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 ClassMatters.org visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Is talking about class cultures a taboo on the left?

The most fun I had on book tour with my book Class Matters was having unpredictable conversations with audience members and workshop participants, ranging from the deep and strategic to the annoying and absurd.

One of my favorites in the second category came in a bookstore at Seattle. A young white man stood up to make his point more vehemently. "I haven't read your book," he said (always a great way to start a question), "but I looked in the index, and the word 'capitalism' doesn't appear. How can you write a book about class without talking about capitalism?"

I explained that while most books on class deal with economic systems, mine deals with the dynamics within social change groups when different class cultures collide. His response was a skeptical "Humpf!" as he sat down.

His response didn't surprise me. I've heard it frequently, this desire to exclude all other aspects of class besides the macro-economic. Three examples:

  • After I did a workshop about class culture clashes in labor/community coalitions at a labor conference, a man who hadn't attended the workshop but had heard about it approached me, and was so upset he literally sprayed spit over me as he urged me to stick to traditional Marxist workplace definitions of class. I corresponded with him later, and after he read Class Matters we found some common ground, agreeing that in some settings it makes sense to talk about macro class analysis, and in another settings to talk about micro analysis of class group dynamics.
  • When the new non-profit Class Action (on whose board I sit) launched its website (classism.org), United for a Fair Economy (where I work) put up a link from our site to theirs. A couple days later, a long-time UFE member called me and literally shouted into the phone, "What kind of politically correct bull is this that UFE's getting involved with?" When I told him about Class Action's work, for example organizing support groups for first-generation college students, who often go into culture shock on arriving at elite private schools, he said, "Poor students need scholarship money. Period."
  • Last May, when the New York Times published its series on class in America (now a book, also called Class Matters), the website of the progressive publication In These Times had an immediate flurry of critical postings excoriating the NYT for wasting so many words on an anthropological exploration of the lived experience of class and including so little about economic inequality. While I liked some of the points these writers made, it seemed unfair to accuse the Times of overemphasizing the human side of class, considering the Times' regular coverage of growing inequality in articles by Louis Uchitelle, Paul Krugman, David Cay Johnston and others.

What's going on with this opposition to talking about class cultures?

One aspect I really understand is wariness in reaction to conservative "blame the victim" ideologies. Disrespectful "culture of poverty" theories put responsibility for poverty squarely at the feet of poor people themselves, and rarely include any positive aspects of working-class cultures. Thomas Sowell, for example, explains ethnic differences in income as a natural consequence of ethnic culture differences, neglecting structural explanations almost entirely. But shouldn't such distorted theories prod us to develop more reality-based and respectful descriptions of class culture differences, rather than opposing the concept entirely?

I don't always know the class backgrounds of true believers in the economic-class-only position, but in the cases where I do know their roots, they are lifelong members of the professional middle class. Some show their loyalty to the working class via their professions, such as teaching leftist economics or working for a union. I'm guessing that some of the intense heat in their comments comes from a desire to deny the cultural differences between themselves and the working-class people they work with or want to feel affiliated with. Most are white men with advanced degrees, who may want their radical politics to serve as sufficient proof of their pro-working-class credentials. In some cases I'm guessing that they are not too eager to look at their own class cultures, since a closer examination might reflect poorly on their own communication styles. One leftist professor walked out of a Class Matters workshop just when the most self-revealing part of the agenda was about to begin, saying, "I don't need this. I teach courses about class."

To people living with the downside of the class system, the economic and cultural aspects of class are intertwined, and both matter. When I interviewed working-class and low-income activists for Class Matters, I asked open-ended questions about where they saw class issues arising in their activist work. I would estimate that only one-sixth of their answers related to differences in resources, such as money or access to decision-makers. I did hear such stories, for sure. But I also heard a flood of frustration with middle-class group process, snooty know-it-all attitudes, flightiness, and other decidedly cultural issues.

In Class Matters workshops, participants meet in class caucuses and generate lists of the gifts and liabilities that activists from their class backgrounds bring to the coalition table. Most groups create lists with a mix of the material and the cultural. But the few groups that have stayed cautiously specific to economic differences have been caucuses of the most class-privileged. Working-class and chronic poverty groups always list lots of their cultural traits among the gifts they bring, such as more blunt speech, more raucous humor, resilience under stress, and skepticism of officials.

I don't see a competition between analyzing economic class systems and learning more about psychological and cultural aspects of class. Each can be a tool for solving different problems. As someone who has worked for economic justice for the last 20 years, and for the last eight at a national organization that tries to push economic inequality into the center of the movement's agenda, I feel immune to being guilt-tripped for neglecting hard economic class realities.

But the reason I didn't just stick to my UFE work, but branched out to write Class Matters, is that talking about the distributional effects of public policies didn't address the class elephant under the movement carpet. When I saw coalitions splitting over class issues, it wasn't over their different relations to the means of production. It was over different ways of describing coalition goals, different ways of operating, and different loyalties — over different class cultures.

Progressives, including radical leftists, don't need to fear class culture discussions. Learning to do a better job at bridging class cultural differences will move us forward towards the mass movement for social justice we dream of building.