Classism: an often overlooked "-ism"

Representative Image: 

Irene Basloe Saraf, Action Fund Board President

On September 20, a group of Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund staff and board members joined with many other social justice activists and advocates for an all-day workshop titled, “Class & Social Change: Harnessing the Strengths of Diverse Class Cultures.” Real Change, Housing Alliance, Social Justice Fund NW, and Class Action came together to sponsor the workshop.

From the very start, the facilitators – Anita Garcia Morales, Alan Preston, and Betsy Leondar-Wright – created a safe space so that we could all open up about our own class identities. And that was a good thing because I had expected a somewhat abstract discussion of the effects of class on social justice work. But Anita, Alan and Betsy created a workshop encouraging us to think about class in a very personal way. And they approach class this way because, as they note, “[a]cknowledging class privilege is an important step towards becoming an anti-classist ally.”

We spent the morning in class caucuses, established by our class status at around age 12. The facilitators believe that our class experience at that formative time in our life strongly influences how we operate today. We divided into class groups based on a variety of measures: our parents’ educational attainment, our parents’ economic and career status, the type of home we lived in, our parents’ influence in the community, among others. We were then asked to discuss, list, and then present to the whole group what our particular class background brings to our social justice work.

All of the groups were insightful in noting how a particular class background could both help and hinder social justice work. There were lots of differences across the classes. But I was really intrigued by the similarities. For instance, most of the classes were willing to take risks – those who had been poor or working class because they were accustomed to having nothing to lose, and those who had been middle, upper-middle, and owning class because they had a cushion if the risk didn’t work out.

Later in the day, we worked on creating messages on various social justice issues that would resonate and persuade across classes. The issues included housing, the environment, and school-to-prison pipeline to name a few. We learned that poor and working-class activists tend to use colorful sayings, metaphors, and analogies and first or second person stories, while college-educated activists tend to use abstract terms to explain and analyze a situation. Both of these descriptive traits are strengths; the most persuasive messages utilize elements of both, picking the most accessible of all the abstract terms associated with an issue and then creating a short and vivid message around that term.

We also explored how class can impact internal conflicts in groups. Each class leans toward a particular pitfall in conflicts. And we talked about how to navigate around those pitfalls and instead raise disagreements in ways that are both humane and assertive and resolve conflicts with collaboration rather than antagonism.

I found it enlightening – if sometimes a little uncomfortable – to spend a day poking at my own class privilege. And it was valuable to learn about the impact of class and classism on social justice work. Given that one overt class indicator is housing type, advocacy around housing and homelessness will invariably intersect with issues of class. The workshop showed me the value of addressing those issues head on, rather than avoiding or deflecting them.

By the end of the day, I appreciated the truth in the words of the late founding co-director of Class Action, Felice Yeskel: “Gaining greater awareness about how class affects what we do and how we do it is an ongoing process. The more contact we have with folks from across the class spectrum, the greater the opportunities for gaining awareness.”

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Photos. (Top): The pink sign indicates your class background when you were 12-years of age. (Bottom): The yellow sign indicates your class path or class status today that is connected to your class background.