George Lakey chats about cross-class coalition as part of Class Awareness Month

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last night the Kohlberg Coffee Bar played host to visiting Lang professor George LakeyÕs Fireside Chat. The main topic of conversation was how to work in coalitions with people from diverse class backgrounds in social activism settings.

Displaying clear interest in studentsÕ personal thoughts and experiences, Lakey opened the dialogue by asking, Ã’WhatÕs the point of even trying to work with people of different class backgrounds?Ó After students, who were mostly freshmen, reflected and gave some possible answers, Lakey gave some of his personal background and class history.

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Lakey, Ã’knew about class, but didnÕt know I knew.Ó His parents, who had both dropped out of high school to provide for their families, did not have collegiate expectations for their son, and indeed, Lakey did not either but was encouraged by his piano teacher to pursue higher education.

While in college, it was natural for Lakey to be drawn to politics. He recounted that his grandfather, father, and uncles were all intensely interested in politics and he grew up in a very politically minded household. As a sophomore, he attended a socialist club meeting and was struck by the abstract conversations with sophisticated references he heard other students having and making. However, it would not be until he had traveled in England that Lakey learned enough about Socialism to truly appreciate it.

The first experience Lakey shared about working with people of different class backgrounds towards a social goal was in the early 1970s when he was part of the national campaign against the B-1 bomber. As part of his campaign against, Lakey involved his neighbors in a ÒFair Shake FestivalÓ. The members of the neighborhood would personally be contributing 900 million dollars in taxes to the bomber, and they could think of many better ways to spend that amount of moneyÑhence, the festival. It was in this story that Lakey offered a piece of advice for social activists: he stated that it is critical for coalition building that each organization that participates in something such a Fair Shake Festival gain a specific payoff for themselves.

After sharing a bit of his personal experience, Lakey opened the group up to discussion on their thoughts and opinions on the issue.

LakeyÕs Fireside Chat was an event sponsored as part of the Class Awareness Month. The goal of Class Awareness Month is to initiate sustained dialogue on socio-economic class issues, to provide a venue where students, faculty, and staff can learn about different classes, and to learn the language used in academic discussions about class. Increased dialogue will better enable those involved to effectively interact across class lines.

Rory Sykes, one of the primary organizers of CAM, said that the response to it has been very positive and enthusiastic. She has also already noticed a change as a result of CAM, even though this year is only its second.

Ã’I honestly think (and have heard someone else similarly suggest) that in just one year the campus attitude towards acknowledging and talking about class issues has genuinely changed as a result of last year’s CAM,Ó Sykes said.

The organizers of CAM have many plans for continuing the discussion of social class at Swarthmore beyond the duration of a month. They are looking into working with the Admissions Office to make a pamphlet for students who are working class or the first in their family to go to college to help them know where to look for resources. In addition, there are plans to hold events throughout the year to highlight and promote discussion about social class.

There are still more than half a dozen events before Class Awareness Month comes to an end. Tonight at 5PM in the Lang Center there will be the presentation of SALT: Starpower Simulation with Daniel Hunter of Training for Change. In addition, on Monday night in the Intercultural Center there will be a discussion about the role of money in relationships.

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