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Potsdam students, teachers, citizens receive lesson in resistance

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POTSDAM — Elise Mills, an English and education major at SUNY Potsdam, came because she was worried that budget cuts and economic problems could jeopardize her future career.

Ginger Storey-Welch, a Potsdam teacher, came because she was outraged at Citizen’s United.

Jess Seaver, another SUNY Potsdam student, attended because she felt helpless in the face of mounting student debt.

Others came because they were fed up. Because they felt powerless. Because they wanted to do something to change the world.

A diverse group of almost 35 like-minded citizens met on the SUNY Potsdam campus to learn methods of non-violent demonstration on an array of economic and social issues.

“I would say the two primary issues are the growing economic stratification in our society, and the problems with a lack of real representation in democratic decision-making,” said Heather Sullivan-Catlin, a sociology professor at SUNY Potsdam and organizer of the event.

The session was part of a larger national movement, the 99% Spring training, an effort by liberal public-policy advocacy group MoveOn.org to educate 100,000 individuals across the country to become leaders in collective action, said Ms. Sullivan-Catlin.

“This is a training, the actual action will emerge from the group here,” she said. “There are about 1,000 different trainings happening all following the same model. The idea here is that we’re going to learn the background, then come together and plan steps for action.”

The training curriculum, normally a seven-hour marathon of grievances, shared discussion, education and planning, was bottled into an intense three-hour session that included break-out discussions, personal stories and role-playing.

Early in the session, participants broke out into groups of four to tell individual stories about why they came to the training.

“I feel like the economy is destroying opportunities for teachers,” said Ms. Mills. “I feel like I won’t be able to find a job in my chosen field, because there won’t be any teaching positions left.”

Ms. Seaver said she is dealing with aging parents and crippling student loan debt.

“My father is getting older, and when he does retire, I don’t know what we’ll do,” she said. “I have $25,000 in student loans, no one in my family has health insurance — if somebody gets sick, I might have to drop out of college.”

Ms. Storey-Welch held out hope that their training might help make a difference.

“Because people care a lot and won’t back down, change will inevitably happen,” she said.

Afterwards, the whole group reconvened to find the common threads in their stories.

“I hear some commonalities in our stories,” said Ms. Sullivan-Catlin. “People are worried about the cost of survival. This is not about luck and hard work, this is about the redistribution of wealth upward into the hands of a few.”

Later in the training session, participants learned methods to defuse tense situations between protesters and counter-protesters. There was an emphasis on using a calm tone of voice, avoiding intimidating body posture and limited hand gestures.

One exercise, called a hassle line, had participants face off against each other to practice dealing with conflict.

“This is why we have this training,” said George Gonds, co-organizer of the session. “Before you can go talk to an executive as a protester, you need a lot of practice. You need to learn how to stand-up to these people.”

The session ended with a plan to meet again and organize protest.

99 percent, a phrase which emerged from the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, alludes to the concentration of wealth away from the majority of people, the “99 percent,” into the hands of a few.

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