What do you see when you look through the lens of class cultures?

 

When we walk into a meeting, we notice the race and gender of the people there. 

 

Once in a while we guess wrong, but mostly there’s a shared understanding of members’ races and genders, and shared terms to describe these identities. Because of this we can have conversations about the group’s race and gender composition and dynamics.

 

None of this is true of class identities. 

Most activists don’t even think about the class backgrounds of other members. We very often guess wrong – even about current class. Many people in the US don’t have conscious class identities, and if we do, we don’t share vocabulary to name them. It’s hard to talk about the class dynamics of a group without knowing who has had what class life experience.

 

 

In researching Missing Class, three of us went to meetings of 25 social justice organizations. Almost everyone filled out a survey about their parents’ and their own education level, occupation, housing and other class-related questions. I scored the survey answers and clumped 362 people into categories – working-class, professional-middle-class, upwardly and downwardly mobile.

Once I knew everyone’s class indicators and I re-read the transcripts and notes of the meetings -- and it was like putting on 3D glasses. Class patterns popped out!  I could see that people of different classes tended to speak differently, had different group process preferences, responded to conflict differently. Of course there were exceptions,  personality differences within each class, and sometimes race or gender patterns were clearer than class patterns – but over and over I found specifically class culture differences.  One reason was that the 25 groups were in 6 different movement traditions with different class roots. But individuals carried their own class cultures into whatever group they joined as well. Most groups face similar problems – inactive members, internal conflicts,   people who talk too much in meetings – but the solutions tend to vary depending on class and movement tradition.

Once I knew everyone’s class indicators and I re-read the transcripts and notes of the meetings -- and it was like putting on 3D glasses. Class patterns popped out! 

I could see that people of different classes tended to speak differently, had different group process preferences, responded to conflict differently. Of course there were exceptions,  personality differences within each class, and sometimes race or gender patterns were clearer than class patterns – but over and over I found specifically class culture differences. 

One reason was that the 25 groups were in 6 different movement traditions with different class roots. But individuals carried their own class cultures into whatever group they joined as well.

Most groups face similar problems – inactive membersinternal conflicts,   people who talk too much in meetings – but the solutions tend to vary depending on class and movement tradition.

Here’s an example of a common group problem, with a solution that’s a class culture trait: Low turnout – all activists have experienced it. Too few people showed up at a meeting or event. In interviews for the Missing Class study, we asked group members, “what would it take to get more people involved?” 

Here’s an example of a common group problem, with a solution that’s a class culture trait:

Low turnout – all activists have experienced it. Too few people showed up at a meeting or event. In interviews for the Missing Class study, we asked group members, “what would it take to get more people involved?” 

And there was one answer given only by working-class-background activists, that was never once said by a college-educated interviewee from a professional-middle-class background: serve food, or serve more or better food. Every working-class-majority meeting we observed had food to share. 

And there was one answer given only by working-class-background activists, that was never once said by a college-educated interviewee from a professional-middle-class background: serve food, or serve more or better food.

Every working-class-majority meeting we observed had food to share. 

At certain meetings with a college-educated-majority, a few members sat in a too-empty room at 6:30 in the evening, asking each other “where is everybody?” – with not a calorie of food in the room! 

At certain meetings with a college-educated-majority, a few members sat in a too-empty room at 6:30 in the evening, asking each other “where is everybody?” – with not a calorie of food in the room! 

If they had been to community organizing or labor organizing meetings with food, serving refreshments might have occurred to them as a recruitment method. This is a clear example of how simply knowing how activists of other classes do things can strengthen your own social justice efforts.

If they had been to community organizing or labor organizing meetings with food, serving refreshments might have occurred to them as a recruitment method.

This is a clear example of how simply knowing how activists of other classes do things can strengthen your own social justice efforts.

That’s why the subtitle of Missing Class is “Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.” If progressive activists become more aware of class culture differences, we’ll be better able to solve our own group’s problems; we’ll be able to increase the class diversity of our groups; and we’ll build stronger cross-class coalitions.  That’s the goal of this Activist Class Cultures online kit, to help social justice activists become more class-culture savvy.

That’s why the subtitle of Missing Class is “Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.” If progressive activists become more aware of class culture differences, we’ll be better able to solve our own group’s problems; we’ll be able to increase the class diversity of our groups; and we’ll build stronger cross-class coalitions. 

That’s the goal of this Activist Class Cultures online kit, to help social justice activists become more class-culture savvy.

Fundamental social change will only come about through cross-class and multiracial mass movements – and learning about class culture differences is one step towards building those movements.

Fundamental social change will only come about through cross-class and multiracial mass movements – and learning about class culture differences is one step towards building those movements.

KEEP LOOKING THROUGH A CLASS LENS:

  • TO TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF ACTIVIST CLASS CULTURE TRAITS, TAKE THIS QUIZ.

  • TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CLASS SPEECH DIFFERENCESCLICK HERE.

  • TO LEARN HOW MOVEMENT TRADITIONS CONNECT TO ACTIVIST CLASS CULTURES, CLICK HERE.

  • TO UP YOUR GAME AND SOLVE COMMON GROUP PROBLEMS, CLICK HERE.

  • TO ENVISION BUILDING CROSS-CLASS ALLIANCES FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE, CLICK HERE.