Missing Corner, Missing Choices

Participants in a class background caucus at a Class Action workshop

Participants in a class background caucus at a Class Action workshop

I recently participated in the Class Action workshop The Moment for Change: Exploring Class and Classism for Social Action. I learned a lot from the “class” – specifically, that class does matter, and each of us brings our experience into interactions with others. There was one point in the class, however, when I felt a strong disconnect. It was when participants were asked to stand in the labeled corner of the room which best described each person’s early class experience.

I grew up in a family glad to be among the employed. Nevertheless, my parents struggled to provide sufficient food for our family of six, day in and day out. My grandmother was a college graduate, but her daughter (my mother) did not follow in her footsteps. In fact, she was a pampered only child in a large family of adult aunts and uncles. She was never taught to cook or do other basic tasks.

My father was abandoned by his parents as a young child, taken care of by an aunt whom he found dead one day and adopted at age 15. He earned medals for his combat service in WWII and then found a job as an installer with the phone company aka MaBell or AT&T. He suffered from mood swings, amnesia and a history of disappearing if a situation got too much for him.

When he had a serious accident on the job, the company took a paternalistic stance. After a lengthy recovery period, he was assigned a “desk job.” He was confined to a wheelchair for the last 13 years of his life. One day, I was in the yard with my siblings when we saw him rolling down the ramp [in his wheelchair] to the car at dinner time with a radio in his lap. He wouldn’t tell us where he was going but returned with some food in lieu of the radio. That’s how tight money could become. I remember often being hungry.

Figuring It Out

During the workshop, we were asked to choose which corner of the room was labeled most appropriately for our early “class” situation.  I remember they were something like:

  • chronically unemployed
  • hourly worker or self-employed
  • comfortably salaried employee
  • owning class.

Where did I fit?   

My father had steady employment with one company throughout his working life.

  • He was not an hourly worker or self-employed – although my mother did take odds and ends jobs to supplement the family income.
  • We were definitely not comfortably well off.
  • And, we were certainly not owning class.

That’s why I say there is a missing corner. And why do I think this matters? In that “missing corner” are the people striving to live the American dream, but falling farther and farther behind economically.

...before taking this workshop, I was happy to put these folks into a bucket of people whom I would never understand or sympathize with.”

These are the people who, seemingly, vote against their own interests, over and over again.  These are the same people who turned the politics of this country on its ear in the last presidential election. These people are demanding the attention of the nation – and having some success doing it. I think it’s time that America really tried to understand what’s going on there. A class in classism shouldn’t be blind to them.

Okay, so I don’t have all the answers and, before taking this workshop, I was happy to put these folks into a bucket of people whom I would never understand or sympathize with. “Let them go back to school and get retrained in a useful skill. Stop holding onto to fossil fuels and outdated social norms because they are familiar and your not good with change.”

I assumed people who were one step up the economic ladder would welcome a $15 minimum wage, because they could easily depend upon it someday. But NO! They had worked hard to get that leg up, and they were not anxious to contribute to masses of people joining their marginally better off position.

I’ve come to realize that folks trained in a trade or particular skill set have a much harder time making a transition to a new career than those with a broader, less specific set of skills. The latter tend to be more agile, applying what they’ve learned in one area to others as the situation demands.

Different Corners, Same Space

I learned these folks are not alien to me. They are not isolated in remote parts of the country.  They are not exclusively in rural areas or poor inner-city neighborhoods. They are not an anomaly. They are me. They are us. We are all in this together, like it or not. How do we start effectively helping this critical class of Americans so that we can all start moving ahead again?

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