Communication with community activists: class matters

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Whether applying to a foundation for a grant, or working with local environmental activists on a gas leak, you will need to be able to speak with a variety of people- and they won’t all appreciate your emphasis on data and agendas. And if your work outside the lab involves solidarity with people from a variety of walks of life, you will need to be aware of class differences in your behavior and communication if you want to be effective.

With a deep belief in the meritocracy of academia, and perhaps a belief in the commonly taught narrative of the USA is that there are no class divisions and that the founders came to avoid such class divisions, many scientists feel that a consideration of class (or race) is not necessary, that everyone regardless of background is on equal footing with everyone else. In a community setting, you may feel completely comfortable with everyone there- but that doesn’t mean everyone is comfortable with you.

For those who want to understand class issues, “Class Matters: Cross-class Alliance Building for Middle-class Activists” authored by sociologist and economic justice activist Betsy Leondar-Wright (2nd edition in 2014) is an amazing resource.

The Table of Contents (below) shows the comprehensiveness and detail of the book. From vocabulary to the race/class intersection to meeting behavior and on, “Class Matters” will help not just with your communication, but with your understanding of the world beyond the bench.

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Scientists may find immediately relatable  insights in “An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich” in the “Obstacles to Alliances” chapter. Barbara Ehrenreich is an author and political activist, and her books have been instrumental in understanding the impact of poverty in the USA. She has a Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Immunology from Rockefeller University , where she was Zan Cohn’s first student.

Ehrenreich discusses the effect of the professional middle class (and scientists would fit right in there) ethos, and the deferred gratification and workaholism that is common among academics. Not everyone, though, has the luxury of believing in delayed gratification, and may look upon those struggling as undisciplined. Most truly believe that because they struggled through school, everyone could do the same thing, not realizing the advantages and privileges that gave them this ethic.

The academic mindset will even influence scientists’ expectations of meetings. Agendas, plenary speakers, and break-out sessions are not always the venue of choice, and and often not useful for a meeting designed to instill camaraderie, for example. There will be meetings without experts, which may seem rudderless to those used to academic conferences.

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Last tips- Don’t assume people are different than you, don’t assume they are the same. Don’t hide your class or be ashamed of it. Remember that you aren’t in charge and that there are many, many kinds of expertise. Don’t take hostility personally.

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