Why Our Class Story Matters. A Journey Towards Equity, Justice & Connection
I spent this morning talking about gender to a group of third grade kids at one of our elementary schools in Brattleboro. Specifically, my gender and how I understood and became aware of the concept of gender growing up. Honestly, I didn’t really think about my gender identity until well into my 20’s. Essentially, I cruised through my formative years just accepting the ease with which I could navigate life, as a hetero, cis-gendered, white boy. The same can be said about my class upbringing. For the most part, I did not need to reflect on or question my class. This is my racial, gender and class privilege.
My brother and I grew up in central Wisconsin in a two-parent household with a large network of aunts, uncles, grandparents and family friends. We lived in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by plenty of woods and streams to explore. Both my parents had stable jobs, a high school Teacher and Nurse Practitioner. My childhood was full of free play, firm rules, family, friends and love. I have a few memories of financial stress (like my mother being let go from a job when I was a young kid), but by and large, our family was financially comfortable. I almost always felt secure. This felt sense of security shaped my worldview and personality. It also influenced my assumptions about others and how I thought my peers experienced growing up.
Applying for and attending college was slightly illuminating. I quickly realized that, while our family was secure and college was attainable, I had limited options without taking on significant financial debt. Once I started school at UW-Whitewater in September 1997, I felt a divide I had not felt before. Many of my peers had their own, new cars and college completely paid for. I also noticed housing and social networks were stratified and segregated, including my own. Just as before, I was able to coast through most of my college years. I had access to a reliable car, housing and food. My jobs paid enough for me to afford the basics, pay for a significant portion of my schooling, and have enough left for leisure. My parents were there for me any time I needed a little extra money. While I did go through a brief period of donating plasma twice a week to keep up with expenses, I was financially comfortable. Additionally, my gender and whiteness gave me access to spaces and leadership opportunities that afforded me higher paying jobs as well as early career options.
In the last 18 months of college and as I started my career, my awareness of the racial and income inequalities went from “slightly” illuminated to angry and active. I was angry with how the U.S. government prioritized spending and how those decisions were made. War and investing in the tools of violence were immediate in the early 2000’s. I was angry with student loans, profit-mongering at the cost of people and planet. After graduation, I pursued a community development project in Sierra Leone. I began to understand the lasting impacts of colonialism, capitalism and structural racism. I had to grapple with my own racial biases, as the access granted to me in Sierra Leone as a white, middle class male was overt. I attended SIT Graduate Institute to deepen my understanding of injustice, deconstructing oppressive systems and work towards social and environmental justice (taking on a bit of private school loans in addition to public ones). It wasn’t until years after graduate school, however, that I truly came to terms with my class privilege. A co-worker and I shared a challenging, wonderful workplace relationship. In particular, I had to face head on the assumptions I had been operating under for more than 20 years. Specifically around communication, planning and boundaries. This equitable, honest relationship held me accountable to my privilege and in doing so, we collaborated on numerous phenomenal projects using cross-class approaches to improve community connection.
That “felt sense of security” growing up only amplified as an adult. Now, with a toddler, my partner’s business and a house, our life is more complicated. It’s harder, in many ways. Because of our grit, struggle, joy, dedication and scrutiny over many of our life decisions, we sit where we are. Yet, we also sit here because of the privilege we have. The financial support my parents gave that allowed me to work in Sierra Leone; family gifts at the end of the year that allow us to pay off our car; family loans we were able to access for the business, our mortgage, and to pay off my student loans (including my 12% interest private loan) all allowed us immense financial latitude. In short, we have significant felt security allowing us to travel, take time off from work, make mistakes and raise a child. That lived, felt experience is real.
When talking to others coming from a place of class privilege, the feeling of shame often comes up. I feel the pinch of shame frequently and struggled with it immensely when I began unpacking my privilege. At first, my shame manifested into anger and resentment…”Why do I have to scrutinize my assumptions and behavior?” “I worked hard to get here.” “My way of planning or communication is the right way because it’s worked for me in the past.” What I learned from feeling this shame is that unlearning and deconstructing take time. It takes space. It’s work, but work that is absolutely necessary. For me, the feeling of shame allowed me to pivot from personal behavior and choices to systemic inequities. Without minimizing the efforts and decisions I’ve made and of our family, understanding and scrutinizing the structures and systems that allowed us the security and latitude to make those decisions (and blocking others the same access), became a constructive way forward.
My journey led me to pursue community organizing, advocacy and org development efforts in Wisconsin, Vermont and abroad. I use numerous frameworks to inform how I show up to these efforts, but am particularly drawn to equity and social and environmental justice.
As a team member of Equity Solutions, I can use my class story and ongoing learning to support agencies, organizations and schools to develop solutions that promote equity and connection. Doing this difficult work is both timely and effective. There is a hunger and in many cases urgency to address inequality. By understanding the structural and systemic barriers that inform our assumptions and actions, we have an opportunity to deconstruct and then recreate our institutions in order to better serve all people.