American Sociological Association

Sociology in Action: Betsy Leondar-Wright

Betsy Leondar-Wright, Lasell College, worked in various roles with Class Action in Boston, MA, to educate activists on cross-class differences. ASA asked Leondar-Wright about her work:

What is the mission of Class Action? Class Action inspires action to end classism and extreme inequality by providing change-makers with tools, training, and inspiration to raise awareness and shift cultural beliefs about social class, build cross-class solidarity, and transform institutions and systems.

Through workshops, organizational consulting, printed and online resources, and public education, Class Action helps individuals develop class awareness and a class lens, explores race and class intersections, addresses class barriers and class privilege, builds bridges across the class divide, and helps institutions become more equitable and promote economic justice.

Can you describe your involvement with Class Action? After observing, surveying and interviewing members of 25 varied progressive social justice groups, doing qualitative and quantitative analysis that uncovered numerous correlations between member class and group culture, and writing the book, Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures (Cornell University Press 2014), I went on a national book tour organized by Class Action staff. We developed workshops for activists on understanding and bridging class culture differences and trained 11 other Class Action trainers to lead them, and we did more than 30 workshops in every region of the US, hosted by community foundations, grassroots groups, colleges, religious congregations, activist conferences, etc. We created a Cross-Class Bridge Builder award, and before I went to a major city, we would solicit nominations of local organizations and circulate a ballot to our and their contacts; I presented an award to the winner at one of my open events. Giving the awards led to more class-diversity among the participants, and more networking, so we were not just spotlighting cross-class alliances, we were helping create them. The last stage of the process was to create the website www.activistclasscultures.org, which had 14,000 separate visitors in its first three months.

We consider this project a success. We have heard that the tips and tools we spread through the workshops and website have been used by many organizations to make the wording of their mission statements and websites more accessible, to shift internal power relations, to reduce barriers to participation by working-class and poor people, and to inspire outreach and coalition building.

What sociological knowledge and/or skills did you use? Above all, Pierre Bourdieu's theories! At heart the research was about taste distinctions and atypical types of cultural capital that have an exclusionary impact within social movements, an under-explored field.

I drew on social movement scholarship to position the groups within movement traditions. Because it was multi-method research, I used every form of research skill I had ever studied, such as ways to test association of nominal variables such as social class trajectory. I used concordance software to track the prevalence of particular terms per 10,000 spoken words in working-class and college-educated-professional activist speech.

How did you connect with Class Action? I was a founding board member. I was on the staff from 2010 to 2015; now I'm just a board member and senior trainer.

Duration of the project? Eight years from first idea to the end of the book tour and the website going live.

Is there anything else you would like to share about this work? Class Action continues to do cutting-edge work on organizational classism, such as obstacles faced by first-generation college students at elite colleges. One new project, Staffing the Mission, is about unfair and fair compensation policies at mission-driven nonprofits.