NGOs—non-governmental organisations—are often used as shorthand for the institutions of the movement. These are the places where there is money, jobs, influence especially with policymakers, and people with paid time to campaign, organise and act for a better world.
Many of the people who work in—and lead—these organisations are middle class (and white, and able-bodied, and men). And overtime, this has created cultures that work for these people (and that don’t work for others).
I want to explore why this is problematic for social movements—and for the possibility of social change—and some practical things that might be done about it.
There are three reasons:
First, classism harms people. Middle class led organisations burnout, exclude and oppress working class people. And it harms working class people who are also people of colour, who are LGBTQ, who are disabled in intersecting and different ways.
Second, the structures and working conditions and culture of these organisations actively prevent centring working class people. And whilst this remains the case, it will be very hard to change anything.
Third, majority middle class led organisations have limited visions for the kind of world we want to create. Without the voices and leadership of people from working class backgrounds the movements will never be able to get the change we need.
This article is a reflection on classism in NGOs, why it matters and what can be done about it. From my own (too limited) experience doing work around class and oppression, as a middle class person, it can be deeply uncomfortable, bring up feelings of guilt and shame of getting it wrong and fear of doing harm. It isn’t easy to say ‘I am part of the problem’ especially when that problem – capitalism – is something you are working hard to change/overthrow! But the discomfort is nothing compared to what the system does to people. To shift things, working class people will continue to lead the struggle and middle class people need to unlearn classism, find ways to act in solidarity, and get out of the way/dismantle the barriers that maintain their own privilege.
So, what is classism?
“Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.”
Classism operates at many different levels. Within the system of capitalism, interweaving structures of laws and culture lead to—and sustain—massive inequalities of wealth, income, access and power. Institutions develop policies and practices that uphold these inequalities, benefitting the upper/middle classes at the expense of the lower classes. The rationale and internalised attitudes and beliefs about social value based on class/perceived class perpetuates these inequalities. This plays out at an interpersonal level in the way we treat, talk to and think about each other.
Power works in society and in organisations in intersecting and overlapping ways. I am focusing on class and classism because this issue doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the UK.
Classism in NGOS: what’s problematic?
Nicole Vosper wrote about the many ways organising with middle class people burns her out. Some of the things she points to include the feelings of dehumanisation, objectification and alienation felt by working class people in social justice organisations and groups. Majority middle class NGOs create middle class cultures where certain behaviours, communication styles and norms are mainstream. Oftentimes, working class people are forced to conform, to pass, in these organisations to be allowed in/to stay. This requires working class people to hide parts of themselves which don’t fit. Constantly having to navigate this is exhausting.
Policies and practices are in place in many NGOs that keep the middle class in the mainstream: From lines of job descriptions and specifications requiring master’s degrees to do entry level jobs; to unpaid internships; no provision of childcare; massive pay gaps; and institutionalised hierarchies. All of this makes it easier for middle class people to enter, stay and progress within NGOs. Often, because middle class people are already in these organisations—designing the policies and practices—they don’t see the harmful impact. Yet the implications are far-reaching. It makes it easier for middle class people to get into positions of leadership, to have their voices heard and their visions for how to make the world a better place followed.
This point about visions is an important one. If the organisations that are working (in a paid capacity) to achieve social justice are led primarily by middle class people the vision of what we want to see, the demands we need to make and how we get there will all be limited. And inviting/outreaching/encouraging working class people to participate in middle class designed projects and campaigns that aren’t relevant to them is another kind of harm. The people who are at the hard end of experiencing the current system need to be not only heard but leading the fight. Because working class people are most affected by it. Because they understand what it means to be in poverty, to face capitalism in its deepest brutality, because they will feel the impact of change the most.
What can we do?
As long as we live in a capitalist society, we will all continue to be impacted by it – we can’t escape that while we continue to work towards a new economic system, a new social order. The work of campaigning and organising against the system is key – we need to do that. And we need to look at how the system shows up in ourselves, our relationships and our institutions. Inspired by an article written by Guppi Bola on Posh White Blokes in NGOs here are some practical ideas to get us started:
- Make participation possible: Working class people often have a lot more barriers to participate in NGO work. Make sure there is always food, travel costs, childcare covered as a basic minimum and offer money ahead of time.
- Pay: Make sure everyone is paid a real living wage. Including cleaners. Including interns. And publish the pay gap in your organisation in terms of organisational hierarchy from top to bottom, along gender, class and race lines. Look at the gap. Can you narrow it?
- Culture: Barriers to participation aren’t just financial. Do an audit of your organisation. What is your culture, who fits, who doesn’t and why? Can you change it? Kaytee Ray-Riek has some great tools for doing this.
- Leadership: Having a voice isn’t enough. Who has power to make decisions in your organisation? What is their class background (and race and gender)? Can leadership be handed over – in a meaningful, not tokenistic, way? Think about including ‘lived experience’ as a vital component for leadership/decision-making within the organisation. Here are some great questions from Class Action to ask about your organisation.
- Accountability: If your organisation is mainly middle class with a middle class leadership is there a way you can make yourself accountable to working class people? Can you build relationships with working class led organisations and groups, and work collaboratively/invite accountability in your work towards their goals? Desiree Adaway and co-run a brilliant online course called ‘Building Inclusive and Equitable Organisations’ that talk through how to do this well.
- Training for solidarity: Middle class people have a lot of learning and unlearning to do around class and how it plays out in both actions and organisations. Doing some deeper training in your team about solidarity, classism and collective liberation is really helpful way to get some support with this. I would recommend the following: Navigate for workshops on class, Resist+Renew for workshops on solidarity and collective liberation, and Shilpa Shah for workshops on power and privilege.
- Self-education: As well as more formal training workshops, there are many resources online and offline that can lead to a better understanding of class, classism and the role of working class and middle class people in overcoming oppression. For starters, check out Chav Solidarity, Class Action and this TED Talk by Kimberlee Crenshaw on the importance of intersectionality.
There will be many more ideas about practical things groups and organisations can do. It would be great to crowdsource them—do share ideas/resources in the comments section below.
I am writing this piece because I attended a workshop on Classism run by Navigate in January 2019 wanting to learn about how class operates in social movements and in me. I was invited to write this article by PIRC – an NGO who are doing a lot of work around anti-oppression including in their own working culture. I am writing this as a middle class, white, able-bodied, cis-woman.