The Southern Maine Workers’ Center is an organization building a grassroots movement for human rights. We approach our work with the fundamental belief that working class and poor people–employed or not–know how the American economy works, because it works on top of them. In order to create a more just economy we know that the most effective solutions come from the collective imagining, resistance, and love of people at the bottom. We must look to leadership of those who struggle the most under our current system.
As we organize for human rights and a just economy, we encounter first-hand the ways that racism, classism, and all systems of oppression place roadblocks on our path to unity and liberation. Our membership has a diversity of class experiences, and classism shows up in our membership and in our programming, just as it does in the broader movement. Failing to address classism in our organizing weakens our relationships with each other and our ability to address the institutional forces that keep us divided in an unequal system.
This system is reinforced when politicians like Donald Trump and our own governor Paul LePage use powerful, fear-based stories to shift blame for our insecurity and hardship away from failed economic policies and onto black people, people of color, and immigrants. We need to have clear messages and strategy to counter these stories and to create organizations that can build leadership and power across our differences, including across our experiences of race and class.
In 2014, the Workers’ Center published a list of anti-racist commitments, recognizing the need to state publicly that racial justice is central to our vision of liberation. We know that we cannot address classism without simultaneously working to understand and dismantle racism on every level. We now also recognize a need to articulate our understanding of classism and what commitments we make as an organization to address it.
WE ARE IN A CRISIS
In Maine, we see reflections of a crisis that is global in scope. Housing costs are skyrocketing and jobs are becoming more concentrated in low-paying sectors with few benefits. The same number of children go without healthcare as did before the Affordable Care Act. In the midst of an opioid epidemic, LePage has ensured that recovery centers around the state will remain underfunded and subject to closure, that beds will not be available to those in desperate need. Between 2000 and 2010, the income of Maine’s richest 20% of households grew by over 6%, while the poorest fifth of households experienced no income growth. The economy helps the rich get richer, while our communities are left behind as industries die out or move, our environment is poisoned, our infrastructure is neglected. Everyday people in Maine are struggling to have their basic human rights met.
Although most people are being negatively impacted by the current system, we’re not all impacted by the system in the same way. LePage’s rhetoric and policies criminalize, target and deny rights to black people and people of color. Racism in this country has always been a highly effective bait and switch for politicians like LePage and Trump, who tell blatantly racist lies about who is to blame for the drug crisis or the economic crisis, openly call for racial profiling, and make it more dangerous for black people and people of color to exist. That includes LePage stating that “the enemy right now… are people of color.” Statements like these are violent, and are intended to distract us from making demands that can address the root causes of racism and economic oppression.
Meanwhile, people who are most directly impacted by economic injustice are too often alienated from the movements that are working to bring about change. We see this happening in our organizing when white people with economic privilege perpetuate the idea that poor and working class white people are “more racist” or are misinformed about important issues. People with class privilege also sometimes fail to recognize the ways their experiences and perspectives dominate movement spaces. Classism alienates those who should be at the centers of our organizations and makes our movements less powerful.
The systems that we’re living under thrive by appearing inevitable but we know that they are not. It is our responsibility to organize a broad base of people for economic and racial justice because the power behind our unity is world changing and unstoppable. But in order to harness this power, we need to make room for our very real differences, and prioritize solutions that are generated by people who are most impacted by racism and classism. Together, we hold the solutions and the knowledge that can bring forth a better world.
WE ARE THE SOLUTION WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR
Our vision for change is rooted in human rights. We believe that there are certain things —like healthcare, housing, education, a clean environment, and the ability to work with dignity—that every human being should be guaranteed. The current economic crisis is based in depriving us of our human rights, for the profit and benefit of the few. The solution should be built on the principles of equity and universality: equity meaning everyone puts in what they can, and gets what they need; universality meaning everyone in, nobody out.
In our work to guarantee human rights, we recognize that it’s not just institutions that are the problem—our own stories about our worth and the worth of others can get in the way of our work for social change. In order to build powerful movements for human rights, we must make space in our organizing to share the ways that classism impacts our lives on all levels, from the systemic to the personal.
In order to build a powerful movement to challenge these systems, and in order to address classism in our movements and organization, we make the following commitments.
- We commit to prioritizing the voices and leadership of our members who identify as poor, working class, or economically oppressed.
- We reaffirm our anti-racist commitments, recognizing that classism is not a separate issue, and that our strategy to end economic oppression must involve lifting up the leadership and priorities of black people and people of color in our organization and our communities.
- We commit to talking openly about all of our identities, experiences and differences, in the spirit of building unity and solidarity. Our movement should provide space where we can all reflect on our own experiences and learn from each other. While doing this, we recognize that white middle class experiences are considered normal and default in the dominant culture, and we’ll therefore work to center the perspectives and analyses of poor and working class people.
- We commit to educating ourselves and developing tools to address classism in our organization. We commit to developing tools and shared language to help us name and understand our own class experiences.
- We commit to speaking from our own experience, and to not generalize or appropriate the experiences of others.
- We commit to making our organization as accessible as possible—providing rides, child care, food, and other support identified by our members.
- We will organize people from a diversity of class backgrounds into a movement for economic justice and collective liberation.