Class Matters Workshops

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Order Class Matters

Class Matters book cover

Order Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers, 2005).

Press Coverage of CM

Classist Comments

What's the most classist thing you ever heard someone say?

(I'm not talking about someone like Bill O'Reilly or your right-wing uncle. More specifically, what's the most classist thing you ever heard a liberal or progressive person say?)

Read five interviewees' answers — and my own.

Class and Other Identities

How do you experience class differently because of your race, ethnic group, religion, gender, age, or other identity? What class dynamics do you notice within your identity groups?

Here's how a few visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Reaching across the Walls

BLW: You've written about how different language and ways of communicating can be for people of different classes. What's an example of these different languages?

Linda Stout: I used to start my classism workshops for white middle-class people by playing a piece of rap music by Public Enemy. They would say, "Turn it down," and "That's not music!" I would ask them, "What's this music talking about?" They would answer, "He's advocating murder and killing." I asked them what feelings came up when they heard the music, and they talked about being scared and angry and frustrated. Then I told them that the song is about a guy upset at being drafted and determined to be a conscientious objector even if it means going to jail. I used that to talk about how we all speak different languages.

When people came into our rural North Carolina community trying to organize, it was like that music. You heard words, but you weren't sure of their meaning. The way they're presented makes them hard to understand. Middle-class, college-educated people would ask me, "If I try to speak like them, isn't that patronizing?" My answer was that it's only patronizing if you think it is. It's like going to Mexico and saying your few words of Spanish. People appreciate an honest attempt to communicate.

The other thing is not to assume that if someone has a third grade reading level, they are like a third grader. Someone asked me, "Why don't you get third graders to help you write the materials so your members can read them?" I just looked at this person like they were out of their mind, which they were, because they didn't understand that these were highly intelligent people with a lifetime of experience behind them, who understood the problems at a deeper level than many middle-class people.

BLW: Can you give some examples of logistics as an invisible wall?

LS: One barrier is fees. Sliding scales are helpful, but not when the form says "low-income member" for the lower price. I refuse to be a "low-income member." I'll be a regular member who's low on the sliding scale.

Because so many low-income people are disabled, handicapped accessibility is a class issue. I can't tell you how many events I've gone to that are not physically accessible. The National Network of Grantmakers had a big celebration downstairs, not wheelchair accessible, and I was using a walker and couldn't get there.

How you run meetings can set up invisible walls too. People are moving away from Roberts Rules of Order, which is good. But even consensus decision-making can get twisted. For people not used to speaking out, it becomes a barrier. It's not true consensus if some people's voices weren't heard or honored.

BLW: In a mixed-class setting, do you have to get more formal because no one class' style of communicating can be assumed?

LS: Yes, but not too formal, there's a balance there.

BLW: What would a movement that really worked for low-income people look like?

LS: Resources would be shared in a healthy way. I've seen the power to decide on funding put into low-income hands, who then become totally powerless. They don't do it any better, because they bring in issues of powerlessness and internalized oppression, just as a wealthy person might bring in issues from being an oppressor. It doesn't automatically work just to switch decision-makers. We have to figure out how to put resources in a pot and make group decisions. There needs to be some experimentation.

There would always be time for telling stories. There would be time for caucuses around class. We would pay attention to how we build relationships and trust as we do political work. I believe you get more done when you take the time to build trust and relationships.

BLW: I'm confused about what you're saying about class and group process. Say you created 100 groups, each composed half of middle-class women and half of working-class men and gave them a project to do. After 3 months, the men in at least 75 groups would be complaining, "Too much group process is driving us nuts!" Part of that is gender, but part is class.

LS: I want to be clear on process versus story-telling. Storytelling is telling our individual stories. I have no patience for discussing the agenda for an hour.

It's important to working-class people not to waste time, but to get the work done. There needs to be a balance. Not all working-class people are comfortable telling stories, especially men, but it is incredibly life changing, again especially for men. It's less theoretical than a workshop, more personal and dramatic. For example, we'll ask, "Tell a story about when you really mattered."

There's a story I love to tell about Andrew Young, the ambassador to the UN under President Carter. The first thing he did when he arrived was to visit every UN representative, and he had a strict southern rule of no business without eating. He was the first US ambassador to the UN who was never vetoed.

That's different than process work. I've been learning this method called Appreciative Inquiry, which works better in working-class communities because it uses story-telling and is less critical.

For working-class people to be part of a movement, I believe this very strongly, we have to have a vision. To constantly talk about what we're against doesn't build an organization. To counter internalized oppression and hopelessness, we have to hold up a vision of what we're building. It's harder for middle-class activists. Movement culture has too much cynicism; it's critical and negative.

BLW: In your book, you tell a number of stories in which PPP decides to put forward its own point of view rather than following what the community wants. For example, you assigned readings to the literacy class rather than letting them choose what to read, and you asserted anti-homophobia values unpopular with some members. It's always a strategic choice whether to push your own ideas or to follow your constituency's lead. Do you think that choice is different for a low-income organizer than for a middle-class organizer in a low-income community?

LS: Yes, it's different. This is one place where Alinsky organizers criticized us, said, "You can't do that." We said, "but we're from the community."

A middle-class outsider has to build alliances carefully. First, assume that the visible leaders — for example, ministers — aren't necessarily the ones who really make things happen. Start by talking with people and listening. For example, in a new community, we would ask people, "Who helps you decide who to vote for?" Maybe it's the elderly woman down the street, not the minister. Find the real leaders, and follow your heart. Listen both outside and inside.