In a moment of potentially revolutionary activism and mobilization, don’t let classism undermine your efforts.
The past few weeks have been both terrifying and inspiring. In the midst of ascending totalitarianism and the drastic, likely unconstitutional roll-backs of basic rights, we are also seeing a swift mobilization from both new and established activists. Organizations and individuals are stepping up to defend, protect and support one another, with a massive potential to become a transformative force for justice.
There may be a temptation in these moments to prioritize getting things done over doing them well. But overlooking the details that determine whether our movements, organizations and actions will be broadly inclusive can limit our effectiveness and undermine the revolutionary potential of our work.
Revolution Without Classism
We already know many of the ways that classism can show up in activist work. Here are just a few examples of pitfalls to avoid, to make sure the revolution can truly be for everyone, across class, race, gender, disability and other differences.
- Reinventing the Wheel
Many people who were raised professional middle class or owning class (especially men) have been socialized to think of themselves as leaders. For these folks, it can be hard to remember that the movement also needs followers.If you are tempted to launch a new organization, project or campaign, first, look around. Chances are, someone’s already doing that work. Especially look for organizations headed by poor and working-class people who are part of the groups most impacted by the issue at hand (e.g., immigrants, Muslims, people of color, trans people, people with disabilities). Practice joining up and supporting their leadership rather than duplicating the work and potentially diverting resources and attention toward yourself.
- Assuming that those with the most formal education have the most relevant knowledge and understanding.
Formal education teaches you a lot about how to be confident and convincing in meetings, but not necessarily much about how to survive poverty while resisting a totalitarian regime. If you’re in a position of relative privilege, practice suspending your impulse to know the answer and instead invite and support thought-leadership from people more experienced in surviving poverty, racism, colonialism, policing, etc.
- Hosting inaccessible meetings.
Centering the voices of those most marginalized means more than just listening when they talk. It requires structuring organizations and meetings so that marginalized people can and will contribute. Consider accessibility in terms of stuff like transportation (is it on a bus line?), childcare (arrange and pay for it collectively, and/or include children in the meeting), food (share costs equitably, with those paying more who can), and meeting format (figure out what will work for the group; don’t default to what’s most familiar to the group’s informal leaders).If people aren’t showing up who you wish would, don’t ask, Why don’t they care? Instead ask, What might be in their way, and how can the group take collective responsibility for eliminating those barriers?
- Under- or overestimating what you can afford to give.
One way people are supporting efforts for resistance and change is by donating to organizations already doing the work – which is great! But so often, those with the least to give end up giving the most. Challenge yourself to realistically assess how much you can afford and how much you can stretch. When you think, I can give this much, and I can’t give any more, zoom in on what exactly your “can’t” means. Does it mean you can’t give more without being inconvenienced? Does it mean you can’t give more without compromising your own basic needs for housing, food, clothing and healthcare?If your answer is more like the first, try giving away just a little bit more, and notice that it feels pretty good. If your answer is more like the second, consider who you know who has greater access to resources that you could invite to amplify your efforts.
- Supporting professionalized nonprofit organizing over grassroots organizing.
Whether it’s with time, energy or money, which groups do you prioritize supporting? Established nonprofit organizations with their boards of directors, annual reports and glossy websites may seem like the safest or most “legit” way to contribute. And obviously, many of them do good work.But they are also implicated in a classist system that rewards formal education, coerces them into compromising to appeal to funders’ priorities, and legally restricts them from certain very important tools of activism (like advocating for or against political candidates, and in some states, using affirmative action in hiring). Supporting grassroots efforts that are not necessarily organized as nonprofit entities can be just as legit and impactful, and sometimes a lot more revolutionary.
These are a few pitfalls to avoid as you engage in revolutionary activism and mobilization in the new (ab)normal. What are some of other pitfalls that you have seen, and what are some solutions you recommend to avoid and combat them?
Ellen Schwartz says
Thank you for this. The pitfall I would add is not to make assumptions about people based on their class. E.g. that poor or working class people can’t understand sophisticated ideas, read “hard” texts, or talk about “college-level” stuff. Or that poor and working class [white] people “vote against their own interests.” The “solution” I would recommend is to actually listen to what people are saying and try to understand where they are coming from. And to remember that people–ALL people–are complex and multi-dimensional.
Deb Witkus says
Linda Gasparovic says
I suggest we could benefit from looking at our differences from a cultural perspective– working class “community” which emphasizes respect for experience/seniority and “paying one’s dues” vs. middle class “individualist” culture which emphasizes the ability of the individual/education trumping experience and “new” vs. “invested”. If we look at how each culture approaches the concept of “cutting in line” or the understanding of “right to work” vs. “scabs” that undercut worker solidarity by willingness to work for less, one can see that the values of class are influenced by whether the culture is based on what is valued most: what is good for the community vs. the individual.
Tanya Williams says
Davey, this is awesome! Thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts. I would add to the list – and I think it’s very connected to both 2 and 5, but I would caution folks on expecting a particular form of communication (language, sentence structure, accent) when building coalitions and collaborations. We rarely notice the way that our internalized classist domination plays out by calling people ignorant or not listening to others because of the way that they speak.