Sunday, 5 August 2007

Quakers and Class

I am saddened to see I have not blogged for a month. My excuse is work pressures and not wanting to face trying to make sense of some of my Theological thoughts. It is also because I have become active in my Local Meeting which whilst positive means less time for reflection. What I will have to write about and reflect at some point in the future is the burning issue of the day at my meeting: how to reconcile working with excluded paedophiles by holding them in the meeting whilst at the same time starting a new children's meeting to widen involvement with the community.

Shaking my head at the complexity of that one I came across a much more familiar issue that of Class as set out below.
I'm writing because I took George Lakey's "Quakers and Social Class" workshop at Gathering this year (2007, River Falls, WI) and I'm looking to talk with other Quakers about social class, especially to Quakers who are either working class or grew up working class and who also feel like an odd duck among Quakers. I grew up working class and discovered in George's workshop that I've internalized much of modern Quaker's middle-class and owning-class tendencies. This, for me, has been much like discovering in my early twenties the depth to which the patriarchy had affected my life.

I'm starting a google group for working class Quakers or Quakers who grew up working class. Email me if you're interested in joining at njeanneburns at
Coming from a UK working class background its odd(welcome but still odd) to my ears when I hear Americans talk about class as all to often they mean status and see it in more fluid terms then the UK/European context. I see class as having three elements: firstly its about your degree of economic power/autonomy; secondly, its about your status within that economic band and thirdly its about the political values and practices that the first two generate. The whole is dynamic rather then static so will alter over time as personal and social circumstances change. The perspective also changes if you take "a what has been my experience line" or "a what has been the general experience of a groups line" For example, white collar jobs as described are classic class boundary jobs and so groups and individuals are often acutely aware of the benefits and pains of loss in status.

Its very common for individuals and groups who move into new social positions to adopt or internalise the values of the new group. Hence the importance of books and ideas as one reaction to being aware that what is normal is in fact a political/ cultural construction.If not clear already my academic background is in political sociology and I use ideas drawn from Gramsci who fused notions from both Marx and Weber.

At a personal level my mother was barely literate and worked as an unskilled factory worker and her brothers were labourers on building sites. My father was unknown. No one had the hope of escape so drink and dysfunctional family life was the norm up and down the generations. The fact that I loved books and reading was seen as abnormal and resulted in beatings etc.

Of my brothers and sisters, one became a bus driver and had a stable marriage and so moved up the class/status ranks. The rest did not and had kids by various partners, low level jobs when not on benefits (welfare), poor education, and so seen as “problem families”. I left school equally failed by the education system but managed to get a low level white collar job. So had already started to move away from my class base. Over the years I moved further and went from the bottom 3% to the top 3% of the educated population in the UK. In class terms I have jumped several layers which is highly unusual.

It has consequences, I don’t share the cultural norms of the class I move in( My job is social policy and creating social change so I engage with the political classes and social administrative elites) and I am an alien to the class I came from. Hence it has made me more aware and wary of “group think”.

I came to Quakers because of their radical and libertarian roots ( I bypassed the university radical socialists who despised the real working class) and over the years have appreciated and valued the theological rather then political basis for these practices. This is perhaps the heart of the political struggle for me. I value religion when it points me to appreciate the humanity of the individual but not when it ignores social oppression. I value a socialist perspective but not when it “demonises” the class-enemy.

I find Quakers often blind to their social and class biases, one of my sticking points has been around an over passive view of the peace testimony. I start from a Gandhi or Martin Luther King direct action line but question what to do if faced by a South African or Nazi German political regime. But often its more subtle and ignores social struggle. At one meeting, they were concerned enough about beggars to give out soup and sandwiches but not to tackle the housing and lack of structured support which was creating the situation. Or in another, the core of members came from upper middle class background and found it difficult to accept me and my families(oops now that would have been interesting but its a typo and should read family!) as equals as we were the Wardens. This was never up front but cultural norms kept clashing. A interesting pattern was that Wardens with independent means(ie similar to them) fitted in well but those that had to work as well had a sliding scale of fitting in. The lower the status job the more stormy the spilt with the meeting when it came.

Quaker Faith and Practice Advices and queries no 33 is holds the key for me when we look at Class.

Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society's conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?

And so do you?