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bridging the class divide—and other lessons for grassroots organizing

Linda Stout has a vision of a United States in which the air and water and land is clean, in which neighbors of all cultures and ages have real community with each other, in which everyone has a job they want to do and the unpleasant jobs are shared, in which every child is cared for and fed, in which every person has good health care and access to good education, in which every person, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, age, or any other “difference” is respected and fully part of society. In this vision the media provide information from all viewpoints and everyone participates in a democracy with real opportunities for all to share leadership. It is a great vision.

Perhaps you have a vision like Stout’s. If so, you are not alone—and Stout might ask you: “What are you doing to make your vision a reality?” If you answer that you have no power, that you’re uneducated, poor, don’t know what to do and too busy to do it if you did, she might tell you her story. Stout grew up in North Carolina in a working poor home—a 10’ x 40’ trailer with no running water. Her mother was permanently disabled in a car accident at age 30, but got nothing in compensation because they were unable to hire a lawyer to help them with the legal process. Stout did well in school, at first, but after being belittled by her fourth grade teacher her grades suffered and she was tracked away from college throughout her middle and high school experience. Nevertheless, she did find her way to college, but discovered her “working-class English was not acceptable” there. Even though she knew she did good work, she internalized the idea that her way of using language was inferior and she lost much of her confidence to speak publicly or write. Despite all this, Stout helped found one of the coolest, most effective social justice advocacy groups in the nation (the Piedmont Peace Project—PPP), now speaks powerfully to large audiences, and has written a book, along with numerous press releases and other work.

Bridging the Class Divide is part personal journey, part grass roots organizing handbook, part appeal for national and global social justice, part treatise on what a real movement for real, permanent change looks like. Stout’s deceptively simply prose structure displays a depth of experience and commitment that rivals anyone anywhere. That depth gives the book its power and accuracy, consistently hitting every target at which she takes aim. And, as she discusses PPP’s model for social change and organizing, Stout always illustrates her ideas with concrete examples from the work.

Stout identifies barriers between classes and how to overcome them. She delineates seven principles for organizing:

  • Focus on social change.
  • Work across race and class lines.
  • Include indigenous organizers and leaders.
  • Encourage diversity with ongoing outreach and training.
  • Focus on connections between local and national issues.
  • Develop and maintain personal empowerment while working for organizational power.
  • Be flexible and ready to create new models to adapt to needs and leadership styles of participants.

She redefines leadership as a “survival issue for people of color, women, and low-income communities.” By Stout’s definition, leadership can be learned and shared by every person and “the reward of leadership lies in giving what you’ve learned to others.” She assumes that every person wants to be a leader and gives them opportunities to grow, while still providing support.

Stout discusses how to use the media effectively, how to budget and plan, and how to take care of an organization’s staff. She talks about the need to be prepared for backlash; serious opposition is proof that you’re beginning to succeed in your work—from slashed tires to bad press to family pressure against community leaders, you need to be ready to respond calmly and appropriately.

The book concludes with a call for a unity group, across organizational lines, working for change at every level. Only by bringing us all together with the common vision of a better world for all humanity can we bring the necessary masses together to make the world we all want. “Working together will be the hardest challenge we will face. Much harder than facing the opposition or working alone. But it is the only way we will win. It is the only way to create revolutionary change.”

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4 Comments

  1. jd2718 says:

    It sounds like worth reading. But I have real questions going in about organizing across classes. In real life I work with ‘us’ against ‘them’ and daily experience confirms that there is a real need for a clear view of this divide.

  2. halshop says:

    Jd – certainly, as with all differences, it is important to acknowledge that people come from different classes and the recognize how that can impact our interactions. At the same time, if we don’t learn to work across such barriers, what hope of real progress in our society do we have? I would like to hear more about what you mean when you say you “work with ‘us’ against ‘them’.”

  3. jd2718 says:

    Locally, it means being a good union man.

  4. Dina Claussen says:

    Rev2be says: I came from poor working class and am now bridging to middle class, which means I am both, I think moving to acknowledge and work across class lines is way overdue. Hunt’s book is a good solid place to start ( I have read it several times). Jd2718, give it a try!

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