A Useful Format for Work on Class Oppression

We’ve developed a useful way for people of different class backgrounds to work on class oppression. The format seems adaptable to almost any group in almost any situation. It has worked well with people who know Co-Counseling and with people who do not.

The format begins with people introducing themselves and answering the following question: “What is your connection to the working class?”

An explanation of the question might go as follows:

“The vast majority of us have grown up in class societies. Increasing numbers of us world-wide are living under capitalism. Indigenous people who have not embraced capitalism are living under its increasing influence. Those societies which have attempted to be classless in the past are currently re-establishing patterns of classism and in most cases embracing some form of capitalism.

“Most of us are working-class in that we have to work for our living or are unemployed and would like to be working for a living. All of us are faced with handling the current unworkable economic system. It’s been difficult to reach agreement on solutions because our different experiences color the way we perceive the problems and their solutions. We need a way that people of all backgrounds and experiences can work together on class issues.

“Regardless of our situation, we all have an answer to the question, ‘What is your connection to the working class?’ We all have a story of our connection to the economic system.

“Because of the huge variety of experiences in the world, the words ‘poor,’ ‘working class,’ ‘middle class,’ and ‘owning class,’ though at times useful, can be confusing. An unemployed person in the U.S. can be living an extravagant lifestyle compared to middle-class people in some other parts of the world. We have found it useful to not get caught in the confusion about these labels but instead have each person tell the story of his or her relationship to the economic system.

“Tell a short life story. What kind of family or situation were you raised in with regard to social or economic class, and what have you done with that background? A story might go like this: ‘I was raised in an owning-class family and was encouraged to go to university to become a doctor, but I was very unhappy there and flunked out. I learned carpentry and have been self-employed in that trade for ten years.’ Or, ‘I was raised poor on a farm where my father was a sharecropper. I was a good student and went to college and became a social worker. I am now executive director of a housing agency.’ Or, ‘My family immigrated to this country from Southeast Asia due to war in our home country. We were middle-class there, my family had a business, but we had a difficult time fitting in in this country. We have been poor and without work and have also worked a variety of low-paying jobs. I am now a student in high school and working several low-paying jobs in the food service industry.’

“Everyone has a story to tell. Don’t worry about the labels. If war, divorce, or oppressions besides classism had an impact on your economic situation, mention them, too.”

Sometimes there will be questions. Generally people can just begin. A mini-session beforehand is useful for keeping the stories short and for people who are confused. It is good to mention that confusion is fine, that confusion and keeping reality obscured are part of how our economic systems operate, that very few of us have had a chance to talk about this topic in a mixed group of people, and we want to open this topic up to the light of day.

Often it is hard to get people to keep their stories short. One has to think about the size of the group and the amount of time available. However, I have found that each person getting to tell his or her story to the whole group is one of the most useful things to happen for people, so I try not to curtail it.

After people share their stories, people with similar experiences can meet together. During the introductions, I notice the different backgrounds that are represented in the meeting and make notes of different groups that could meet. Later, when the time comes to set up the groups, I propose a list of, say, ten possible groups (in a room of one hundred people) before asking for nominations for groups from the floor. This speeds things along.

It is good to explain ahead of time that we will be dividing into smaller groups and to explain why. I say something like:

“My goal is to get us all into support groups with other people who have a similar experience with the economic or class system. In groups of people of different class backgrounds, people notice their differences and have feelings about that. Feelings tend to fall into one of two categories, depending on who we are with. We can feel guilt or defensiveness around people who had it ‘worse’ than we did, or we can feel resentment or shame if they had it ‘better.’ These feelings make communication more difficult.

“One of the hardest things about class is having to pretend—to pretend that we have more (more money, more education) than we do, or that we have less (money or education) than we do, to try to ‘fit in’ and not upset the people we are with.

“It is not useful to go through life pretending, so let’s find a group of people with an experience like our own. No one else’s experience will be the same as yours, but the experiences of people in your group should be similar enough that you won’t have to pretend, that you can let down a little bit and show yourself without fear of intimidating or demeaning or alienating anyone else.”

People often have questions at this point. There is likely to be some confusion. As leader I remain calm and confident that each person can find a place and ask for people’s patience with the process.

Impromptu talks on “sub-oppressions” of classism can be useful, such as a short talk about anti-Semitism and how it has obscured the reality that most Jews are working-class. You can encourage Jews with even a hint of working-class background to meet together as working-class Jews. Likewise with immigrants. For many immigrants self-employment is a survival device because of prejudice and language difficulties. Owning a family-run business where everyone works fourteen hours a day is not the same as being owning class but rather is a niche for working-class immigrants. Disabled people, or mothers working in the home, may need special encouragement.

Sometimes young people feel left out, feel that they are not workers. I consider them workers. My definition of a student is “a worker who often works against his or her will, for long hours with no pay or at his or her own expense, doing what society says she/he needs to do to get a job which he/she has no guarantee of ever getting.” Saying this generally mobilizes them rather quickly. Particularly in the U.S., where there is much mobility within classes, mixed and “confused” groups can be set up.

Groups have included: Raised Working-Class Now Moving in Middle-Class Circles, Raised Middle-Class Now Working in Non-Professional Jobs, Downwardly Mobile Through Divorce of a Parent, Raised Poor with Alcohol or “Mental Health” System Oppression in the Family, Confused Asian and Mixed-Heritage Children of Immigrants, Raised on a Farm, Raised Union, Working-Class Catholics, People with No Higher Education, Raised Working-Class Pretending to Be Middle-Class, and The Future Working Class (a title chosen by an owning-class group).

In the groups, each person gets an equal amount of time to be listened to without interruption or comment as he or she thinks about his or her experiences.

You can suggest some standard questions: Why are you proud to be ___________? What strength do you have as a result of your experience that you would never give up? What has been hard about being __________? What patterns are you still struggling with as a result of this experience? What needs to change for people of this group? Support groups can later report to the whole group.

These groups can also meet as topic groups with a little more direction, using questions such as: What role will your group play in the transformation of society? What are the strengths of your group? Where are you vulnerable to oppression? From the outside? From within? What does your group need to do? What would you like from allies not of your group?

People need the opportunity to simply talk and discharge about their experiences before putting much attention into policy; otherwise, pretense and painful emotion can get into the policy work.

This format has been particularly useful with groups in which other “differences” (race, gender, sexual preference, etc.) can become divisive issues. The beauty of this format is that it gives everyone a chance to talk about their individual issues while heading the whole group in a common direction.

Please share any successes with or improvements on this format.

Dan Nickerson
Freeport, Maine, USA

Last modified: 2014-10-06 22:51:43+00