June 4, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 23

Director's Corner

How the difference in class changes conversations

By Alan Preston / Managing Director

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At the Conference on Ending Homelessness in Yakima two weeks ago, I led a workshop called “Does Class Matter in Homeless Advocacy?” I expected 15 to 20 people to show up. We had 60.

People came to the session for the rare opportunity to talk about a topic — money and class — that is so fundamental to the work we do and yet is taboo to discuss. While many activists at progressive organizations have often done anti-oppression work around race, and some have looked at gender and sexuality, few have delved deeply into class.

Author and scholar Betsy Leondar-Wright writes about class cultures in her new book “Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.” The book comes out of her research on 55 activist organizations and how, time and time again, she witnessed them stumble blindly into clashes around differences in class culture and how those clashes devolved into conflict and ineffectiveness. The ideas in her book were at the heart of the workshop.

The gap between the professionalized staff of advocacy and human service organizations and the homeless people that we serve yawns wide. One easy place to see the difference in class cultures play out is in the way meetings are run.

A participant in the workshop from a low-income background shared that the first time he went to work for a professional organization, it took him months to get used to the meetings. He was accustomed to boisterous exchanges where, if you didn’t agree with something, you just blurted out your feelings. At his new job, everything felt stilted and sanitized. The disconnect he experienced was about class and class cultures.

Meetings led by professional middle-class activists tend to use stylized processes and place a premium on “sharing the air.” They are agenda-driven and outcome-oriented. Meetings run by working-class and lower-income people tend to be less formal, more relational and allow for more spontaneous exchanges.

They focus less on rotating leadership and more on empowering leaders they trust. And they always involve food.

Another place you can easily spot distinct class cultures is in the speech patterns and messaging used by different organizations. During the workshop, we looked at examples of language that college-educated, professional middle-class activists used to craft their messages versus those of low-income and working-class activists. The differences were striking, with the former using more abstract, ideological language, while the latter tended toward much more colorful and concrete language.

One approach is not better than the other. They both have value. Organizations will be most effective if they are aware of how class shapes communication, and if they employ different strategies mindfully and strategically. An organization wanting to bring more low-income people to gatherings needs to make sure to use simple, direct language that stresses immediate action and personal impact. On the other hand, when that same organization needs to bring in allies and capture media attention, it will want to employ language that is more steeped in politics and ideology.

After the workshop, a longtime homeless activist thanked me. She said, “This is a conversation that so badly needs to happen, yet we never, ever talk about this stuff. It felt like such a relief to finally be talking about something so real.”

We’re committed to having more of those conversations at Real Change and to inspiring others to do the same. We’ve recruited author Betsy Leondar-Wright to keynote our 20th anniversary breakfast on Sept. 18. Two days later on Sept. 20, we will co-sponsor a daylong workshop on class cultures in activism with her. Check out bit.ly/SeattleCA for more information and please come join us.

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