I spent Sunday at a retreat I helped put together for some folks involved in Real Change's organizing project. For some twenty years now, I've been trying to figure out how to do powerful anti-poverty organizing with homeless people and their middle class allies. Homeless advocacy tends to either fetishize or tokenize those who don't have homes, or to exclude them altogether. We haven't figured out yet how to organize as allies based on our shared experience of economic vulnerability. Our movement too often descends into demagogic posturing that keeps allies at arms length and undermines our own power, or it is dominated by middle-class do-gooders who seldom recognize the role of their own institutional self-interest.
So we've made the decision that cross-class organizing is where it's at. We need to bring poor, homeless, working, middle, and owning class people together and understand what assets each of us bring to the table and figure out how to respect the differences that exist among us. None of this — in our class blind yet utterly stratified society — comes naturally to any of us, and yet, it's where the power is. And organizing is about building for power or it isn't really organizing.
And here we are, at Federal Way's austerely comfortable yet utterly affordable Dumas Bay Conference Center, talking about class. There are eight Real Change vendors, eight others whose class backgrounds are all over the map, myself, and our facilitator, who cops to being owning class but is an authentic ally with a long-haul social justice commitment. So we're a mixed bag over here, trying to figure out who we are, both alone and together, and how to make that work. It's been a powerful day, and I have huge respect for those who surrendered their comfort zones to be here to help figure it out.
We did a cool little exercise where each of us thought about the turning points in our lives that defined who we are in terms of class, narrowed the field to the half dozen or so that were most significant, and presented these to each other in groups of three before coming together to process our insights. My triad was with two of our vendors.
My own history is complicated. I'm what is known as a class straddler. My family should have been middle-class, but due to various complications wound up working poor and screwed up enough to drive me away at seventeen. Between my fucked up family and undiagnosed ADHD, I dropped out of high school, got kicked out of the Air Force, and spent a number of years working shit jobs and living in fairly desperate poverty. Until my mid-to-late thirties, the most money I ever made in a year was about $17,000.
But college led me to writing, and writing led me to activism, and activism brought me into close proximity to the middle-class. I gradually learned their ways and married into the professional strata. One day I woke up and realized that I'd become professional middle-class myself. I have status. I'm in control of my own work life. My job is fulfilling and intellectually challenging. And, while I'm not remotely wealthy, I live within the top American income quintile and can't much complain.
But the eighteen year old who lived in a room over the Arrow Bar is still very much here, as is the twenty-five year-old squatter whose water froze in the bottom of the bathroom sink, and the thirty-five year old who was driven to the free dentist by infected gums and bad teeth. And these live side by side with who I am now: a guy who sometimes has lunch with City Councilors, has the luxury of thinking, writing, and organizing for a living, runs a respected non-profit, and has writers, lawyers, and other professionals for friends, but goes to work in sneakers, has an Army/Navy store wardrobe, drives a 92 Corolla, swears like a truck driver, and could probably use some cosmetic dentistry.
There's an inspiring complicated messy arc to my life that's interesting to think about. The two vendors who shared their stories with me couldn't really say the same. They were born poor, and after that, they were poor, and now, surprisingly enough, they're still poor. Throw in some horrible life trauma and you pretty much have the whole story.
Which helped me realize anew just how elusive opportunity can be for those who were born to lose. More and more, our society is premised less upon the value of equal opportunity and more upon the joy of kicking people when they're down. Then, we blame them when they bleed all over the fucking sidewalk.
Messy, messy poor people. Don't they realize we're trying to walk here?
One of the things that keeps me at Real Change after all these years is the admiration I have for those who keep trying, even when they know, deep in their bones, that they're screwed. This, for me, slides effortlessly into anger with a system that does so little to reward people's efforts and aspirations. People don't just lie down and die like they're supposed to. They keep trying to get up.
Those of us who have some privilege to spend need to start getting up with them. Then, together, we can go for a walk, maybe do some talking, and see where it takes us.
For some perspective, here's Dr. Wes' take on the same two days.