Facing up to classism can help build stronger groups and stronger movements

IssueOctober 2015 - November 2015
Feature by Milan Rai , Betsy Leondar-Wright

ImageBetsy Leondar-Wright, the programme director of Class Action on the south side of Boston, is a bright-eyed, sparkling, high-energy interviewee. She speaks faster than anyone I’ve ever had to transcribe before, and laughs throughout our 90 minutes on Skype, despite talking about some pretty challenging issues. She is candid about her own past shortcomings, and respectful to people she has disagreed with.

I can’t imagine anyone not liking her.

Betsy is especially excited because Class Action is launching a huge new online resource that is based on her brilliant last book, Missing Class (see my review in PN 2572-2573).

Unlike a lot of people in the US who are working on economic inequality and class, Betsy doesn’t come from either a working-class or an owning-class background. She grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey on the East Coast: ‘Class was never spoken of, and the town was kind of run by upper-middle-class white professional people, professional managerial jobs, like my dad,’ she says.

There was ‘silence about money, about class, about why we don’t socialise with people who live in those other parts of town, about why our church is only upper-middle-class people... just so much silence that’s really phenomenal.’

Betsy went to an elite, Ivy League, university, Princeton (also in New Jersey). She was taught abstractions about social class on an economics course – ‘without actually meeting any people from other classes!’

Moving to a new society

She then took a different direction, that led her to her life-long focus on economic inequality and classism. She dropped out of Princeton in 1977, a year before she would have graduated, and plunged into near-full-time campaigning with the Movement for a New Society (MNS), a nationwide network of radical activists with its own housing co-ops and training centres. (Readers may remember hearing about MNS in interviews with George Lakey in PN 2544, 2545)

Betsy moved into the Philadelphia Life Centre, the core of MNS, and became involved in the anti-nuclear power movement: ‘There were a lot of us from elite colleges discovering Movement for a New Society at the same time, so the average age dropped and the average class level was up!’

This new influx contributed to some discontent in MNS. ‘There had already been a women’s push back against sexism, a kind of internal revolution in the organisation, and people of colour and anti-racists pushing back about racism, and the homophobia one was still to come. The founders of MNS were majority working-class background. Some of them, like Bill Moyer and George Lakey, very strongly working-class-identified, but a bunch of other people also. And they came to activism very influenced by that class background, in some cases explicitly.

“There started to be simmering about classism in the organisation, and the invisibility of class identities”

‘And there started to be simmering about classism in the organisation, and the invisibility of class identities. In part, because of all of us more elite people flooding in. And so they did “speak outs” at MNS retreats, our national gatherings, our whole network gatherings, and locally in Philadelphia.

Image‘The first ones I heard were in Philadelphia, where everyone who didn’t grow up working-class, or in some cases poor, some cases extreme poverty, the rest of us would sit on the outside of the circle as a fishbowl. The people who grew up working-class, some of them were life-long working-class, or poor, sat in the middle and told the story of their lives, which was really heart-wrenching. And also told how the class dynamics looked in MNS right then.

‘I really got an earful. I had no idea. I was, like, crying at people’s stories, but also being, like: “Oh! I’m one of the offenders!” (she laughs)

‘They were just saying the real basic things like people who [think] their conversation is so important that they leave their dishes behind, as if they presume someone else is going to clean them up, you know.’

Sliding up the scale

Betsy also learned about the misuse of the sliding scale by voluntarily low-income, downwardly-mobile people. An example of a sliding scale today would be for Peace News Summer Camp, which charges between £20 and £100, ‘depending on pocket’, which is mostly taken to mean ‘income’.

In MNS in the 1970s, they started ‘cost-sharing’: ‘We ended up having this really profound process of paying differently depending on our class background, whether we had family cushion, or whether we had debts or hadn’t.

‘People like me, I was working very few hours for money, to try to give all my time to the anti-nuclear movement and MNS, but that didn’t mean that I could slide down like people who had kids and poverty-stricken elder parents they were supporting.... I just didn’t have to pay for anything but my own rent and food, so I learned the message which I have since passed onto a million people: “If you’re voluntarily low-income, pay at the top or the middle of the sliding scale. Those subsidies, and public subsidies too, those are not for you, those are for involuntarily-poor people.”’

These were some of the ‘real basics of class awareness’ that the new professional-middle-class people in MNS were taught.

A new form of training

MNS had a number of training programmes, including ‘Oppression/Liberation’, which now might be called ‘diversity workshops’. In addition to anti-racism and anti-sexism workshops, MNS now started running anti-classism workshops, ‘invented from whole cloth’ because no one else was running them, or ever had run them.

In the racism and sexism workshops, it was standard practice to have a mixed training team (person of colour and white person; woman and man). ‘It had become clear from the speakouts who should be the working-class and poor people in those teams. There was a need for middle-class, upper-middle-class, owning-class, rich facilitators, so... I got tapped.’

At first, Betsy just facilitated an upper-middle-class caucus or sub-group within a training programme. Then she was brought more and more into co-facilitating training around classism by the late Felice Yeskel, a co-founder of Class Action.Felice, who came from a working-class background, had an explicit life mission: to make all diversity work include class. Betsy laughs at this point: ‘It’s great to have a one-sentence mission statement for your life!’ Later, I find out that she has a one-sentence mission statement of her own.

Felice knew how to work on including class in diversity work, ‘because she had spread the model of on-campus anti-homophobia GLBT organising’, starting with one of the first gay, lesbian and bisexual centres in the country. (The Stonewall Centre, at the University of Massachussetts in Amherst now describes itself as a ‘Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, Transgender, Intersex and Asexual Educational Resource Center’.)

‘Then Felice and I became girlfriends. And so that’s part of the story.’ Betsy was asked to co-facilitate these workshops with Felice, not only because she was ‘one of the few class-privileged people to have ever done a classism workshop, and be up for doing them’, but also because of romantic sparks between them – ‘then I became the person closest to hand (laughs) because we lived together.’

Betsy doesn’t say this in the interview, but I find out later that she and her partner Gail, who have been together since 1991, were among the first same-sex couples to be legally married in the US – on 23 May 2004.

Out of this anti-classism work came a six-year cross-class dialogue group in 1995 with Felice Yeskel, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez (who identifies as lower-middle-class), Linda Stout (a working-class activist and author), Jenny Ladd (a multi-millionaire inheritor) and some other owning-class people who have not wanted to publicly identify themselves. Originally a group of eight, it became a group of six, who met every month for six hours – for six years. And it had a transformative effect on them. ‘And one thing they wanted to do was to give to other people that experience of deep cross-class dialogue. And so they founded Class Action’ in 2004, explains Betsy – she was a founding board member and a founding trainer. She became project director in 2010, a position she’s just left as this interview is published, but she remains a senior trainer and board member.

Class Action’s mission is to provide ‘a dynamic framework and analysis, as well as a safe space, for people of all backgrounds to identify and address issues of class and classism’, with the vision of creating a world in which everyone’s basic needs are met, everyone is treated with respect, everyone develops to their full potential, and ‘the vast differences in income, wealth and access to resources’ are reduced.

Overcoming invisible walls of separation

Late on in our conversation, Betsy explains why working on classism matters to other struggles: ‘I totally understand why people are giving everything to climate change. But, you know, so am I – because we are not going to turn climate change around if we don’t build a cross-class, multi-racial movement, which we’re not doing right now in the US. The climate change movement still the same usual suspects of the college-educated, white folks.’

This is very similar to the 1970s, anti-nuclear movement. ‘That’s when I got to coin the thing that’s going to be on my tombstone, the only thing anyone quotes from anything I’ve ever written! Which is “inessential weirdness”.’

‘‘If somebody laughs at different jokes than you, you don’t hang out with them. If they do laugh at the same jokes as you, you do hang out with them. That’s just life! And that segregates people by class.”

In her book Missing Class, Betsy tells how a group of middle-class anti-nuclear activists went to a senior citizens’ group (mostly retired white working-class men) to try to recruit them to help stop a local nuclear construction project.

Someone suggested a coffee break. ‘One of my esteemed counterculture colleagues said, “I know! For the break, let’s all howl like wolves!” And even worse, several people did it!’ The older activists were not impressed.

Betsy realised at that moment that while the counterculture folk saw themselves as engaged in prefigurative participatory democracy, ‘in ways that were invisible to us, we were also performing class-exclusionary PMC [professional-middle-class] counterculture’.

The reason Betsy used the word ‘inessential’ is that sometimes ‘what alienated a movement’s more mainstream potential supporters was sometimes essential to an activist’s core identity, such as sexual orientation, or a minority religion. But many other styles and actions that seemed bizarre to some constituencies outside the subculture were optional.’

Betsy tells me her feelings about this ‘just got more and more intense as I did more coalition work. I was the staff person of this “pay equity for women” coalition, that was half unions and half feminist groups, and the feminist groups kept offending the union members. And so did I!

‘I’m not saying I didn’t make classist mistakes. I made classist mistakes all the time. I had this whole union of state clerical workers mad at me for phrasing that someone was ‘just’ a secretary.’

It’s the way that you do it

ImageBetsy tells me: ‘I did perceive that [in] a lot of those coalitions that didn’t work, that just different ways of speaking, different ways of running a group, that just these basic class culture differences were getting in the way.’

Sometimes, activists disagree because they have different interests or different politics. Often however, Betsy thinks, ‘lots of people who basically agree are nevertheless not working together through class segregation, classism and just class culture differences.’

She gives, as an example, the Occupy movement, which was centrally concerned with economic inequality: ‘Man, there were so many people who stayed away, who agreed with the politics and the goals, who stayed away because they couldn’t stand the group process, including most working-class and poor people, who are personally affected by the problem!’

Betsy tells a poignant story in Missing Class, of watching a three-hour general assembly at Occupy Boston in which ‘white people with newcaster-standard accents and all their teeth’ dominate, showing fluency with the specialised hand signals and the specialised jargon of consensus.

Meanwhile people in the crowd with missing teeth and working-class accents don’t use the signals or the jargon, and are generally shut out – as are people of colour (an overlapping group).

The way that we organise meetings is class-related, Betsy says: ‘They’re just culture differences. What feels normal in activism? How do you talk? How do you joke around together? How do you socialise with the other group members? How do you run a meeting? How do you deal with conflict? What feels normal, and comfortable?’

Betsy didn’t just collect anecdotes, she conducted supervised postgraduate sociological research with 25 different activist groups in the US to show how people with different class backgrounds have different ways of behaving in social movement organisations.

For example, she found that in working-class-background-majority meetings, there was over twice as much laughter provoked by fake bad behaviour and references to individual foibles, as there was in meetings with a majority of professional-middle-class people. In contrast, the PMC-majority meetings had nearly three times as much laughter based on word play and cultural references.

Betsy summarises: ‘You self-segregate, you don’t even have to call it to your conscious mind. If somebody laughs at different jokes than you, you don’t hang out with them. If they do laugh at the same jokes as you, you do hang out with them. That’s just life! That’s just human nature. And that segregates people by class. That makes distinctions of taste turn into segregation by class.’

Betsy’s meticulous research also found a class culture difference in how long people speak. The average length of the longest speaking turn for lifelong professional and upper-middle-class individuals was 139 words, compared with 51 words for lifelong poor, working-class, or lower-middle-class participants.

Betsy expresses a hope to me that working-class activists who read Missing Class will become more forgiving, that they will realise PMC folk may appear to be pretentious and boring, but it’s just the way they (we) were taught to speak at university.


Betsy tells me: ‘I didn’t know what class culture traits I was going to find through doing a thorough social science study, but I knew I was going to find some, and one reason I knew I was going to find some was because in Class Action workshops, we have an exercise that I’ve facilitated I don’t know how many times, but over 100 for sure, where we get into class background caucuses, where people sit down with people whose parents had about the same amount of education as them, the same kind of occupation.

‘We ask them to generate two lists: the strengths that you got from your class background, that you bring to mixed-class spaces; and the limitations. And there’s never been a workshop where these caucuses meet and they were unable to come up with lists of strengths and limitations, and where the lists weren’t different from each other.’

In the working-class and raised-poor groups in Class Action workshops, the lists of strengths that working-class and raised-poor people put together are pretty consistent: ‘We’re resilient; we know how to stretch a dollar; we have intense loyalty to our family, our people, our neighbours; we’re straightshooters, we hate bullshit.’

Betsy suggests: ‘In fact, every institution of our society, every group in our movements, we all need those working-class strengths and poor people’s strengths to the degree that we don’t have them. So naming them is going to be healthy – for schools, for workplaces, for social justice groups.’

Your new kitbag

The field research became the basis for Betsy’s book Missing Class, and now it is also the basis for the Class Action online resource, the Activist Class Cultures Kit.

Why a website? Having written a (very readable) book on the subject, Betsy first helped create Missing Class-based workshops, which other Class Action trainers have also run, ‘on understanding activist class cultures and using them to strengthen social justice groups’.

The workshops have been one way to reach people who don’t read whole books (‘for various reasons, most people don’t read books’) and who aren’t likely to form a Missing Class book group. The website is another method, for people who don’t read books or go to workshops, with ‘engaging interactive quizzes, audiovisual material, whiteboard animations telling some of the stories from the book, and there’s little charts.’

There is a path through the site. ‘Most people have not thought about their class identity or the class identity of the people who they work on social justice with so that’s of course always question number 1, class identification,’ Betsy says.

‘That’s why class conversations start so much more slowly, you have to start at such a more basic level than conversations about the race or gender dynamics within the group, or any other dynamic. [Conversations about race and gender] don’t always go well, and groups don’t always have as many as they need, but it starts at a higher, more far along place where most people know who’s who, by race and gender, there might be some surprises but most people have terms in common.

‘With class, we always tell people who do our workshops, you can’t presume that people have any vocabulary in common, you have to presume that there are people in the room with secrets that they’ve never told anybody outside their family, especially at the two ends of the class spectrum. You can’t assume that people are buying in that there are classes. And most people would guess wrong about their co-workers and their fellow group members, so you have to start at that basic level, so the Activist Class Cultures online kit starts at that basic level of “What’s your class path?”’

Upping your game

The Activist Class Cultures Kit has the tagline: ‘Working for social justice goes better when you understand class cultures’.

Among the options on the site are: ‘Up your game by learning solutions to common group problems’ and ‘envision building a cross-class movement’. The emphasis is very much on helping activist groups to become more effective and more powerful.

On the ‘common group problems’ track, Betsy says: ‘Several of the problems that social justice groups typically run into, the problems are the same, no matter what class or movement tradition; all-volunteer groups run into the same problems over and over again. That too few people show up; there are some people that are quiet and inactive; conflict breaks out. Those problems are pretty universal, but how people deal with them varies a lot by the class composition of the group. What solution people favour depends often on a person’s class.’ ‘So there’ll be a little talk about the problems, stories of when groups ran into those problems, and the different ways of resolving them. And then of course how do you use this?’

There is a seven-part course on the site, leading you through the different components. Personally, I’m keen to do the course with other folk, partly to see what needs changing to make it more useful in Britain.

It’s obvious class operates in Britain differently to how it operates in the US, but I can’t help feeling there is a lot of value here for the British campaigning and organising scene.

The most important insight driving Class Action is that increasing our awareness of our own and other people’s class backgrounds and class cultures, and gaining skills in communicating and organising across class boundaries, will help make our organisations much more powerful in seeking peace and justice and environmental sustainability.

Betsy says: ‘My motivation is: I want a better world. That, clearly, is the motivation behind all of it. There are so many things that are so completely unacceptable to me about this world. But I have a particular life mission. My mission is to get the classism and excessive economic inequality out of the United States.’

Topics: Class