Class, environmentalism and NGOs
Here’s article number two of a short series on class.
Image description: A metal fence with a sign that reads: ‘Food Bank.’
Class, environmentalism and NGOs
Last week I wrote about my upbringing and class position. That upbringing, followed by a decade of working as a learning disability support worker and mental health worker, then moving into the environmental sector and witnessing a much wealthier world, has taught me some things.
I know what it's like to see suffering, illness and even death, directly related to poverty, in my family. I also now know what it’s like to sip a glass of expensive wine at a fundraising event hosting some of the wealthiest people in the country. I’ve run my finger along the polished grand piano of a billionaire and held my mother’s hand as she justified herself exhaustedly to the benefits office. These polarised experiences shape your values and politics. I firmly believe that society as a whole (but particularly the political, academic and NGO-think tank communities) should be learning from, and following the lives and experiences of poor and working-class people, and these experiences should be central to how we try to shape our institutions and organisations.
Why? Because people in this group survive through collective organising, informal shared economies and human connection. And if we want to solve some of the big issues in society: climate change; depleted health services; homelessness; dignified and useful work; then these are the methods we can build on to create something bigger and more stable.
This is in no way to glamorise poverty. It’s exhausting, stressful, humiliating, and ruins lives. But the collective organising by poor people that is required to constantly push back against the conditions that make it intolerable, could be the basis for the model of how we organise society as a whole.
I noticed this particularly when I was work on climate change. Mostly I’m surrounded by fairly middle class, relatively affluent colleagues. So when they discuss solutions to climate change, they tend to think in terms of individual reduction: of carbon footprints; of consumer goods; of flying; driving; food and so on. When I talk to my poor and working-class friends and family about climate change, there is rarely anything to ‘give up,’ or ‘reduce’ in their own lives. Poor people aren’t frequently flying, or driving two cars, or wasting lots of food - so their solutions are more useful. If you’re working class and poor, the solutions to climate change are either out of your control (the landlord won’t insulate your house) or they are about ‘adding’ to your life (the local authority should build houses with PVs on the roof, or provide space for children to play, support for carers, better public transport, and so on). And if working-class activities are high carbon it's usually because people are trapped into it by time, money or work.
Poor and working-class people have more useful solutions to climate change because they live and work closely with the systems that make society function on a daily basis, from unpaid care work to energy supply. We have up close and personal knowledge of disabilities, of food supply chains, of transport systems, of health services. The solutions become about how society should be reorganised to add things, build on and improve lives. The higher up the class system, the more individualised life becomes in my experience. (Until you get to the super rich, with is its own borderless, rule-free community, but that’s another story).
The myths of social mobility
A big problem is that wealthier and middle class people - even the ones who are into social justice - rarely understand how poverty shapes and impacts people. I've had many conversations with middle class people who can't quite grasp how intergenerational poverty lingers, traps people and destroys communities. They get caught up in the language of individual aspiration and social mobility. A working-class grandparent or other distant relative will often crop up in these conversations, alongside the phrase ‘worked hard’ to describe how a family member ‘made it’ out of poverty. This is the subtle language of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ poor. Yet no one is working harder than the homeless person surviving each day, or the unpaid carer. Add in the word ‘families’ to ‘working hard’ and you end up with that tired old political framing that has been rolled out for decades, neatly ensuring that the poor, the disabled, the gender non-conforming, single parents, etc, can be sidelined, derided or ignored.
Image description: A copy of Karen Bell’s book, titled: ‘Working Class Environmentalism.’
'We need to get better at talking to working-class people’
Until I was thirty, I worked in what would be considered traditional working-class jobs: cleaning, factory work and health care. We didn’t discuss class very much, as we were generally all in the same boat. Then I got a job at an environmental NGO and class divisions became suddenly more apparent and conversations about class increased, usually instigated by the middle class people around me.
People don't always recognise me as working class (although interestingly other working-class people often have). My accent has faded. I’ve got better at covering up my lack of confidence (I can thank the endless housing co-op meetings for that!). I have a degree and worked in an office, even it was a low paid, service role. So I’ve been privy to some interesting remarks that I think people wouldn’t have said in front of me, if they knew my life.
In my first week in my new environmental organisation, a colleague in the lunch queue asked me if I'd attended a private school. I laughed out loud because it seemed so absurd, until it dawned on me that I might be surrounded by privately educated colleagues. I had no real feelings or judgement about it on a personal level, I'd just never knowingly met anyone who'd been to a private school before, so it seemed slightly alien.
Another, more frequent conversation in my new world went like this: ‘We need to get better at talking to working-class people about the environment.’ I get the desire for inclusivity and it comes from a good place. When I’ve pointed out to people that this is me, I’m working class and I have a wide circle of family and friends who are working class and I talk to them about the environment all the time, they get confused and a bit embarrassed, because they don’t mean me.
Because they don’t normally hang out with working-class people, they aren’t sure how to recognise one and the defensiveness creeps in. Presumably at this point they realise they hold a stereotyped version of who a working-class person is. Loud men, white vans, tabloids, and northern/cockney accents, probably…who knows? But it means they can’t recognise the smattering of working-class people amongst them.
I find these stereotypes bemusing, particularly as my working-class mother was a gentle, classical music loving, amateur poet. Or my sister, who could rival David Attenborough with her knowledge of animals. Or my dad with his love of history. They would have been overlooked in the middle class search for the stereotyped working-class person.
Aspiration and upward mobility
Talking to this middle class world about being working class can be tricky. The limited number of poor and working-class people I’ve met in the NGOs tend to bond with shared humour over their life experiences. This bonding and humour causes uncomfortable silences around some middle class people who often view working-class lives through a Dickensian lens of tragedy and struggle, which, whilst often kind and sympathetic, leaves little room for our lived realities. The reality is that poverty is hard, but working-class people from the lower end of the economic spectrum find ways to have fun, and enjoy life, despite the stress and pressure. Living life to the full whenever you can becomes essential, in fact.
I’ve often noticed a desire in middle class circles for comforting, against-the-odds stories: the council estate kid who ‘made it’ through university (me, apparently!); the plucky entrepreneur; the artist depicting a bygone era of working-class life, etc. It doesn’t surprise me that they are often celebrations about individuals who rise up through difficulties. ‘Escape’ is the underlying narrative here, and once you’ve ‘escaped’ you are expected to assimilate into the middle class. It’s how our society is designed after all, to celebrate achievement, individualism, ‘upward’ mobility. This narrative is a disservice to the rich and diverse communities that make up the working class.
Much more rarely do the unpaid carers appear in these stories, the homeless people on our streets (‘don’t give them money, it’s for their own good’), the mental health service users. These are the people who require collective support, maybe forever. It’s much harder to ‘achieve’ your way out of homelessness, disability, addiction or unpaid care work. The difficult lives, the contradictory lives, are often given up on, ignored or patronised.
When middle class NGO and civil society organisations do take an interest in working-class people, they often position themselves as leaders, and gatekeep who deserves to speak or choose who should represent their version of the working class - often people in their own image or in keeping with their own stereotypes.
The never-ending-mitigating-circumstance of poor lives.
If our social justice movements are serious about changing the world, we need people at the forefront who understand the links between illness, poverty, disability, and the merry go round of impacts it causes. Our stories need telling because without them the links between lack of money and services, damp housing, long term illnesses, lost school days, workplace absence, loops on and on. The traumas that poverty creates follow you around for life: An evicted family member needs help; a parent is chronically ill at too young an age; attempted suicides happen too frequently; alcohol and drug abuse comes and goes; the anxieties, the chronic fatigue; the lack of nutrition, and so on. I call it the never-ending-mitigating-circumstance. It becomes a normal, but highly disruptive part of life.
Working-class and poor people are usually spending a disproportionate amount of their lives picking up the pieces where health, social and housing services have failed. Working-class people have more frequent difficulties to deal with and have to solve them on a shoestring - or worse, just can’t solve them at all resulting in devastating outcomes. Bad things happen to middle class people (as I'm often told) but the safety net is usually wider, the landing usually softer and even if middle class people aren’t rich, relative financial security can help alleviate a problem in a way that it never can for poor and working-class people. These are crucial differences and when you’ve experienced it, it becomes much clearer how to adjust workplaces, educational spaces and communities, and institutions to support people. And this is why taking the lead from working-class people on these issues is an essential exercise, not just social justice window dressing.
And as with all justice movements, once we create spaces that support the poorest, the lower classes, the people with disabilities, we will have created a society that ultimately benefits everyone.
Next up: That tricky process of defining the working class in Britain.