Leading a Workshop on “Class Experience”

I recently had the opportunity to lead a weekend workshop for my RC Area, with about twenty-four hours’ notice. I’m an Alternate Area Reference Person, and my Area Reference Person, Sharon Hilberer, needed to leave town abruptly, as her mother-in-law was approaching the end of life.

Sharon shared with me the plans she’d had for the workshop and then encouraged me to make the workshop my own. As it turned out,1 her travel plans allowed her to lead on Friday evening. Then I took over and led the rest of the workshop.

I am the mother of two and the breadwinner2 for my family. If you had asked me in advance to lead a workshop for my Area, I’d have said, “No way. It’s just not possible.” But with little preparation, a great team backing3 me, and no time to worry, I was completely up for it!4

The topic of the workshop, broadly speaking, was classism. We drew heavily from Tim Jackins’ article in the July 2014 Present Time “To End the Class Society Is in Everyone’s Interest.” When Sharon and I met for our planning conversation (the morning of the workshop!) and she began talking about class, I immediately thought of my primary Co-Counselor of fourteen years. When a group of RCers would divide themselves by class, he’d often feel uncertain of where he fit and restimulated about not belonging.

I had never had that challenge. I felt very at home in working-class groups and had led a working-class women’s support group for many years. Recently, however, I had begun to think about my own experiences with more nuance. This was prompted in part by being at a working-class evening led by Dan Nickerson (the International Liberation Reference Person for Working-Class People). I had noted that my husband did not raise his hand, as I did, when Dan asked who was currently middle class. Reflecting on the difference in how my husband and I perceived our current class situation led me to think about the differences in our childhoods, despite our both being raised “working class.”

In his article, Tim talks about how in the United States, due to the shifting that has taken place, almost all of us have mixed class backgrounds.

Sharon and I talked about all this nuance and complexity and brainstormed some ways we might incorporate it into the workshop.

On Friday evening at the workshop, Sharon organized us into support groups in a way that was a huge contribution to the remainder of the weekend. Instead of asking us to divide ourselves into the often-used raised-poor, working-class, middle-class, and owning-class categories, she asked us to raise our hands if our parents’ work experiences fell into one of a dozen or so categories, including farmers, blue-collar non-union workers, blue-collar union workers, professional lower-status workers (teachers, social workers, and so on), professional higher-status workers (doctors, lawyers, and so on). She had enough categories that almost everyone fit into at least two of them.

Someone wrote down everyone’s responses. Then the leaders’ group met and, based on the responses, put together support groups for the weekend. These were a different kind of class-based support group. Rather than having been asked which labels (with all the individual connotations we ascribed to them) best fit our life experience, we’d been asked what our life experience had been and then grouped with other people who shared that experience.

It was this foundation of thinking and creative structure that led me to choose for the remainder of the workshop to talk not about class background but about “class experience.” My theme for the weekend was “more is possible”—more is possible for us, for our families and communities, and for the earth. Not in the capitalist “I could have more, earn more” sense. A world is possible in which we no longer have exploitation and there is enough for everyone to lead a good life. That said, often what each of us feels is possible is dependent on our class experience.

I talked about class experience in a variety of ways. I related it to age and how every age is a great age to be and, in an oppressive society, no age is a good age to be. Our class experience is much the same. It has been great, and it has also been shitty5 and oppressive. I think we need to avoid comparisons (“yours was better, mine was worse”) and instead focus on through what lenses we now see the world, based on the experiences we’ve had.

I also talked about how if we are in a different spot than where we started out in our class experience, we get to have all of it. We get to claim the strengths we bring from where we started and the strengths we have gained or are gaining from where we are now. We get to draw on our past experiences and also understand the opportunity of where we are. What can I figure out here and now? What’s my possibility? What’s my ability to influence things, make things happen, notice that more is possible for me and for the world?

On Saturday evening I talked about how most of us have mixed class experiences and thus have had things change during the course of our life. We may have even shifted classes and then shifted back to where we started out. I did a demonstration with someone on what it had been like to navigate a change in class identity. I felt very much at the edge of my thinking, and the client had a great session.

I wrapped up6 on Sunday morning by reminding us that we are okay and that class oppression is alive and well. I asked the group, “How do we take these ideas of more is possible and say, ‘Wow, what do I get to do?’ and also remember that there is oppression, that it’s real?”

I talked about how when we go back to our lives, things will probably be hard to figure out. There is no encouragement for us to think about all this. More is possible, and it’s going to be a fight. We have to do it together. We have to have each other. Classism is one of those things that impact all of us. We’ve had different class experiences, which means that we’ve been hurt in different ways, but classism has confused all of us. We have to help each other get clear of the confusions.

I closed by saying, “Wherever you are right now, you are okay. That just has to be true. We are human, and we are all in this oppressive society. Wherever we are and whatever we’ve figured out is okay. The point, the goal is to actually think about it. Wherever we are, we get to think, ‘Oh, this is where I am. What’s possible from here? What do I get to do from here? Because this is where I am. There’s no better or worse. This is my spot, so what’s possible for me from here?’ The goal is thinking. The goal is flexibility. Are we thinking about how we move forward individually, and how we move forward collectively?”

I enjoyed leading the workshop using this concept of class experience, and people who attended seemed to appreciate it as well. Here are a few of the comments the participants shared during the closing:

• The idea that it’s a class experience and that there can be mixed parts of it, and most people have mixed parts, is a different way to think about it. It makes me feel less isolated.

• I really like this mixed-class stuff, and if I’m ever at a workshop where that option isn’t offered, I’m going to make a stink.7

• I enjoyed getting a broader sense of class—seeing it as not just a static identity.

More is possible for all of us, including me! Leading a workshop with twenty-four hours’ notice was a powerful experience that gave me a clearer picture of where I am and what I am capable of making happen.

Kirsten Johnson

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

1 “Turned out” means happened.
2 “Breadwinner” means person whose earnings are the primary source of support.
3 “Backing” means supporting.
4 “Up for it” means willing to do it.
5 “Shitty” means bad.
6 “Wrapped up” means finished.
7 “Make a stink” means make a fuss, complain.

Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00