Activist or Advocate? On Classism in Community Organizing and Non-Profits

It has been awhile since I wrote and something important has been weighing on my mind as a result of some of the things I am seeing in the realms of activism, anti-racism work and community organizing:  growing concerns about the effect of classism on our ability to advocate properly and bring about necessary changes.

It took me a long time to realize that a lot of the issues and inertia I have been witnessing/experiencing in community-organizing stem from the fact that many of the people I worked with in the past are upper-middle class or rich. And as a result of their class privilege and other factors, upper class advocates have also managed to avoid experiencing traumatic incidents in their lives one way or another. In fact, being surrounded by non-traumatized, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class men who are the dominant ethnic group in the communities I am serving has opened my eyes to just how stark the disconnect can be between them and the communities they claim to serve. And it has also opened my eyes to see just how out-of-reach power is for the folks who do not embody those social positionalities.

While I definitely and undeniably have my own privileges as a cisgender white woman that I absolutely acknowledge and try to leverage at every possible avenue, I have noticed that my perceptions differ greatly from a lot of folks in community who have the economic leg-up that myself and others lack.

THE PROBLEM

There is a big problem with organizations, houses of worship and other entities that do not hold regular elections for their boards. These groups tend to recruit within their own class and it creates a snowball effect where everyone on a board start to look the same because they have the same privileges. It not only stems from a lack of access to different people, but a general unwillingness to break outside of those bubbles in order to “remain effective.” You see, rich folks recruit other rich folks because they have the resources and the connections they need to do “great things” –  great being relative in the eyes of their immediate peers, rather than in relation to the people who really need great social change.

What follows from this is also a conscious rejection of the term activism/activist for the allegedly more civil moniker of advocate. I myself naively listened to this advice in the past and now reject it for its classist roots. Activists are folks who hold demonstrations, protests and rallies because they may not have access to the same meetings and consultations with power that advocates do. Their approach is not inherently “bad” – in fact, it is historically more effective because it doesn’t rely on politics of civility and respectability while pushing for what amounts to the status quo in the same way that many rich advocates do. As a Muslim, I’m going to have the adverb “radical” applied to me against my will anyway, so why not at least make some real change with it?

The myth that people of lower economic statuses do not have as much time to serve their communities also pervades and perpetuates these practices. In fact, folks with the lowest incomes are often much more acutely aware of social issues tied to structural violence such as systemic racism and neo-liberal economic policies because they actually live it: they know how hard it is to break those systems and how easy it is to be broken by them. They have more experience with issues of labour disputes and exploitation, homelessness, addiction and other related conditions – or they know people directly who do. Such folks can be organizing in their own way but it is less visible because it might be more radical (and therefore less widely accepted) than typical liberal approaches to combating social issues such as pat-on-the-back certified sensitivity training for people who think racism is an individual problem or charity work to combat homelessness (instead of, say, pushing to just give people houses).

The other problem is that class-based issues seem invisible to so-called middle class* and rich folks because how they physically move through the world is different. I can’t tell you how many times upper-class hijabis have told me that they have never experienced Islamophobia when they might be folks who drive their kids to school in their cars, head to their office and then pick up their click and collect groceries – all the while unaware of what people like me have to deal with taking public transit daily. And I have it easier than my sisters of colour or Indigenous folks in public spaces, so that’s saying a lot! To compound the issue, many of these upper class folks are unwilling to hear about the experiences of others or don’t create spaces to do so and as a result, people get exhausted from trying.

*The middle class is largely an artificial social category occupied by poor folks who have accrued major debt to maintain a lifestyle widely-recognized to be the middle way.

SOME POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

I don’t have the answers and this is just an off-the-cuff reflection more than anything. Nothing fancy here, but I do have some reflections based on my experience that I think could help bring some change to our communities in light of this rampant issue.

Active Listening: If you are a community advocacy group and you are not conducting surveys, attending town hall meetings of community groups, or holding listening sessions to hear the grievances of the people you claim to serve in an organized and intentional way, you’re only serving your own interests. Now, kind-hearted folks might come at me and tell me not to be suspicious of peoples’ intentions and my answer to that is: I’m not. Someone from a higher class can want to do the best for their communities, but if they don’t know what their communities actually need, aren’t taking the initiative to find out, and aren’t leveraging their vast amount of privilege to then transmit those needs to the state or other bodies of change and assistance, then it doesn’t really matter what your intention is if your impact is null. Create spaces (with food) for people to come forward and talk about their concerns. Consult key organizers of lower classes doing work within their own communities (and pay them!) Attend rallies, demonstrations and other events where people will be discussing community organizing work and open your ears there.

Giving up seats at the table: No, not just one seat. Plenty of seats. Maybe step back and let someone else take the lead in your organization for a while, rather than just serving as a token poor person for the sake of so-called diversity. Make yourself uncomfortable by giving up some of your comfort and helping support and uplift someone else’s vision of justice for a while, lending expertise and advice where it will help with being more effective, but without taking everything over all the time.

Fund, amplify and labour the work of lower class folks. If you have money and you aren’t doing this, that’s a problem. Period. Redistribute the wealth.

Check your intentions and leverage your privilege. If you are unwilling to listen, learn, leverage and amplify other-classed voices, it’s time to sit back and think about why you are doing what you are doing and just who is giving you permission to do it. It isn’t enough to work behind the scenes without credit if the work you are doing continues to not serve the most oppressed members of society. Activists can easily build their own personality cults, even in the shadows, and obtain tons of funding for work that never gets to the heart of social matters – it is something that must be actively resisted if we are to see our communities actively healing, made safe and ultimately thriving in the long run.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.

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