical relationship to the light. She teaches us that it is only when we perceive hopelessness and hope as separate entities that they become mutually exclusive. Once we recognize the oneness of the two and their interdependent relationship, then we know that they secure two ends of one spectrum, constantly reinforcing the possibility of each other. Hopelessness is not a void, but darkness that awaits the light of hope that is yet to come.
Another lesson we can take away from the Occupy movement is that a public space is never permanent. It’s fluid, dynamic, alive, and therefore evanescent. Unfortunately, the Liberty Plaza has been reclaimed by Zuccotti Park once again. Yet, this should not discourage us, for it only calls for our resilient effort to create and recreate it.
Chris Hedges, a journalist I admire has said, “It’s better to think of Occupy not as a movement but as a tactic.” The movement may have died but the spirit of civil disobedience and the seeds of public space live on as we can see in the Chicago Teachers Union strike, MAP boycott by Garfield High School teachers in Seattle, and more parents opting their children out of high stakes testing in states such as New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania. We should also acknowledge that the seeds of public space live in each of us who have come together today. It’s not that we came together in a pre-existing public space. We came here to the footsteps of the U.S. Department of Education and together created a public space. Next time, we will perhaps reconvene elsewhere to create another one. I’m reminded of a beautiful sign that appeared in Zuccotti Park immediately after the eviction of occupiers. On a cardboard it said, “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”
Today, we have proven it. “Liberty Plaza” is here, everyone. It’s us. We are the public space.
Now, there is one keyword missing not only from the corporate deforms but all the resistance against it. That is “imagination.” In 1995, Maxine Greene wrote a book titled Releasing the Imagination. In it, she writes, “In many respects, teaching and learning are matters of breaking through barriers—of expectation, of boredom, of predefinition” (p. 14). Later she writes,
To tap into imagination is to become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real. It is to see beyond what the imaginer has called normal or ‘common-sensible’ and to carve out new orders in experience. Doing so, a person may become freed to glimpse what might be, to form notions of what should be and what is not yet” (p. 19).
Maxine also conceptualizes imagination on a collective level and calls it “social imagination.” As I understand it, it signifies a cyclical process of social dialogue, reflection, and experiment for the purposes of intervening in the given reality as if it could be otherwise.
One of the experiments some of us are undertaking is a conference titled “Reclaiming the Conversation on Education” scheduled on May 4 in NYC.
One thing I’m learning from my involvement in organizing this conference is the power of idea-based initiatives. Rather than being organized by one organization, its organizers participate from various organizations without their organizational badges: Peter Taubman from Brooklyn College, Barbara Madeloni from Can’t Be Neutral, Janine Sopp from Change the Stakes, Lisa Edstrom from Parent Voices New York, Ruth P. Silverberg and myself from Edu4… That is because we started with an idea of having a conference that brings together various education stakeholders and activists. It’s just a bunch of like-minded individuals coming together to do something. In a large sense, this Occupy DOE is the same thing. We have come together not because it is organized by United Opt Out but because we resonated with its vision to “occupy the U.S. Department of Education.” The power of such an idea-based initiative is that it reduces organizational egos/frictions that so often prevent us from collaborating with each other.
I am reminded of how Wynton Marsalis said we will never see child prodigies in jazz: “You will not see that because this music deals with the world a certain way and with humanity, and it requires a certain type of adult understanding of the complexities of things that are going on. So you talk about Duke Ellington, you’re talking about your genius, the most sophisticated, most adult.” To participate in the creation of public spaces perhaps requires similar characteristics of maturity such as patience, empathy, capacity to listen, understanding, appreciation, courage to speak up, willingness to take risks, humility, hope, resilience, and love. Maxine, quoting Hannah Arendt, puts it this way: “The aim is to find (or create) an authentic public space, that is, one in which diverse human beings can appear before one another as…‘the best they know how to be.’”
While striving for human decency, we will move from one place to another, uniting diverse individuals under a vision, creating public spaces for social imagination, and connecting those spaces. That is how we make a movement.
I want to end this speech with something Maxine wrote in 1988, as I believe its message might resonate with us even stronger today:
“We may have reached a moment in our history when teaching and learning, if they are to happen meaningfully, must happen on the verge. Confronting a void, confronting nothingness, we may be able to empower the young to create and re-create a common world—and, in cherishing it, in renewing, discover what it signifies to be free.”
 Greene, M. (1988) The dialectic of freedom. New York: Teachers College
 West, C. (1997) Restoring hope: conversations on the future of Black America. Boston: Beacon.
 Mitchell, D. (March, 1995) The end of public space? People's park, definitions of the public, and democracy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 85, No. 1., pp. 108-133.
 Freire, P. (1994) New York: Continuum.
 Greene, M. (1995) Releasing the imagination: essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
 West, C. (1997) p. 135
 Greene, M. (1988) p. xi.
 Greene, M. (1988) p. 23
Here is the actual speech (
Here is the actual speech (
Daiyu Suzuki at Occupy the Dept of Ed from Schoolhouse Live on Vimeo.