Unlike many class activist, Betsy Leondar-Wright grew up neither wealthy or in poverty, she was squarely from a professional middle class family. But Betsy's commitment to activism did not come without a price. When she dropped out of Princeton to become a full time activist, her Republican father cut her off financially and threatened to disinherit her. Without the help of her family she struggled through the financial crises one faces when they don’t have a safety net. When she returned to college it was not to an Ivy League school. Like many working class people she paid for college with loans and by cleaning houses. By choosing a life of activism, she gave up many of the supports a middle class family can provide, but Betsy says, “I wouldn’t trade my 20’s for anything; total movement immersion was transformative. But they weren’t easy years, financially or in terms of family dynamics.”
Betsy shares a wealth of knowledge on bridging the divide between the social classes in her book Class Maters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists. She illustrates how bridging the class divide enable Advocates to build stronger bases for their groups. She isn’t shy about sharing her own mistakes so we can learn from them. This personal openness allows the reader to feel a personal connection with her. She begins by defining class, breaking into four distinct groups, Low Income, working class, professional middle class, and owning class. She explains the traits common and different between each group. She isn’t afraid to tackle tough issues like racism, sexism, and overcoming stereotypes that can interfere with group solidarity. She draws from her own, and other activists, experiences for situations and solutions to illustrate her point.
When Betsy was driving Tom, the only working class member of an anti nuclear power group, He said to her, “I don’t like black people and they don’t like me.” She listened without criticism. A few weeks later, when the group was going door to door with a petition, she paired Tom up with a gentle soft-spoken black, gay man and sent them to neighborhood with mostly elderly, lower income, African American, homeowners. At the end of the day Tom remarked, “ I’m a sucker for old people.” When Betsy returned six months later, Tom told her, “Betsy listen to what I did! This guy who works at the garage was really prejudice against black people, always saying nasty stuff. So one time there was a tow job, and I had to send two guys on a really long drive. So I sent this prejudice guy along with this really nice black guy, and by the time they got back, they were, like, friends, and now he doesn’t say that shit anymore.” Betsy laughed, hugged him and told him he did good.
It is from sharing these kind of personal experiences, her own and other activists, that Betsy provides practical solutions to the problems that can arise in diverse groups. In addition, Betsy introduces a host of other wonderful activist and the work they are doing. Betsy book is fascinating to read, filled with lots of cartoons and pictures to illustrate her points. Betsy Leondar-Wright is an economic justice activist and Communications Director for United for a Fair Economy.