Cross-class Alliances for Social Change: Research on the influence of class culture on how we organize
A report and some questions.
On October 17th, a few people gathered at Cooperative Extension to watch a webinar presented by a group called Class Action. The webinar, “Building Cross-Class Alliances for a New Economy,” was presented by Betsy Leondar-Wright who was reporting on her research on whether class differences had an effect on how people take up social activism. Her answer was “yes.”
Leondar-Wright and her team interviewed 61 people from 25 progressive social movements in 5 states and surveyed 362 people. Of the 362, 28% were people of color, 72% white. To assign class to respondents they looked at their parents’ income source and education and their current occupation and education. They consolidated these results into what they describe as 4 “class trajectory categories:” lifelong working-class (which includes poor, though it isn’t clear how many people who consider themselves poor responded); lifelong professional; upwardly mobile straddlers; voluntarily downwardly mobile. These latter three were lumped together for reporting purposes, and so the results are in two (possibly confusing) categories: working-class and college-educated, as follows:
Why do we join movements?
Working-class people join movements because they have a shared context—workplace, family—with the group and they join as a cluster with others.
Most college-educated activists join movements because they are committed to an issue or an ideology. That comes first, then they find a group. These people tend to join as individuals.
How do these groups recruit?
Working-class activists recruit more members with incentives, assurances of mutual aid and member-only benefits, realistic plans for short term victory that will improve recruits’ lives, and food at all meetings.
According to the research, college-educated activists expect issues and political ideas to recruit people and often, according to Leondar-Wright, overlook food and short-term incentives.
How do these activists talk?
When talking about their cause, working-class activists tend to use humor, teasing and prefer concrete, specific language. They tend to make political points via story telling, metaphors, analogies, and examples.
College-educated activists tend to talk in abstract generalizations. Humor is in the form of wordplay.
For example, in the interviews, college-educated activists used “strategy” or “strategize” more than 8 times as much as working-class activists. They were fond of “network” (used 6 times as often), “outreach” (5.4 times as often), and “context” or “contextualization” (used 4.7 times as often).
And how about leadership?
According to the research, working-class activists are reported as much less “anti-leadership” than college-educated activists. They tend to monitor leaders’ actions as either for or against the community. For college-educated activists “leadership” has a negative connotation. Many will stay in a group and criticize the leaders or the group. For some, equalizing power and sharing airspace are just as important as the group’s goals.
So, what to make of all this?
The categorization of classes as reported in the webinar seems awkward and arbitrary, but the researchers were clear on how they made these choices. I find the distinctions between classes blunt and wish for more differentiation in the results. For example, who doesn’t like food at a meeting?
On the other hand, the research brings to my attention things I’ve known or suspected and tended to sweep under the rug because a) it is risky to generalize and b) because even if I did pull them out and look at them, I thought of them more in terms of my own behavior, not in relationship to collective action.
I wonder how this research relates to reader experience? What have you noticed makes you and others effective activists? What would you add? What would you ask the researchers?
Leondar-Wright ended the webinar with advice on building cross-cultural movements:
- Look for and dismantle invisible walls
- Eliminate “inessential weirdnesses,” cultural norms, processes, language that may alienate.
- Instead of asking, “why don’t they join us,” reach out and pitch in as allies to working-class/low-income led community efforts.
Whether or not we might quarrel with the research, I welcome this advice. I would find it helpful to think together about how we can actually do these things.
You can check out Class Action at www.classism.org.
Leondar-Wright’s book will be out soon, Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.