Class matters

IssueDecember 2015 - January 2016
Feature by Milan Rai


Betsy Leondar-Wright

I first came across Betsy Leondar-Wright through her book, Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists (New Society Publishers, 2005). An intriguing subtitle! In conversation with her, over Skype, I found out more about how that wonderful book came to be.

Betsy was then working at United for a Fair Economy (UFE) a US NGO based in Boston, Massachusetts. (‘United for a Fair Economy challenges the concentration of wealth and power that corrupts democracy, deepens the racial divide and tears communities apart.’)

Betsy told me: ‘UFE would send me around, I was mostly the media person, but I would get sent around to do workshops [with social justice groups]. I started calling in advance, carrying a tape recorder in my luggage, and on my free time, when I wasn’t doing my UFE work, being like: “So, who’s really good about cross-class bridge-building in this city? Can I talk to them? Can I talk to you?” And just collecting these interviews, thinking of it as this little booklet or something. And that turned into Class Matters.

‘I was very proud of that. I’d never written a book before, and I didn’t write everything: I collected quotes and I collected interviews and patched it together like a patchwork quilt. In part because, one thing I asked all those great bridge-builders, I would say: “So, what kind of publication would be really be useable by activists who want to do a better job bridging across classes?” That book was definitely for middle-class activists. So, bridging towards working-class and poor activists, which is not true with [her 2014 book] Missing Class. And they said: “Well, not a big, fat book, because I don’t have time to read it. It should be laid out like a magazine, like you can read a little short thing on the bus, or put it in the bathroom, or whatever.” That’s why it’s laid out magazine-style, with a lot of cartoons and pull-out quotes and stuff like that.’

Class Matters is definitely a book to dip into, with lots and lots of one-page chapters, and plenty of thought-provoking quotations from folk. There is an observation about classism within the US Nuclear Freeze movement by George Lakey on p.134 that really shifted my thinking.

“The way a lot of us are taught to talk and write in college is bad communication practice for any audience.”

Class Matters pays a lot of attention to racial diversity; a third of the interviews are conducted with activists of colour. Betsy records in the book that at a certain point she realised that none of the 27 interviews she’d carried out so far were with working-class white men. Even though the topic of the book was classism, ‘even though its goal is to get activists to take class as seriously as other differences, even though I knew that that meant adding working-class white men to our idea of who’s oppressed – it still hadn’t occurred to me to find or elevate the voices of working-class white men.’

It’s completely characteristic that Betsy publicly describes this classist error: ‘My first impulse was to hide this embarrassing omission, but I figured that we all learn about classism from each other’s dumb mistakes. My apologies to my working-class white activist brothers.’ She immediately reached out to ‘a few white male working-class visionaries.’


After writing Class Matters, Betsy promoted the book: ‘So, I did a book tour, which was really fun, and did radio interviews, met a lot of amazing people.’ The thing most people wanted to talk about was the section that said: ‘Are there activist class cultures? I think so, yes.’

‘The electricity would light up the room. When I talked about that, people would be like: “Oh, but I think you’re wrong about the specifics! You’re talking as a Northerner and that’s not the way it is in the South”. Or: “That’s not the way it is for Black people!”.

Or: “Not in our movement!” “But there are, but they’re different than what you’re saying.” Or: “No, you can’t talk about class as culture, class has to be based on relations to the means of production.” Or: “That’s really bad to make class identities equivalent to race or gender.”

Or: “This is so brilliant, I have to bring this to my group! But you have to give more real examples! Because you don’t give many examples! And I need you to flesh this out and document it for me!”’

The reaction to the rest of the book was (according to Betsy) along the lines of: ‘OK, good, thank you, got it, you know, we like it. We’ll use it.’ But on that topic of class cultures, there were fiery reactions and people expressed wonderment that she’d only devoted four pages to this topic.

Betsy had been at United for a Fair Economy for nine years, she’d just helped create the book, The Color of Wealth, ‘it was time to move on’. It seemed obvious that she should address the question that she’d been asked about so much on her book tour.

This work turned into Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures (Cornell University Press, 2014).

Betsy first tried to work on the topic by herself: ‘everybody was telling me, read [French sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu. I tried reading Distinction on my own! (laughs) And I started trying to draw up interview protocols and research design on my own. Reading a sociological methods book, and asking people. And I was, like: “I am so in over my head! This is going to need statistics.... I need help, I can’t read this book on my own!”’

Having two degrees in sociology already, Betsy knew what would be needed to do the topic justice. ‘Who’s in Class Matters? It’s totally skewed by “who did United for a Fair Economy connect with”, and “who had I met”. It’s not a random sample at all. So I knew these things. You need a bigger sample size. You need a varied sample. I knew these things already. I also knew that sociology is really fun. Sociological research is like so fun. And I knew it would be just this fascinating process, so I applied to my old grad college, where I already had a masters, Boston College.’

Other students there were feverishly trying to find a topic to research that hadn’t already been studied to death. Betsy walked in and said she wanted to investigate class cultures in activist circles, the intersection of ‘social class’ with ‘social movements’. The other students went: ‘You found a hole in the literature!’ There were virtually no studies on the topic.

A fine-tooth comb

Betsy began with her own guesses about what was going on in terms of how class background worked in activist circles. She told me: ‘More than half of them turned out to be wrong.’ Together with two other collaborators, she observed, recorded and interviewed people in 30 activist groups – five of them were dropped because there was not enough data. Betsy commented that she could have just gone from what she noticed sitting in meetings or listening to the audio recorded by another researcher: ‘I could have just taken my casual impressions and I would have had maybe... 10 class culture differences? Eight? And I would have been wrong about some of them.’

Instead of going by her impressions, she rigorously, painstakingly coded the transcripts of the meetings. She’d got people in the meetings to complete surveys (offering them chocolate got a very high rate of responses), and she’d also interviewed a lot of people in the groups. This enabled her to label everything said in a meeting by the class background of the person speaking (and by other aspects).

Everyone had two variables, one for class background and one for current class, with numbers ranging from one to seven for poor, working-class, lower-middle-class, lower-professional, professional-middle-class, upper-middle-class, and owning-class respondents. When you read the methodology section in Missing Class you see the incredibly fine detail that went into the class coding, which was cross-checked by two other researchers.

The background/current class codings then got turned into one of four class-trajectory categories: lifelong in the working-class range; lifelong in the professional range; upwardly-mobile (from working-class to middle-class) straddler; or downwardly-mobile.

The individual class codings were also used to work out whether groups were mainly middle-class or working-class.

Everyone in the transcripts was coded. Betsy gives as an example ‘Martina’. Every time ‘Martina’ spoke, the transcript said ‘Martina WC22imBlF80s’, meaning that Martina was a lifelong-working-class person whose childhood and adult class scores were both 2, she was an immigrant, African American woman born in the 1980s.

So the 1,000 pages of transcripts were coded for people, and for 500 items. For example, under ‘Humour’, one item was ‘laughing at fake bad behaviour’.

The data was then run through qualitative-coding software.

Betsy told me: ‘I took about a year-and-a-half longer to finalise this book than most of my colleagues, my cohort, took to finish their dissertations.... I spent two summers when I wasn’t in class, going through, line-by-line.... So I coded every time the group laughs. I coded it by what are they laughing about. And then this wonderful software will run you a report for every time I noticed that it was “political sarcasm”, or every time it was laughing at, you know, a snafu in the group. And then I had everybody, all the people, tagged by their class/race/gender/age, and so I could look and that’s when the patterns start popping out. Am I just seeing this? Let me run some statistics on it. Nope, it’s not a coincidence that working-class people laugh more often, and do less of that laughing about word-play and puns and stuff. Aha! I’ve got something! So I found hundreds of patterns. And I had to decide what to pull out.’

It was by doing this painstaking analysis that Betsy found patterns that related to class, and that were not due to race, gender, age or the movement tradition of the group.

The six categories of movement tradition were: labour movement, grassroots community organising, professional anti-poverty advocacy, and three types of social change group: anarchist, militant anti-imperialist and progressive protest.

Concrete outreach

One of the statistically significant correlations was between class and different types of humour (referred to in the last issue of PN).

Another was between class and vocabulary. Lifelong-working-class activists tended to speak of specific people, places and events, even when answering general questions. Lifelong-professional and voluntarily-downwardly-mobile activists tended to use more abstract words and phrases, even when asked concrete questions.

This abstract-versus-concrete speech difference was not associated with gender, race or movement tradition, only class.

For example, lifelong-professional-middle-class people used these words in their interviews more often than lifelong-working-class people: ‘network’ (6.3 times more often); ‘outreach’ (5.4); and ‘activist/activism’ (5.1).

Betsy uses ‘college-educated’ for everyone with a university education and/or who had a professional/managerial job either themselves or in their parents’ generation.

In their interviews, college-educated activists said these words more frequently than lifelong-working-class activists: ‘strategy/strategise’ (8.1 times more often); ‘principle’ (7.4); ‘perspective’ (5.5). The college-educated said ‘nonviolence’ or ‘nonviolent’ 35.5 times more often than lifelong-working-class activists.

In Missing Class, Betsy points out that you don’t need abstract words in order to have complicated thoughts: ‘The political ideas expressed by working-class activists were just as likely to be complex and nuanced as PMC [professional-middle-class] activists’ ideas, just expressed differently.’

Working-class activists tended to use examples, metaphors and analogies instead of abstract generalisations.

Working-class African-American Rhonda explained her support for reparations for slavery like this:

Rhonda: ‘Until there is true reparation for slavery, it’s not going to happen. If you stole my TV, you and I are going to have a conflict. Now if you were sorry for stealing my TV, you came and told me you were sorry for stealing my TV, what’s the first thing you think you need to do to make it right?’

Interviewer: ‘Buy you a new TV.’

Rhonda: ‘Right, until you replace what you took from me, would I think it’s sincere? No.’

Adding colour

Betsy has been running anti-classism workshops for decades now. I asked her what difference a workshop can make, does she know how people actually put their learning about classism into practice? She replied: ‘The most common thing I’ve heard is: “I’m going right back to the office and re-writing the mission statement!”’ Betsy urges people to use online ‘reading level’ or ‘readability’ tests that can measure the school age of their written materials. (The tests say that this article is in the 15–16-year-old range.)

Betsy points out that non-profit groups in the US tend to be run by college-educated people who’ve held other professional jobs. They write the materials ‘even if the constituency maybe typically has high-school education or English isn’t their first language’. It’s rare for anyone to field test two versions. ‘So I’d say that the written materials is the biggest implementation’ from the workshops.

In Class Action workshops, and in the online Activist Class Cultures discussion group course, there is guidance on how to draw on the strengths of both working-class and professional-middle-class speech codes. Betsy insisted to me that this change is not just for the benefit of working-class and low-income people; this benefits everybody. ‘Because the way a lot of us are taught to talk and write in college is bad communication practice for any audience.’ We’re told to put everything in the third person, when personal statements and stories make arguments so much more compelling. ‘And we’re graded better if we use more big, abstract words.’

It can be useful for a cause to have a small number of abstract terms. ‘Causes take off when somebody, you know, frames it like: “Oh, this is a violation of civil rights.” Like, that was a brilliant move’, to reframe racial discrimination as a civil rights issue. Like ‘climate change’ and ‘sustainability’, ‘there are terms that, once you have them, you can rally people around something’.

“College-educated activists said ‘nonviolence’ or ‘nonviolent’ 35.5 times more often than lifelong-working-class activists.”

So we shouldn’t completely avoid abstract terms, Betsy suggests, but we need to use them judiciously, and try them out with different groups of people. ‘And then support them with a lot of stories and analogies and concrete examples and colourful imagery. To make the abstraction you really want to convey come alive.’

‘So we have people practice doing that in the workshops. And we say this is for better communication with everybody. It’s not about dumbing down.’


Anti-classism work, for Betsy, is about building on the positives that already exist, including combining the strengths of different class cultures. It makes total sense, therefore, that at many of the stops on her Missing Class book tour, she gave out ‘Cross-Class Bridge-Builder awards’ from Class Action.

She explains: ‘Before I came, we would ask local people to nominate organisations and we’d put out a ballot of everyone who got nominated, and so the group who got the most local people to vote for them would get this little bridge with a little plaque, saying “the Class Action cross-class bridge-builder award to such and such an organisation”. So my book tour events were not just “hey, here I am, I’m an author”, but “here’s this local group embodying the principles that I’m talking about getting an award”, and the awardees and sometimes the nominees would invite people to come, which I think made some of the events more cross-class, mixed-race. It was so fun.’

For me, this sums up a lot about Betsy Leondar-Wright: (a) that it was fun, and (b) that she used her book tour not to show off how clever she is, as a solo intellectual, but to share the stage with local groups of activists, and to recognise the work they were doing for social change. She was showing with these awards that the knowledge we need to build stronger movements is already among us, within us. We just need support in bringing this knowledge together and figuring out how to put it into practice.


Class workshops and feeling great!

Towards the end of our Skype conversation, I tell Betsy Leondar-Wright of Class Action about a working-class friend of mine who went very reluctantly to an anti-oppression workshop which had some aspects to do with class. My friend came out of it feeling worse than she did before, even though she felt she had ‘won’ the competition over ‘who was the most oppressed’. I describe this to Betsy as ‘winning the oppression sweepstakes’.

Betsy, who has been running anti-classism workshops for several decades, responded: ‘First of all, I’d like to hear her story, and what was it that made her feel shamed instead of empowered, and what was it that she didn’t like about the workshop, and why didn’t she want to go.

‘Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with her, there’s something wrong with the workshop, and there are no “oppression sweepstakes” to win (laughs). We’re trying to get people to be less harmed by the inequalities in society.

‘At Class Action, we see a lot of working-class and poor people walking out from workshops feeling great. Feeling like they’re going to stay in touch with each other. I had one group in one organisation, a raised-in-poverty group, they said: “We’re eating lunch together once a week from now on!”

‘And they were different races, different genders, different ranks in the organisation. They were, like: “We’re having lunch every week and we’re going to share what we see.”

‘So, was there a chance to caucus? Very important practice. So then you have to come back and have cross-class dialogue afterwards. But whoever’s targeted by the oppression needs to talk privately and find their commonalities. And, was it an asset frame? Was it: “Well, what are the strengths that you took?”

‘For some very poor people, it’s hard. Working-class and lower-middle-class people tend to have an easy time answering that, especially if you’re settled working-class. Like, you may have grown up in a great neighbourhood, had a lot of cousins, or....

‘But if you grew up in really harsh poverty, and maybe there was homelessness, or violence, or addiction, or something really awful in your family, abuse.... I remember one workshop where one woman was the only person raised in poverty, she was going to go join the working-class caucus. But, instead, one of the raised-in-poverty co-trainers sat down with her and said: “Well, let’s just be a caucus of two”. And she was just crying, and swearing there was nothing positive, she was only going to say the limitations of having been raised poor, she wasn’t going to say the strengths, and she wasn’t going to report back. She was only going to talk to this brilliant trainer. And my co-trainer just listened to her, and listened to her. And by the time the groups were reporting back, she stood up and said: “From my background, I got this strength and this strength and I am a strong person. I never give up, and I can get through anything, and it’s because I’m a survivor of this really difficult background.” It was, like: “Whoah! This person!”

‘It’s better if there’s a group because then they’re with each other.

‘I’m guessing all those components weren’t in that workshop. I guess there wasn’t a caucus, there wasn’t strength-emphasising, there wasn’t space for feelings and emotions to come up, there wasn’t someone similar to her in the training team, and I bet they didn’t zoom in on the fact that she was real uncomfortable, and do something about that.

‘Drop the workshops run by whoever ran that, and keep going, because they can be really wonderful experiences.

‘Find a more class-savvy group, like Training for Change in the US; there’s so many working-class and raised-poor people in that, that they’re just great at it in all their workshops.’

Topics: Class