Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing: Social Class and Social Action

by: educationaction

Sat Apr 12, 2008 at 19:22

(Another instalment in this excellent series that's garnering more and more attention as time goes on.  Don't be left out... - promoted by Paul Rosenberg)

People from different cultures have different ways of organizing themselves for collective action.   Here, I talk about differences between people from working-class and middle-class professional backgrounds.

It's important to stress that I am not talking about individuals, but instead cultural patterns that play out (or don't) uniquely in different contexts. These patterns can illuminate why groups act the way they do, but they can't predict how any individual will act, and don't capture everything (and sometimes don't say much at all) about a particular group.  In this post I am talking about approaches to social action fairly broadly, and not simply within the tradition of Alinsky-based organizing.

Those new to these posts may want to read Part I and Part II of "What is Organizing?"  See the full series here.

educationaction :: Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing: Social Class and Social Action
Note: this is a simplified version of a paper you can find here --I apologize for the pay wall.  I hope that with this simplification I have not ended up doing a disservice.  The two key works I refer to are Unequal Childhoods , by Annette Lareau, and Coalitions Across the Class Divide , by Fred Rose.  

Class Cultures
Middle- and working-class cultures emerged in coherent form in America during the last decades of the 18th Century.  Middle-class professionals, as a new group, increasingly built themselves a world of privilege doing non-manual work, while the working-class was buffeted by numerous depressions, poverty, and lived with often backbreaking work conditions.  (For a more detailed historical overview, go here .)

When I talk about the middle-class, today, I am referring mostly to the culture that still dominates the way middle-class professionals interact today, albeit in intensified form.  Working-class culture, however, has fragmented more over the last century, existing in its strongest form in some unions and in long-term communities where people still have deep relationships with neighbors and extended family.  Class in the cultural sense I mean it, here, is less linked to income than to educational background and job type.  Plenty of progressive professionals "choose" fairly low-income jobs, for example.

Middle-Class Culture
Middle-class professionals tend to be fairly mobile and based in relatively self-sufficient nuclear families.  Middle-class professionals depend highly upon their credentials and learned practices, and often believe, at least, that they are judged in a meritocratic job market as individuals.  

The parenting practices of the middle class are significantly different from those of working-class families. Middle-class children learn at an early age to make their own judgments, often participating in adult life as if they were "mini" adults. They are frequently asked for their opinions and are allowed (and even encouraged) to disagree with adults. These families celebrate children's unique characteristics. Middle class parents focus so intently on cultivating their children that their "lives" can have "a hectic, at times frenetic, pace" (Lareau).

Collaboration and teamwork have become increasingly central characteristics of middle-class life over the 20th century. Group success often requires managers and professionals to work closely with people they have no long-term relationship with. Each individual in these contexts is expected to independently contribute his or her own particular knowledge and skills to an often weakly defined common project.

Working-Class Culture
"Woe unto the [worker] who stood alone in this pitiless struggle for existence [at the end of the 18th Century]." ( Montgomery).

Working-class families are structured to a much greater extent around an established hierarchy between children and adults.  In part because working-class parents lack time to constantly monitor children, hierarchies and limited tolerance for "back talk" make more sense than constant negotiation. Lareau found that "in working-class and poor homes, most parents did not focus on developing their children's' opinions, judgments, and observations."  In contrast with what she termed the "concerted cultivation" approach of the middle-class, then, Lareau argued that working-class parents are more likely to "engage in the accomplishment of natural growth" giving children plenty of time to do their own thing outside of the gaze of adults.

"Working-class people in the United States are more likely to live where they grew up, or to have moved as a family and not solo. They are more likely to live near extended family and [are] . . . likely to have been raised and socialized by traditionally rooted people" ( Leondar-Wright ).  Even though the old ethnic enclaves of the 19th and early 20th century have largely disappeared, Lubrano found that a "core value of the working class" still involves "being part of a like-minded group-a family, a union, or a community." As at the end of the 19th century, today this tendency to value deep connections with families and communities is partly driven by the material conditions of working-class life. Many workers have no choice but to depend on a web of links with others to get them through hard times, and the impoverished, especially in the central cities, suffer greatly to the extent that these relationships have fractured.

Studies of Working- and Middle-Class Approaches to Social Action
A small number of studies look at how middle- and working-class people engage in social action.  The studies I refer to, here, focused on those groups that most seem to embody key characteristics of the class cultures described above: middle-class professionals and members of long-term, established labor unions.  In other groups you probably won't find these distinctions showing up as clearly, or you may find other issues emerging as most important.

Social Action and Middle-Class Professionals
In organizations dominated by middle-class professionals, speakers generally need to be "comfortable with theoretical, impersonal discussion." Because these groups generally lack formal rules for participation, they often expect people to be able to "just jump in when they want to speak," following a format resembling "college classroom[s] . . . familiar to those who are college educated" ( Stout ).

In part because the issues addressed by middle-class activists are usually only weakly linked to group members' lives, (think of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace) Rose found that "even the most pragmatic middle-class organizations frame their issues in broad ethical terms, . . . never in terms of advancing the interests of a particular group," possibly indicating how little the "struggles faced by low-income people" actually impinge on the "reality" of middle-class people."  In fact, middle-class groups generally believe that they advance universally valid goals, not "the interests of their class" (Stout)

Participants in middle-class, professional organizations are encouraged to "continue to act very much as individuals" (Rose). Groups often allot plenty of time for self-expression and see it as problematic if everyone doesn't contribute.  

A range of other characteristics of these organizations also seem driven by middle-class life conditions and culture. Reflecting the often fluid nature of professional lives, for example, participation is generally understood as an individual choice, and engagement with a particular issue "may ebb and flow depending on shifts in personal priorities and interests." Joining a social action group is one of the best ways to meet people who think like them. "Middle class politics is therefore an extension of personal development" (Rose)

Not surprisingly, Rose found that middle-class groups "find the hierarchy and formality of the union structure foreign and distasteful," since "peace and environmental organizations have few if any formal rules about membership and participation."  New arrivals are often asked "
to take part in decision-making just like longer term members."  

One environmental activist described her experience learning to work with the formal structure of the labor movement in these terms: "You've got to kiss the ring.  That's my shorthand for paying deference.  . . .  So they go to the mechanism that they're used to working with, for the formal structure."

Because middle-class professionals assume that other people operate (or should operate) in the same individualistic manner that they prefer themselves, they often believe that "'if people only knew about the problems being raised, then they would be more likely to act'" (Rose). The point is not that these groups do not often seek structural changes, especially in laws, but that the mechanism for this change is often envisioned on a model of reasoned, discursive democratic education.

Working-Class Culture and Social Action
The approach of culturally working-class groups to social action can be fundamentally different. In contrast with the comparably formless character of middle-class organizations, worker's groups tend to follow established formal rules for participation and are generally organized around clearly defined hierarchies. In fact, "Labor activists frequently find the meeting styles of middle-class organizations difficult and tedious."  Rejecting wide-ranging dialogue about the personal opinions of individuals, they focus on pragmatic questions of action and on rituals that sustain group solidarity. As one union leader stated,

These peace people don't understand that it's a war out there.  . . .  The contrast between giving people hell at a bar over the union vote and then going to a conversion meeting where people sit around and eat cheese and sip herb tea is really frustrating.  These people seem like they're from a different solar system.   . . ..  The peace people are too intellectual and always wanting to work on the structure of the organization.  . . .  The union is used to getting down to work and getting things done. They wouldn't talk to the governor more than once, and if he wasn't listening the first time then he'd read about it in the paper next.  This is a war, and you can't be nice about it.   . . .  I feel a sense of urgency about it that I don't get from the peace people. (Rose)

Those who are most respected in working-class contexts embody the core values of the working class: speaking their minds, contending, often loudly, over their commitments, and expressing the emotions behind their commitments. Eschewing abstractions, they speak from experience, often telling stories that serve to embody their particular perspectives while demonstrating loyalty and connectedness.

Membership many of these groups is not simply chosen but the result of a long-term embeddedness in community and family networks. Identity is something that one has, not something that needs to be found; it "comes from being accepted and known" and "being a member of a . . . community with a good reputation defines who one is" (Rose). Thus, these "close communities" make "a clear division between members and outsiders." Trust is built over time, and newcomers are not easily allowed entry.

Finally, the issues tackled by groups like unions and local community groups are usually closely tied to particular community needs. Instead of focusing on universal values (although they may often refer to these), they tend to define their battles in terms of "competing interests," experiencing "their own interests . . . in opposition to the interests of others" (Rose). A problem is rarely seen as the result of a simple misunderstanding that can be rationally dealt with. Instead, power must be wrested from others who will generally not give it up without a fight. Win-win solutions may sometimes be possible, but experience has taught them that conflict generally involves a zero-sum game.

Class Tensions
It's important to reemphasize that Rose, especially, focused on groups that especially exemplify the class characteristics I have been discussing.  Even in less distinct circumstances, however, differences in approaches to social action frequently create conflicts and tensions between middle-class and working-class groups. In fact, I have watched these dynamics play themselves out in the context of community organizing efforts I have worked in over the past few years, and I'll talk about some of this later.  Because they have different ways of speaking, when people from different classes meet together, they often find that they can't communicate very well, misreading discursive and social cues that seem so natural to one group and so alien to the other. Furthermore, the structure of each context tends to alienate and suppress the participation of people from the other class. For example, the quick repartee of middle-class meetings can make it difficult for working-class people to get a word in edgewise, whereas the formalistic and hierarchical structure of working-class settings can seem, to middle-class members, like a tool for suppressing their individual voices.

Rose summarizes the differences between middle-class professional and working-class organizations in this way:

The middle class is prone to seeing the working class as rigid, self-interested, narrow, uninformed, parochial, and conflict oriented.  The working class tends to perceive the middle class as moralistic, intellectual, more talk than action, lacking commonsense, and naïve about power.  Each side has a different standard for evaluating information, with the working class trusting experience and the middle class believing in research and systematic study.  The result is a wide gulf in understandings of nature, sustainability, economics, and human conduct.  Worse yet, working-class unions and middle-class environmentalists seek change differently.  The working class seeks to build power to confront external threats, while the middle class hopes to change people's motivations, ideas, and morality.

And he emphasizes that these differences arise, in part, out of very different experiences with power:

Different degrees of power and vulnerability are also decisive.  Middle-class movements tend to have greater access to the bureaucracy because it is staffed by their professional peers.  Bureaucratic processes also function through expertise and abstract rules that middle-class values.  The middle class tends, therefore, to have greater faith in the ability of these institutions to accomplish its goals.  The working class, by contrast, is often the weakest party in conflicts and tends to pay the costs of many political and economic decisions.  Its strategies reflect both this vulnerability and the interpretation of politics as a conflict about interests.

Need for Bringing the Strengths and Weaknesses of Each Together
Despite these gulfs, Rose argued that when they operate in isolation, class-based movements often end up "reinforcing and reproducing [problematic] aspects of society even as they work to change other aspects".

For example, middle-class reforms have often "inadvertently served to reproduce the subordinate role of the working class in society and the economy" by placing decision-making power in the hands of experts or by downplaying the effects of inequality on democratic engagement. Working-class approaches bring their own problems, however. A tendency to focus on local interests has sometimes led working-class organizations to downplay more universalistic visions of social transformation. In unions and elsewhere, a dependence on hierarchy can threaten democratic engagement. And because working-class efforts have often depended on exclusion of other, less privileged persons from gaining access to limited resources, they can reinforce social divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender, among others.

Overall, the practices of these different groups embody contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Both sides have much to learn from each other, if they can find a way to listen.

And, in fact, many groups have increasingly begun to recognize these challenges (among other cultural gulfs) and have been trying to make changes in how they interact internally and with external groups.  One key person who has been pushing nationally for recognition of these issues is Betsy Leondar-Wright, whose website, is a great resource.

This post covers a range of issues around power and inequality in organizing that I will return to in later posts.  As should be clear to people who have read my introductions to post-Alinsky organizing, the Alinsky model tends to draw much more extensively from working-class than middle-class culture.

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Thanks (4.00 / 3)
It strikes me that the class divide plays a much greater role in dealing with labor and environmental issues than people generally realize, and that environmental justice organizations tend to close this gap significantly, as they deal with environmental issues primarily in working class ways.

They are not dealing with the environment in the absract or large scale. It is all about how the environment impacts people's daily lives, right where they live, and it's much less about policies and procedures in the abstract than it is about specific decisions requiring specific mobilizations.  EJ groups turn out people for meetings, and those people are often passionate and articulate about their own lives.

I'm thinking right now about a black mother at a public comment meeting I attended recently, who had her grade school age son with her.  While it's been a conceptual advance to start conceiving of environmental impacts in terms of human health, and health impacts in terms of econmic costs--breaking down the logic of "the environment" vs. "jobs"--this approach also sharpens certain contradictions that this woman honed in on like quided missile.

"My child is priceless," she said.  "There is no price on his health." And the same was true of all the children in her community, of which she was a muti-decade resident.  She said it with an air of authority that no expert or high government official could equal, which was born quite clearly out of her status as a mother within a working class context, where that role was part of a vital social glue holding her community together.

I was quite struck by her at the time, and quoted her in the story I wrote, but this piece helped me clarify a significant aspect of where her authority came from.  I think that many middle class people would be surprised by such a woman, or if not surprised, then would at least regard her as remarkable (which she certainly is) as an articulate spokesperson in spite of her class background.  I had a different take, which was somewhat vague before reading this piece, that it was because of her class background.  And you've helped clarify why and how that is so.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

There are three related issues here: (4.00 / 1)
Culture, material conditions, and community.  And these are often quite different across contexts.

For example, in many inner-city areas, the strong local community has dissolved in many (not all) areas.  And the conditions of work are so impoverished, that working-class culture may not fit as well. E.g., many people don't see much future as working-class people in working-class jobs that pay.  And that may affect the kind of contingent cultural practices that emerge to deal with these conditions.

Certainly there is a clear class divide between the environmental justice people who are working on specific campaigns around specific targeted communities, and the larger environmental movement, which tends to focus on middle-class professional visions of a better environment.  In fact, a lot of the case studies in Rose's book are about conflicts between labor and the environmentalists.  

I know there are internal tensions between environmental justice efforts and labor, since getting rid of a coal plant in your neighborhood, for example, cannot help but impact jobs.  I'd like to know more about how EJ folks and labor deal with the tensions between them.  I've heard a little, but haven't had the time to read the work that is out there.

Many EJ efforts emerge out of communities that don't really have much "community"--e.g., some inner-city neighborhoods.  So unlike established "working-class" communities, these areas are trying to create community at the same time as they are trying to fight for their community.  The issues faced by deeply impoverished folks in areas where there isn't much stable community left can look significantly different than fights with labor unions.  

The cultural issue is complicated by the fact that people with few real options for working-class jobs are often sending their kids to school in hope that they will become middle class, depending on these alien middle-class people to help them.  They aren't necessarily emerging out of the kind of working class culture that can imbue more established communities and community structures.

Part of what I'm playing with is the idea that these working-class cultural models may have been lost in many low-income areas, but that they could be very useful to these people.  

For example, one could see the post-Alinsky model as a kind of repair of working-class culture and community, an effort to rebuild what is strong about this approach and that might give marginalized communities some power.  Same thing about labor unions.

I'd have to know more about the woman you are talking about, for example.  Does she come from an established community with roots, or does she come from an organizing group that is rebuilding collective relationships within a community?  

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

[ Parent ]
Further Complications (0.00 / 0)
Here in the LA County, a lot of the EJ work comes out of Latino communities, which although fragmented are not atomistic, and often have experienced labor organizer who've worked under much more challenging conditions (death squads anyone?) than their anglo counterparts.

Additionally, EJ work is easily the least insular.  It doesn't matter what race, ethnicity or linguistic background you come from, the problems are the same, which often leads to 2-4 racial groups and maybe twice as many ethnicities working together. So, while I certainly see manifestations of the trends you describe, I have to dig beyond what's most immediately visible to me.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Interesting points (0.00 / 0)
The first is a good reminder of the need to understand the specifics of particular contexts.

I'm not as sure about the second.  There are a range of issues that equally effect the broad range of marginalized peoplein an area.  But you are right that many times these issues are framed in a manner that draws in one group or another primarily.  

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

[ Parent ]
Clarification (0.00 / 0)
Regarding point two, I agree that many issues impact a broad range of marginalized people.  What seems distinctive about EJ issues is that they tend to impact people very similarly, and thus it is easier for people to come together around shared experience, and fight together around common solutions.  

Add that to the powerful confluence of two traditions of struggle--the civil rights tradition, which is the most respectable working class tradition (so respectable, indeed, that its class origins are routinely ignored), and the environmental tradition--and you have an evolving struggle that is quite distinctive.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Agreed (0.00 / 0)
There's a lot of good work out there on EJ that I wish I had time to read right now.  It seems like it's one of the most documented area of CO.  I'm trying to finish a book on progressive democracy, so I'm writing these posts about CO based mostly on what I already have read.  I've been planning to turn back to CO after I get it done. This always happens, spending time on stuff I've mostly finished to put it in publishable form when I'm actually interested in moving on.  This new (to me) blogging form a nice way to do both.

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

[ Parent ]
Thank you (4.00 / 3)
Thank you very much for the clear explanation of the class divide and how it plays out in behaviour and interactions.  Actually, I am from India, and I can see how the same dynamics occurs there as well, not only in terms of the professional vs. the worker class, but also urban vs. rural (again with different traditions and thinking/action styles).

I did have a question about the relationship between the formulation of issue-focused fights for "power" vs. win-win solutions.  From what you have written, I understood that organizing looks not only to win-win solutions where possible but also to achieve gains for the disempowered where such gains must come at the expense of others, is this correct?  Are attempts to create a larger "shared interests" frame within which the issue can be understood and superior outcomes achieved typically a part of the approach?

I was wondering if my question above itself reflects the middle-class thinking?!

Is there a different model of organizing that would be applicable to the middle class?

Once again, let me express my appreciation for the inputs and the forum itself.  Progressive thinking and learning how (not) to act are beneficial and needed everywhere!

Don't take theory too literally (4.00 / 1)
This is a good question, but it assumes that the very abstract description I have given actually applies in an unproblematic way to actual contexts.  And we need to always be careful about that.  

Let's take the example of prison reform.  In one sense, if we can stop putting so many people in prison, then everyone wins, right?  Prisons don't really rehabilitate people--they actually make them more likely to offend.  They cost a lot of money that could be spent elsewhere.  Etc.

But there are very powerful forces and cultural frameworks that keep our system the way it is.  To get something like a treatment instead of prison program for non-violent offenders, you need to convince people that it is in their best interest, AND you need enough power to be heard and potentially move those people who would otherwise be unwilling to support you for pragmatic political reasons.  Even then you may not win.  

In this case, still, a community organizing group would approach the campaign as a battle, although other forces might be working through different avenues.  But the "battle" would be engaged in artfully, responding to the unique realities of this specific issue in a specific state, for example.  It might, in some states, look more educational.  In other states, it might need to look more confrontational.  And one would need a deep understanding of the key interests and motivations of the major actors involved to figure out how to go about entering into such a campaign.

In all likelihood, at least some people need to see that there is power out there against prisons before they will act (especially legislators who are worried about losing their jobs--sometimes these are "good" people who may lose their seat to a republican if they vote with you).  And there is a sense in which this is a "zero-sum" game, in that there are people who want "bad" drug users to be punished, and will "lose" something very important to them if it doesn't happen.  And this is tied up with racism and other issues.

But the "zero-sum" part is all intertwined with all kinds of other concerns and challenges.

In the end, however, we already know, pretty much, what prisons do and don't do--although there are right wing groups out there that will try to twist the data.  If legislatures were going to make core changes based on this knowledge, they would have.  Someone is going to have to push them.  But it probably won't be enough without other efforts like education, etc.  

So to come back to your question.  Yes, it is possible to frame large social challenges around shared interests.  Most of campaigns, however, will require people to "give" something up if marginalized people are going to gain.

In the case of prisons, for example, you would need to give drug treatment to those "bad" people who you would otherwise put in prison.  For some people, this is going to feel like you are really taking something from them.  They're willing to punish people--that doesn't feel like it's taking something from them as much as being forced to help them will.  

Another example might be environmental racism, which Paul mentioned above.  We could go for more green energy.  But this would require major shifts in who gets paid and who doesn't, large outlays early on, etc.  Seems like a "win-win" but may not "feel" like a win-win to key people in power.  

I'm afraid I've rambled a bit, here, but I hope the basic idea comes through.  

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

[ Parent ]
Thanks (0.00 / 0)
that's very clear and helpful.

[ Parent ]
Still digesting this (4.00 / 1)
And all of your other fantastic posts. Right now all I can say is THANK YOU so much for this series. It is really fantastic.

John McCain: Beacuse lobbyists should have more power

A New Era of Class Distinctions (0.00 / 0)
I think the Labor model vs. the middle class format is a good jumping off point, but doesn't fully cover the landscape of class that many are trying to make sense of an organize within.  Specifically, the labor-associated "working-class" organizations in many cases are by the metrics of 2008 in many ways closer to "middle class" as it is defined here (sidenote: it seems that the recent split among the labor movement says a great deal about this dynamic).  This is especially true outside of older industrial cities.  The "new" working class is yet another group - people of extremely low incomes and limited political clout who are largely (at this point) unorganized, and in my eyes are not accounted for in discussions of class and empowerment.

But thats not so constructive.  What i would ask is this:  How  does this group relate to the two we've already established, and how would a greater incorporation of this under-represented set of people influence the existing dynamics of collaboration, or lack thereof?

Another good post, thanks.

I think part of my hope (0.00 / 0)
is that we can see these older traditions of working class solidarity as indicators of the kinds of practices that are likely to be useful to impoverished people who have lost the kind of communities that used to support them.

However, Lareau showed that many of the basic patterns of working class culture remain within the groups you are talking about.  

So the kinds of challenges to collaboration that I discuss, above, may in fact reflect key issues among folks who have not maintained the traditions of solidarity that once were key to working-class culture.  

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)

[ Parent ]
Excellent and timely essay (0.00 / 0)
with lots of food for thought given the political climate.  This understanding is needed by our politicians.  

Join other progressives at EENRblog

A Related Book (0.00 / 0)
Those interested in the issues I discussed, above, might want to look at this book I found on Amazon that I haven't read:

Labor and the Environmental Movement: The Quest for Common Ground

It's got some recommendation blurbs from pretty good folks.  I'd be interested if anyone's taken a look at it.  I don't have time right now.

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)


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