Downtown Phoenix community advocate uses social media as driving force for change

Sean Sweat, an active leader in downtown Phoenix, has spearheaded projects focused on improving the pedestrian experience. He also has helped bring together the Occupy Phoenix movement. (Madeline Pado/DD)

Cesar Chavez Plaza is strangely crowded for a Saturday. Save the occasional big game or First Friday, downtown Phoenix usually feels a lot like those old Western ghost towns snowbirds pay out the nose to visit with their grandkids.

Today, though, a large crowd is gathered under Occupy Phoenix picket signs and large tents.

The heat is powerful for a late-October afternoon as Sean Sweat cruises south down First Avenue on his fire-engine-red bicycle. He makes a left on Washington Avenue and locks his bike to a parking meter just outside of the plaza.

Sweat’s thick but neatly trimmed beard is only a shade darker than his short, dirty-blond hair. His striking blue eyes stand out against his skin, which is tan for a blond but not for most Arizonans. He’s stocky, but nowhere near fat, and stands about 5 foot 7.

“Although in my head, I’m 6’0,” he says, half-kidding.

Sweat is articulate, focused and chronically brainstorming. He’s known for his social-media activism and commitment to numerous local causes, and prefers to be called an advocate, not an activist.

“I hate that word,” he says regularly.

His entrance on his collapsible bike isn’t exactly Robin Hood on horseback, come to greet his merry men. Still, Sweat walks with authority into the Occupy Phoenix general assembly in a burgundy-and-gray flannel shirt, dark-wash jeans and his signature brown cowboy boots.

Guy Fawkes masks litter the crowd. Next to an improvised drum circle, a woman is dancing in a breezy skirt and bra made of fabric flowers. The Occupy Phoenix protesters comprise a wide range of personalities and lifestyles, but they all have two distinct commonalities: their cause and their eccentricity.

Sweat, a downtown Phoenix resident, dives into the scene, bypassing the drum circle and laughing at the anarchist tent. He takes a quick head count – 200 to 220, he estimates – and tunes in and out of the general-assembly dialogue.

As the speaker, a videographer, asks the assembly for an assistant to help him film, other participants echo his statements and lift their arms in the air.

A sea of fluttering fingers rises above the crowd, abandoning phones, pockets and pens to flurry in the air. The demonstrators lift and wiggle their fingers when they agree with the speaker’s sentiment, and they wave them down toward the floor when they oppose. It’s a crude means of communication, but it effectively expresses popular opinion.

Sweat checks his phone and quickly slides it back into his pocket. Finger fluttering isn’t really his thing – he prefers a digital thumbs-up on Facebook.

“I think it feels a little culty sometimes,” he says, frowning at the fingers.

Sweat listens to the general assembly, struggling to assemble a formal list of grievances – corruption, abuse of power, etc. – but seems frustrated.

“We’ve hashed this into the fucking ground; let’s move on,” he grumbles. “If you can’t be efficient in today’s world, you’re going to have real trouble being effectual.”

About 10 minutes later, a teacher named Michael approaches Sweat with a handshake. He’s a leader in the movement, and he has a proposition for Sweat.

“We want you to serve as a sort of judge … for the website and social media,” Michael says.

Sweat accepts.

They relocate to outside the Central Court building on Jefferson Street and pull chairs together in an outdoor seating area with two other men working for the cause. Sweat watches a brief run-through of the online activities of Occupy Phoenix. The conversation floats from social-media efforts to the organization of occupyphoenix.net.

“I don’t think we need a home button,” Sweat says, scrolling across the page quickly. “This organization should be tighter.”

One of the men pauses to tell a story about police staking out his house, allegedly targeting him for his involvement in Occupy Phoenix.

“I think we’re on a tangent right now, let’s get back on track,” Sweat says, redirecting the group to the task at hand. “Let’s keep to the design.”

***

Molded by a middle-class Texas upbringing and an Ivy League graduate degree, Sean Sweat is a man of contradictions. He can act like an apologetically brash cowboy, but he’s a thoughtful, rising star in the emerging world of digital grassroots activism. He’s a white-collar worker – a supply-chain engineer at Intel – who fights Phoenix City Hall and battles urban blight. Now, he’s a leader in Occupy Phoenix, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Disenchanted with establishment, emerging activists around the world and in the United States rely on social media to motivate their peers to take action against what they perceive as an oppressive, corrupt or inept government.

In an age when some consider virtual interaction as valuable as actual interface, activists such as Sweat utilize social media to initiate meaningful, widespread connections with an almost infinite audience.

This year was a landmark for social media, which served as a critical tool for activists in three successful coups d’état — the downfall of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak; the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya; the trampling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt presidency of Tunisia.

In Arizona, activists such as Sweat use Facebook and social media to try to instigate social change, or, as Sweat describes, to “get our message out, motivate people to get off their asses and bombard them with reasons why this cause is worth their time.”

His aptitude for advocacy via social media developed over the last year and a half, first during his efforts to cook up local endorsement of a community dog park downtown.

Since then, he’s used his skill in so many projects in the downtown area that his girlfriend nicknamed him “a Sean of all trades.”

Sweat is a proponent of taller buildings, fewer cars and bigger crowds. The underlying commonality in his projects is the effort to improve the pedestrian experience in Phoenix, which Sweat says is demeaned by roads that feel like highways, parking lots and, worst of all, barren lots. Recognizing pedestrians as taxpayers with equal rights as drivers to the roads, Sweat is dedicated to improving “urban vibrancy” and the pedestrian experience downtown.

Sweat makes his feelings about recent downtown development clear: “They’re total morons,” he says.

The year-old downtown Phoenix retail, restaurant and office center CityScape was designed with poor customer accessibility, he says. The Valley Metro light rail isn’t extensive enough, and Seventh Street, which borders downtown neighborhoods, feels like a highway. According to Sweat, it’s “depressing to experience.”

His advocacy is geared toward a more pedestrian-friendly downtown, he says. Occupy Phoenix, however, isn’t exactly another dog park.

“The banks got bailed out, but the citizens got screwed,” he says.

Occupy Phoenix, a local offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, is comprised of a loosely organized coalition of activists protesting what they see as a corrupt governmental system. (Stephanie Snyder/DD)

“Occupy Wall Street is necessary; thank God it’s finally happening.”

Sweat was not part of the original organization of Occupy Phoenix, but he got involved online.

“Occupy Phoenix needs help,” Sweat wrote on the Occupy Wall Street main Facebook page on Oct. 19. “The movement here is overly compliant with illegal municipal laws that violate their First Amendment rights, turning it into an extended camping trip (in which no one is allowed to sleep in the plaza) instead of a protest.”

“Who’s the admin for this page?” Sweat wrote on Occupy Phoenix’s Facebook wall a day earlier. “Please message me.”

Modern activists like Sweat connect with one another on Facebook to spread support and invite friends to “like” the post or cause.

Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Phoenix certainly have not been without their critics.

Both ultra-conservatives and staunch liberals label the movement anti-Semitic, radical and nihilist, often pointing to the movement’s most ardent supporters to illustrate their claims.

Phoenix officials, like Police Department spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump, claim that the supplementary police officers, firefighters and park employees have cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars – an ironic blow to Occupy Phoenix demonstrators, who are protesting mismanagement of money and wasteful spending.

“The cost incurred to taxpayers is currently about $240 (thousand) to $250,000 dollars,” Sgt. Crump said in an email Nov. 22.

“We have made about 75 arrest related to the protest. The charges have ranged from trespassing, camping on city property and charges relating to obstructing traffic.”

Every week that passes, these figures rise.

Despite resistance and a lack of measurable gains, Sweat says he’s still encouraged by the ideals behind the Occupy movement and stirred by those who support it.

“Not everyone is going to support this movement, that’s a given. (But) these days everybody’s a talker, I’m proud of those who are finally doing,” Sweat says.

***

Rick and Judy Sweat delivered their firstborn, Sean, in Euless, Texas, on Nov. 12, 1981. The Sweats bore his sister, Kristen, three years later and raised their family in Bedford, Texas.

Sweat graduated from high school in the mostly White Dallas suburb before heading north to Austin College to get his bachelor’s degree in physics. He made it out of his first round of college with a small gauge piercing, but no real harm done.

He pursued his master’s degree in industrial engineering at Columbia University from 2004-06, and then in transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until 2008.

Sweat got a job at Intel in 2008 as a capital supply-chain engineer in Chandler.

“Supply chain is kind of a subfield of industrial engineering,” Sweat explains. “It’s basically the flow of money and goods up and down between companies and customers and sources.”

Valley of the Sunflowers is a community-service project led by Sean Sweat (far left) and others and funded through grants from Intel. Volunteers maintain a sunflower patch that fills a downtown Phoenix lot. (Kristin Fankhauser/DD)

At Intel, Sweat looked for opportunities to finance his community advocacy. This year, the company gave him $22,000 in grants to use in community-service projects. Sweat, partnering with members of Roosevelt Row, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering business and arts in the downtown Roosevelt neighborhood, used the grant money to create the Valley of the Sunflowers on a blighted two-acre lot downtown. He hopes the sunflowers will encourage residents to walk, not drive.

Naturally, Sweat built the Valley of the Sunflowers Facebook page as soon as the project emerged. With nearly a thousand “likes,” 68 uploaded pictures from various volunteers and weekly “VOS Volunteer Day” events, the sunflowers are thriving.

“Facebook has definitely been our key communication method with people about the sunflowers,” Sweat says. “It’s how we bustle up volunteers, and it’s a good medium for spreading pictures around. It’s been pretty key to getting the word out.”

All it took was Facebook, hard work, determination and Sweat.

***

Sweat is assertive, determined and willing to invest his own money into battling what he sees as poor city planning. At his own expense, Sweat filed a civil suit in the Maricopa County Superior Court against Phoenix on Feb. 1 of this year. He fought to overturn a permit granting the use of a vacant lot, the former site of the Ramada Inn between First and Second streets and Polk and Taylor streets, for a 90,000-square-foot parking lot for the duration of five years.

Yes, that parking lot.

He alleged the lot would emit odor, light and pollution into an already parking-lot-heavy downtown. Once again, he had pedestrians in mind.

After five years, the city planned to sell the site to Arizona State University for the construction of a new law-school. However, Sweat pointed out in court, ASU did not yet have the resources to build it.

In lieu of a parking lot, Sweat proposed the space be used for a community dog park. While the dog-park suggestion wasn’t enough to stop the Phoenix Board of Adjustment from granting the permit, it also wasn’t enough to stop Sweat from suing.

Earlier this year, Sean Sweat filed a civil suit protesting the creation of the "green" parking lot across the street from Taylor Place. Despite his efforts, the judge upheld the parking-lot permit. Sweat had hoped the lot, where a vacant Ramada Inn formerly stood, could be used to create a community dog park. (Stephanie Snyder/DD)

This dog-park dogfight marked the beginnings of Sweat’s social-media advocacy. He reached out to the Phoenix community through Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

“I kind of wish I could go back and watch that happening,” Sweat says.

“I wasn’t aware of how my social media skills grew … somehow it turned into a valid skill set and social-media base, but it wasn’t my intention. It wasn’t on purpose.”

He volunteered about 40 unpaid hours every week from February to July to the parking-lot project, writing countless messages to supporters. He rallied downtown Phoenix residents behind him, catapulting himself into the forefront of what turned into a battle between profit-driven City Hall and community-fostering Sean Sweat.

Unfortunately for Sweat, his appeal was unsuccessful.

Though thoroughly disappointed, Sweat wasn’t surprised. He believes the judge “didn’t understand the case properly.”

Sweat dropped the project, at least temporarily. He moved on to his next venture, folding the dog park into the deeper drawers of his mind.

***

It’s 87 degrees the morning of Saturday, Oct. 15, hours before the Occupy Phoenix protests are scheduled to commence. Seven people gather outside Conspire coffee house downtown, donning work gloves and rubbing sunscreen on their noses. As Sweat begins to announce the morning’s plan, their faces shine with the sunscreen’s greasy glow. It’s the sixth weekend of volunteer-driven Valley of the Sunflowers maintenance.

Sweat wears a blue shirt and black hat, both advertising Intel, jeans and his brown cowboy boots. He’ll stop by the protest later, but right now he is focused on the task at hand.

“I hate trimming,” says one of the volunteers.

“It’s a necessary evil,” counters Sweat.

This morning, the volunteers file up and down each row of over-planted sunflower sprouts, plucking the smallest plants to allow the larger ones more soil and space to expand in. They’re supposed to leave about six inches in between each sprout for ample wiggle room.

Over-planting is an intentional gardening technique to get the best sunflowers possible. The extra plants are plucked and discarded around the field, where their nutrients are absorbed back into the soil.

Sweat, squatting, can’t decide between two promising looking sprouts. They’re among the healthiest in the field, but they are only a quarter inch apart. He shrugs and plucks the left one, then tosses it aside.

“I feel like a total bastard,” he says, smirking with the left side of his mouth. “I feel like I’m stealing potential.”

One of the volunteers, ASU third-semester sophomore and sustainability major Shannon Jenkins, yells to Sweat to stop this “sunflower genocide.”

“It’s unnatural selection,” Sweat says, chuckling. He plucks another one and coos to it. “I’ll put your carcass here, to help the others.”

“Dark!” yells Jenkins.

After three hours, the volunteers finish their work for the day, still cheery but noticeably sweaty.

“Thank you for coming,” says Sweat. “Upload your pictures … tell your friends!”

***

Sweat sits in front of his HP laptop, eyes glued to the screen. It’s early December, and he is frustrated. The other Occupy Phoenix leaders don’t seem to share his constructive, organized efficiency, which exasperates him.

“The whole organization of all of it is insanely frustrating, even in the social-media area,” he says. “I’ve kind of hit my patience threshold from all of it, and I don’t have the energy to herd a bunch of cats.”

Though admittedly dejected by the lack of professionalism and effectiveness of individuals leading Occupy Phoenix, he’s still committed to the ideals behind the movement. So, while he may no longer frequent Caesar Chavez Plaza, his medium for advocacy continues to literally link him to the cause.

He uploads a Huffington Post article onto his Facebook questioning the fortification of Occupy Wall Street protesters’ First Amendment rights, and it gets 10 likes, nine comments and two shares within a few hours.

“I support them however I can, but from an organizational perspective, it’s time for me to step out,” he says.

Get to know him, and this is not surprising. He’s Sean Sweat, a brazen community advocate, and he will do things his way – what he deems the right way – or he’ll go it alone.

“I’m working on other projects in the community that interest me,” he says, when asked what’s next. “It’s a little early to talk about this, but I’m actually working on dog-park stuff again.”

When he’s ready, Sweat will tell you all about it. Just check his Facebook and Twitter.

Contact the reporter at melauer@asu.edu

Correction: March 1, 2012

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sweat traveled south from Dallas to Austin College. Austin College is located in Sherman, Texas, which is approximately 60 miles north of Dallas.

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