Book by Betsey Leondar-Wright, 2005
Reviewed by Anette Kinley in December 2008 Research Update
It is often the case that organizations or groups trying to address poverty and working-class issues are mainly, if not totally, represented by middle-class people. The differences in perspectives and life experiences between classes can lead to a variety of misunderstandings, missteps and frustrations that create barriers to working together effectively toward common goals.
Class Matters is an engaging collection of stories and practical ideas from experienced advocates that illuminate how the class differences that can limit the progress of groups working for social change can be overcome. To put it in author Betsy Leondar-Wright's words, “We all have the choice to get by, get over, or get together. This book is for those who take the “get together” path, and its goal is to help us get together across class differences.” (page 7)
Even though I haven't read it from cover to cover – yet! – I am convinced that Class Matters should be recommended, if not required, reading for people working for social change. It is of particular interest to those who are working with, or seeking to work with, people from diverse class backgrounds (and across cultures, ethnicities, gender, sexual orientations, etc.).
The variety of issues covered by this book makes it difficult to summarize. One of its main focuses, however, is recognizing and countering the socially conditioned, and often unconscious, behaviours and assumptions that distance middle-class activists from the working-class people they are trying to help.
“… we all make mistakes. There's not a middle-class person alive who hasn't said dumb,insensitive things that step on working-class toes. … As we talk, working-class people notice how oblivious or how aware of class issues we seem, and make decisions about how much to collaborate with us based on those evaluations, among others factors. The goal of reducing the classism in our speech is not to keep ourselves out of trouble by avoiding angering working-class people, and it's not to reach some kind of perfect non-classist purity. The goal is to make ourselves more trustworthy and to alienate working-class people less so that we can work together for economic justice and other common goals.” (page 89)
The book concludes with practical tips and resources to help break down the barriers of class difference and enable groups to work together effectively for social change. Some of these tips include:
- Moving from pretense to authenticity: building trust through honesty in dialogue.
- Moving from politeness and caution to openness and humor: build relationships through friendliness and respect.
- Moving from competition and superiority to confident humility: recognizing our common limitations as human beings.
- Moving from excessive abstraction to groundedness: rooting discussion and action in reality.
- Moving from guilt to balanced responsibility: avoiding being mislead or immobilized by guilt.
- Moving from individual achievement to community interdependence: seeing the big picture, balancing individual tasks and relation-ships/working together.
Class Matters is now at the top of my reading list! If you're experiencing, or just plain interested in, the tensions and challenges (and rewards!) of cross-class work, you might want to add it to yours, too.