Living Beyond Class

We are living in a time of seemingly impenetrable race and class division. I say “seemingly” because we have seen what may have been perceived to be impossible made possible in that a surplus of minorities have gained social and economic advancement because of pioneers in political and social activism. One such pioneer is Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director for Class Action, which is a 501c (3) non-profit organization whose credo is “Building Bridges Across the Class Divide”, according to their website: www.classism.org. They maintain that, “A world without classism meets every ones basic needs, treats people from every background, class status and rank with dignity and respect; supports the development of all people to their full potential; reduces the vast differences in income, wealth and access to resources; [and] ensures that everyone has a vote in the decisions that affect them.” I was able to catch up with Class Action Program Director Betsy Leondar-Wright for this interview:

Spare Change News: Can you tell me why and how Class Action was founded and by whom?

Betsy Leondar-Wright: In the late 1990s, three multimillionaires and three people who grew up poor or working-class began a Cross-Class Dialogue Group that met monthly for six years in Western Massachusetts. Their honest conversations about their class life stories were transformative for all of them. Two members of the group — Jenny Ladd and the late, great Felice Yeskel — founded Class Action (http://www.classism.org ) in 2004 to give more people this powerful experience of cross-class dialogue — a rare experience in our class-segregated and supposedly “classless” society. Since that founding, over 16,000 people across the US have participated in Class Action workshops in which they shared their class life stories and left with increased motivation to reduce classism.

SCN: Can you talk a bit about your background, your role at Class Action and how you came to the organization and why?

Betsy: I have been a progressive activist for about 30 years, mostly for economic justice; and over and over I have noticed that coalitions for social change fracture along class lines. For example, middle-class feminists and low-income single mothers were not united over welfare reform. Sometimes racial diversity and racism are the hardest issue for progressive groups to deal with, but when that’s the case, there are numerous anti-racist workshops, books, and consultants to turn to. I kept wishing for something similar for activists’ class dynamics, and finally decided I better create it myself. I interviewed experienced cross-class bridge people and put their advice into a book, Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists (now out of print, but still available at Class Action’s online store (www.classism.org/store). Because I was doing this writing about cross-class alliances and working at United for a Fair Economy, the founders of Class Action asked me to be on the board where I’ve remained from 2004 to today.

Now I am also on the staff as the Program Director, and I edit our blog. One blog post that might be of special interest to Spare Change readers is, “Anatomy of a cross-class breakdown at a youth shelter” (http://www.classism.org/anatomy-crossclass-breakdown-youth-shelter).

SCN: Why do you think an organization like Class Action is necessary today and how do you think it helps communities?

Betsy: I am devoted to Class Action because it is the only organization in the United States to shine a spotlight on classism: prejudice, stereotypes and mistreatment based on social class. There are many fine organizations, including Spare Change, that work to reduce poverty, to organize working and poor people, and to advocate against the ways that the rules of the economy are rigged to favor the rich. The media, politicians and some of our friends and family blame people’s financial woes on their supposed low intelligence, laziness, and destructive behavior, blaming the victims instead of analyzing the structural causes of the economic divide. Whenever we hear such individualistic analyses of inequality, we should beware and put up our antennae for possible classism. Once we’re aware that terms like “trailer trash,” “ghetto,” “redneck,” “low-class,” “high-class” and “classy” perpetuate classist stereotypes, we can cut them out of our vocabulary, and find other ways to phrase our criticism and praise, without implying that people with less class privilege are worse human beings.

SCN: Can you tell me about some of Class Action’s programs?

Betsy: Class Action is very excited to be expanding our work with youth. Recently we published the first-ever high-school and middle-school curriculum on class and classism, Created Equal (http://www.classism.org/programs/created-equal), which is full of field-tested activities to raise teenagers’ awareness of class inequities in their lives and in our society, and to inspire them to take action for fairness. College students whose working-class or low-income parents didn’t get an academic college degree often feel like fish out of water, especially at elite universities. Class Action offers them an online resource center (http://www.classism.org/resources/resources-generation-college-students) and a model of peer support. If any Spare Change readers are members of a first-generation student group, we’d appreciate it if they would get in touch with us ASAP at info@classism.org,

SCN: What do you hope to achieve as Program Director of Class Action and can you provide contact information?

Betsy: I know that thousands of organizations in Massachusetts face class dynamics that limit their effectiveness in reaching their missions; and hundreds of thousands of individuals are struggling with cross-class relationships and classist situations. As Program Director, I’m hoping to make more of them aware of how Class Action’s workshops, website and blog, books and DVDs can help them start some long-needed class conversations.

I would be delighted to hear from Spare Change readers. If you are on Facebook, please ‘like’ our page (https://www.facebook.com/ClassActionNow). If you have a story to write or simply if you agree with us that classism is poisoning our society, please get in touch. My email address is betsy@classism.org, and the office phone number is: 617-477-8635 and/or visit our website: www.classism.org.

—Jacques Fleury

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