For two and a half days, a cross-class, multi-racial group of folks from all across the gender spectrum and the country met in Oakland to talk about class and learn tools for dismantling classism. The Class Action Training of Trainers gave us the chance to explore our own and each other’s class experiences. Through exercises facilitated by a team that also reflected class, race and gender diversity we were able to bring our ideas and experiences into the room.
The exploration included finding the common ground among us. Stepping into the circle and calling in others who share that experience was a lesson in checking assumptions. Across class we had the experience of living with HIV or other chronic/life threatening illness, being mixed race, class status impacted by mental illness, currently in a cross class relationship and other invisible commonalities.
Same-class caucuses gave us time to discuss strengths and limitations from the perspective of our twelve year old selves. We then spent time in mixed class groups sharing the strengths and limitations of each class position as we had discussed them in the caucuses.
We were asked to write and bring with us to the gathering a four minute testimonial about how our lives have been impacted by class and how class is intertwined with race, gender and other aspects of our identity. My first draft came in at over 8 minutes when I read it aloud to myself in preparation. My story of 56 years of living as a Black lesbian of working class background whose class status has been drifting down the economic pyramid in the direction of chronically poor couldn’t even really be squeezed into 4 minutes. I was able to include a paragraph about lessons learned from six years spent in a women’s cross-class alliance group, but couldn’t tell the complicated story of losing my only brother to the US government’s war on the Black Power Movement in the 1960’s. I got to hear from another participant some of what it cost him to inherit wealth as a young adult: his first marriage. There was more to say about the cost of the class/classism for us all.
When we were asked to arrange ourselves in a single line based on where in the class spectrum we grew up and again based on our current class status, a living picture of the impact of race and racism on class emerged. In both instances, the line had a higher concentration of white folks as the income level increased. In the second line up, I found myself at the very end, the poor, not the rich.
Using many modalities made the learning interesting and gave us tools to use for the work that we all committed to carrying on as we returned to our lives. We told our stories; we used our bodies to demonstrate the disparity in wealth and income, now and in previous decades when the disparity was less extreme; some of us brought our art forms including spoken word and a “slow art” piece that used the sound of 25 pounds of metal pellets, each one representing $5000, rattling around a funnel and into a tin can to represent the average wealth held by the top 1% ($167,000,000) as the statistic scrolled down a screen.
Class being the tool of division that it is meant that the weekend was not without sparks and friction. With every intention of challenging the systematic oppression that classism, the impact still took a toll on those who came with the least class privilege. One member of our group, possibly the one with the least economic privilege, had to sacrifice finishing the training to take care of her health.
Undaunted by the task before us, we each left with more tools and armor for the fight to create a society where classism no longer defines who we are or what we can do.
To find out more about Class Action: www.classism.org
Nell Myhand is an Oakland CA based activist focused on building, creating and wrenching economic justice for women out of the system that uses our labor, much of it unwaged, without a second thought.