Taking Class to Class

St. Petersburg       While talking to former ACORN organizers and canvassers, long departed staff, and regular folks with sundry ideas and aspirations after the Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida where THE ORGANIZER had shown, thoughts kept rattling in the back of my mind from my radio interview on Wade’s World with Betsy Leondar-Wright, her description of her organization, and her observations on the way class works in groups of activists.  Partly, it was on my mind because, despite the fact that the crowd tended older, it was Florida after all, people were coming from all sorts of backgrounds but still were scheming about change and anxious to be troops not just in a resistance but marchers in a victory parade no matter how delayed.

Leondar-Wright’s nonprofit is called Class Action, which sounds like a lawsuit, but is anything but that.   Although I had read her earlier book, Missing Class, which in another clever play on words since it is not about oversleeping for an exam or missing the bus on the way to school but is actually about how social movements don’t fully appreciate in their work and interactions how class impacts the contributions and chemistry of various activist groups, I was not really familiar with the work of Class Action.   Leondar-Wright and her associates work largely in Northeastern states with higher educational institutions who are struggling by all accounts to diversity their student populations economically.

This is hard work, and the record is dismal, so it is somewhat reassuring that some of these institutions are asking for help.  In recent years soaring levels of inequality have become too obvious to ignore and studies have proliferated establishing that wealth homogeneity is encrusting class differences in no small part because of the recruitment procedures.  Recent published reports indicate that after years of claims by elite universities, no progress is being made in diversifying student populations through admission of qualified lower-income students.  Much of this issue turns out to be patterns of outreach that privilege private schools and upper middle income public school districts where these schools have had earlier success.  Not surprisingly, as their recruiters keep going back to the same wells over and over, they are going to pull up water that tastes the same from those buckets.

Class Action seems to not focus on the critical recruitment side, but on how to recognize class differences within student populations and build support systems that allow these recruits to succeed, which is also important.  They do on the ground workshops in various universities and advocate for critical changes in these areas whether using need blind financial or on campus support.  They meet annually to assess their progress.

It was encouraging to hear from Leondar-Wright that work is being done upstream to help retain qualified students from lower income backgrounds.  At the same time as we have learned in dealing with racial, ethnic and gender diversity issues in higher education, until the work is done downstream by broadening and supporting changes in recruitment, this will never be a battle won.

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