Author Archives: Betsy Leondar-Wright

About Betsy Leondar-Wright

Betsy Leondar-Wright, PhD, is the author of "Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures" (Cornell University Press 2014). As Program Director of the national nonprofit Class Action, she edits the blog Classism Exposed. She also authored "Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists" and co-authored "The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide." Currently she is teaching Education and Culture at Harvard and Social Movements at Tufts.

What would class-inclusive anti-racism look like?

I’ve been asked a question that I can’t answer, and I wonder if you, the reader, can help answer it.

The most common forms of anti-racist consciousness-raising practiced on the left today—workshops; special sessions to talk about internal race dynamics; book discussions; instantly “calling out” oppressive comments; and hammering out statements of ideological commitment, all using specialized terms such as “white supremacy”—are not well-received by every progressive activist. And it’s not just white people resistant to looking at racism who have negative reactions. In my research on 25 varied social movement organizations (SMOs) in five states, I found a class correlation with who disliked, non-cooperated with, or was befuddled by those typical anti-racist practices, which were always initiated and led by college-educated activists: it was disproportionately lifelong working-class and poor activists (of all races) for whom those modes didn’t work. Continue reading

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Singing and not singing: The activist age divide

The year 2012 is a special one in Massachusetts: the centennial of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike has been celebrated with literally dozens of events, with more still planned. The gatherings I’ve attended have given me glimpses into the cultures of different wings of today’s progressive movements. My conclusion is that participatory singing as a political act is becoming an outmoded relic of former movements.

At the big Labor Day event, the crowd included UNITE-HERE members and other Lawrence-area union members, mostly Latinos younger than 50. Union members wore union t-shirts to signify their affiliations; and they marched in contingents; but they didn’t sing as they marched. Some of the musical performers that day sang in Spanish, and young and/or Latino festival-goers either sat and listened or they danced along – but they never sang along.

A number of white and black singers at the Labor Day festival encouraged sing-alongs, and I watched to see who sang and who didn’t sing. In particular, because Bread and Puppet Theater, with its giant puppets and stilt-walkers, is so inherently interesting to all ages and races, I was able to watch their big diverse audience respond to calls to sing along. Perhaps Mobilizing Ideas readers won’t be surprised to learn that those who sang along were old and white. Many of them were seasoned leftists whose experience stretched back to the ‘60s or earlier.

At other Lawrence centennial events I saw the same singing demographic: old and white. The only middle-aged exceptions were approximately four of us hard-core political folkies, those who knew by heart all four verses of the “Bread and Roses” song about the 1912 strike. But except for us, everyone else who sang “Solidarity Forever” had white hair and weathered faces. Ditto with “Union Maid.” And twice, when “The Internationale” was sung, everyone else who stood up and raised their right fist appeared to be 75 or older; this old socialist tradition seems not to have been passed down.

During the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s I realized that young activists in that movement did not sing during protests. And the music of the Occupy movement seemed to be either performance or participatory drumming, not participatory singing (see this collection). But during those two mobilizations I thought that the singing/not-singing breakpoint was about age 35. At this year’s Lawrence events, I realized that the age divide is much older, and that political singing seems to have virtually died out even among middle-aged activists.

For those of us raised on Civil Rights freedom songs, anti-war songs, wimmin’s music, De Colores and anti-apartheid music, a movement that doesn’t sing seems strange and culturally impoverished. Media jamming and crowd-sourced creativity through Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are the new mode of activist participatory creativity; activists now have protest tools unimagined in the 1960s.

But when I think of some of the situations in which the anti-apartheid movement sang their freedom songs – between jail cells on death row, in the poverty of exile, and while marching under violent repression – I worry about how future activists will keep their spirits up and build solidarity when all their electronic devices are unavailable to them.

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What’s needed at this political moment? 5 well-known leftists, 5 strong opinions

At the Working-Class Studies conference last weekend, I heard an amazing dialogue about class, race and movement-building by five progressive journalists and activist scholars: Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!, Frances Fox Piven, Bill Fletcher Jr. of Blackcommentator.com, and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert of Demos, with conference organizer Michael Zweig, author of The Working Class Majority moderating.

I was struck by how openly they disagreed with each other in front of us 200 listeners, by how passionate all five of them are about creating a more just society, and by what vast depth of experience they brought to the panel. Here are some highlights: Continue reading

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Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America

By Betsy Leondar-Wright

Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, by Barbara Jensen. Cornell Press, 2012.

And unlike most things I’ve read about kids disengaged from school, which focus on their deficits and fret about their life chances, Jensen, a counseling psychologist who has long worked with such kids, celebrates the working-class cultural strengths that motivate some of them, even as she is realistic about their struggles.

Reading this wise and evocative book through my own lens of wanting to organize progressive social movements, I saw that the working-class cultural traits she describes are some of the essentials of movement-building.

“If there’s no rebel energy, there’s no movement,” the late working-class activist Bill Moyer wrote in Doing Democracy.  He didn’t mean violent rebellion or randomly scattered rage, but strategically targeted rebellion against unjust power-holders. Tame tactics would never make social change. Looking around at the devastation in the U.S. economy and environment, it’s clear that too many of us are taking terrible injustices sitting down. We have a society-wide shortage of rebel energy, as Bruce Levine. Continue reading

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading

No-degree social movement thinkers

Who do you think of when you think of a social movement theorist? A professor? Two of the authors who have taught me the most about social movement strategy have only high school degrees:  Linda Stout and the late Bill Moyer. I very rarely see either of them cited in the social movement literature. I suspect that their books haven’t reached all their potential audiences in part because of the authors’ lack of college credentials.

Firsthand activist experience is often thought of as fodder only for case studies, not for generating broad theory. But both of these authors could create useful new concepts precisely because of their long, long activist experience. Continue reading

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What about those hand signals?

The same week that Steven Colbert pretended to mock Occupy Wall Street’s hand signals, I saw them used at an Occupy Boston General Assembly, and my Social Movements class studied the pitfalls of too much and too little “movement culture” – quite a serendipity!

Using the six measures of degrees of movement culture that my students learned from John Lofland’s article, the Occupy movement’s group process seems to be on the far end of the movement-culture spectrum: 1) there seems to be widespread agreement about it; 2) it’s quite distinct, different from the wider culture; 3) its scope reaches into every part of occupiers’ lives together; the consensus rules, including hand signals, are 4) numerous in quantity and 5) have a lot of complexity; and 6) they are very expressive of the protestors’ values and visions. Continue reading

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