Photo by Chelsea McKeown.

The year of the protester is over. The year of the organizer has begun.

Nationwide discussion of burgeoning economic inequality and division of the 1 percent from the 99 percent began with the Occupy Wall Street movement. While Occupy questions economic problems in America, the question plaguing progressive organizers in the movement is: What can be done to make positive change in the United States?

Enter the 99% Spring, a non-violent direct action training program hosting workshops across the United States this April, including an April 14 session in Santa Cruz. Sponsored by a coalition of more than 70 organizations such as MoveOn, Greenpeace and Jobs with Justice, the training seeks to teach people with little or no political organizing experience how to enact widespread social change.

While the effectiveness of the movement is yet to be determined, those orchestrating the 99% Spring want to turn a new page in grassroots organizing efforts.

“I’ve been really fired up the last few months with some things that have been happening politically,” said William Van Vechten, who led the Santa Cruz workshop. “People seem to be taking really powerful stands that I don’t agree with, and I wanted to be heard. When the 99% Spring came along, I thought, well, this is something I can offer.”

The video-based training recounts the history of successful non-violent organizing and outlines tactics and strategy for peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience. Interspersed between video segments, there was time for group discussion, direct action roleplaying and future event planning.

At the Santa Cruz workshop, future plans included a tax day rally at the county courthouse on April 17 and an action with UC Santa Cruz student groups for International Day of Action Workers on May 1.

Despite the workshops’ use of the term “99 percent,” 99% Spring represents an effort distinct from the Wall Street-centered Occupy protests that began last fall.

“[Unlike Occupy,] the 99% Spring is really not about coordinated demands. It’s about empowering people to speak up for what’s important to them,” Van Vechten said.

Stacey WilkBrooks, a city clerk and activist, co-facilitated the event.

“We have taken some of what [Occupy] is doing and [are] moving forward with it in a different way,” she said. “One of the things that is very exciting about this movement is that it is about taking people who’ve never been active before and trying to teach them how to be active, and getting them out there in the streets, making a difference for our world.”

Many people in attendance had little or no experience in political activism. While others told stories about how they or someone they knew was having difficulties with unstable economic conditions and limited political access.

Struggling small business owners, unemployed and uninsured workers, environmental advocates, foreclosure victims, would-be retirees and debt-laden students were among those in attendance. Many were attempting to reach out to the community and find peaceful ways to promote change.

Some, however, including UCSC graduate student Mike King, who wrote a critique of the 99% Spring, view the trainings to be a well-funded “co-optation” of the Occupy movement attempting to neutralize its more radical elements.

Organizers of the workshops continue to assert that the 99% Spring is a separate movement and is more about equipping community members with non-violent strategies.

“Whatever it takes to wake up,” said Lisa Johnson from MoveOn, one of the workshop sponsors. “The last thing we need is infighting.”

Future actions have been planned nationwide, and while only a few will be in Santa Cruz, other cities such as San Francisco will host a number of demonstrations in the near future.

“Like any collective action, even a role-play exercise like this, it’s empowering to have all the energy of all the people you’re engaged with focused on this one thing,” said Phil Johnston, a training participant. “It’s hard to get out on a street corner by yourself and start yelling ‘We are the 99 percent!’ But when you’ve got 100 people out there doing it with you and marching from one place to another, it takes on a life of its own.”