Had you spent a few afternoons hanging out in New York City’s Zuccotti Park—the U.S. headquarters for the high-profile Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement last fall—the odds are high that you would have soon been in the presence of a dynamic young woman named Allison Margaret Kilkenny ’05.
At the tender age of 28, the endlessly energetic Kilkenny is a news media star in the Big Apple. A fast-rising radio and print reporter-columnist—think Citizen Radio, the Huffington Post, The Nation, and In These Times—her hourly updates from the frenetic OWS world won her hundreds of fans each week.
The movement began last September 17, when a handful of protestors dragged sleeping bags and tents into the tiny park in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. Kilkenny estimates she spent more than a hundred hours wandering through the encampment and interviewing dozens of protesters at great length.
Along the way, she talked with union ironworkers, nurses, teachers, truck drivers, Native American activists, gay community leaders, college kids, retirees, volunteer medical workers, and homeless people in search of temporary shelter.
“I’ve been following OWS since its inception, and to be honest with you, I thought at first that it would be a bust,” she said in an interview last October, prior to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s order to remove protestors. They had made the park their home for two months, creating a medical center, library, and kitchen. There was even an effort to make the encampment permanent.
Kilkenny tracked the swelling crowd, presenting herself as a daringly original reporter and in-your-face commentator unafraid of blasting away at what she perceives as the “villains of corrupt American capitalism”—the bonus-happy Wall Street traders, the too-big-to-fail banks, and the tax-dodging corporations.
Her OWS coverage increased her growing national reputation as a fearless scribe determined to lay out her reform-minded vision of contemporary America and challenge the mainstream. One of her essays, “Youth Surviving Subprime,” appears alongside commentary by Ralph Nader, Joseph Stiglitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Naomi Klein in The Nation’s new book titled Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover.
Another example of her bold impact? After writing in a column that lack of health care for millions of Americans was a “disgrace to the nation,” conservative radio commentator and world-famous Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy told his radio listeners that “Allison Kilkenny’s writing makes me want to vomit!”
Her reaction? “That’s okay with me,” barked the ISU English major, “because I’m not a fan of Gordon’s, either!”
A hard-charging street reporter with a keenly sensitive nose for news, Kilkenny prepared for her journalistic adventure while at Illinois State. She landed on campus in the fall of 2001 as the product of middle-class Naperville, where her father sold property insurance for a living.
“I started out wanting to be a communications major, and I figured I’d go into advertising,” she recalled. “But then I did the travel abroad program, and wound up going off to study at a university in Canterbury, England.
“That was an amazing experience. The people I met there were well-traveled, and they soon helped me to understand that the world was a much bigger, much more complicated place than I had previously thought.
“By the time I finished my studies in England, I knew that I didn’t want to go into advertising. It would have crushed my soul! So I decided to change direction and become an English major.”
The shift from advertising to John Donne sonnets and Shakespeare tragedies was life-altering. Kilkenny began to work passionately at improving her writing, a key step on the road to becoming the highly respected and increasingly in demand political columnist and humorist she is today.
The fearless Kilkenny also credits her “tough Irish mother,” Margaret, as a source of major inspiration. “My mom’s a real brassy lady,” she said with a chuckle. “If she sees something wrong, she speaks up. She’s not afraid to embarrass herself or of looking uncool. Really, I think that made a big impression on me—her willingness, if somebody was getting screwed, to stand tall and fight to protect their rights.”
After departing Normal in the summer of 2005, Kilkenny headed off to New York City. She soon met up with Jamie Kilstein, who was working in the Borders Bookstore where Kilkenny got her first job.
“Jamie is a hilarious guy with a very sharp, satirical wit,” she said, “and we were drawn to each other immediately.” They realized over endless cups of coffee that retail work was not their passion.
Determined to break free, the pair gambled everything on a high-spirited ramble across the country. That rollicking odyssey lasted nearly two years. While Kilstein performed as a standup comic at local clubs and colleges, Kilkenny worked odd jobs and polished her writing. By the end of their bold sojourn through all 48 contiguous states, the magna cum laude ISU grad had already begun to sell articles to The Nation, In These Times, and several other progressively oriented publications.
“I really think I’m fortunate,” Kilkenny said of her swift rise in publishing, “in that I’ve been able to support myself by writing. I’ve worked hard, yes, but I know I’m also very lucky because I just happened to come to New York, where I could get a running start on the publishing scene.”
Today Kilkenny gets a great deal of satisfaction in locking horns with Wall Street capitalists and the “pro-business types” like Fox commentator Glenn Beck, who “will stop at nothing in the rush to defend them.”
She prefers to be the voice of dissidents, who openly share that the rage behind their protests is tied to their belief that America functions with a two-tier economy that has workers shouldering the burden of deficit while corporations skirt liability. She is frustrated by what she describes as the “dismissive and frivolous coverage of the OWS protest by the corporate news media.”
She asserts that reporters from mainstream media outlets such as CBS, Fox, and the New York Times did not really understand what was happening. They consistently pointed out, for example, that demonstrations drew crowds of an insignficant number. “But those traditional yardsticks don’t really apply here,” Kilkenny said.
“To understand this new movement, you need to start by going out and spending some time listening to the demonstrators. If you do that, you’ll soon discover that most of them are very serious, very thoughtful about what they’re doing and why,” she said.
“You also discover that they do, indeed, have a point of view that most of them share. They’re offended by how corporate money has infected the politics of this country, and by the way that millions of Americans are suffering economically as a result.”
She shares her perspective as a cohost of the increasingly popular Citizen Radio weekday online political commentary show along with Kilstein. Kilkenny works hard to find a better way to report on the OWS movement, which she said is “unlike any protest I’ve ever covered before. I really think OWS is a game-changer because it’s so in-your-face, and because the people who are involved seem so thoughtful and determined about what they’re doing.”
Convinced the movment is “the most interesting and challenging news story to come down the pike in a long, long time,” Kilkenny is determined to stay focused on the key issues behind the movement, which is the growing discontent with how the nation’s problems are being addressed. It’s that story that drives her serious sense of journalistic responsibility.
“As a reporter, I’ve come to understand that the economy and the government we have right now aren’t really providing for the majority of our citizens,” she said. “A lot of people out there are hungry and homeless and jobless—and I think it’s my job to keep on asking: Why? Why isn’t our system working?”