Shout Working Class

Nearly 18 years ago, at the closing session of a conference on Working-Class Lives at Youngstown State University, we posed this question: if there were a Center for Working-Class Studies, what should it be doing?  We heard over 100 suggestions, ranging from “create a bibliography” to “start the revolution.”  Many of the recommendations focused on education, including a plea from a local steelworker for us to advocate for and provide a good education for working-class children like his.  Others emphasized public policy advocacy, working with unions, and helping to create spaces for working-class art and literature.

That year, a group of YSU faculty created the Center for Working-Class Studies, with modest funding from then Provost James Scanlon, who challenged us to get other faculty involved. Over the next dozen years, the CWCS organized five more conferences that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. We sponsored a lecture series that brought scholars, activists, and artists to Youngstown, where they spoke not only to the usual academic audiences but also to community groups, unions, and schoolchildren.  We collected oral histories with workers from the GM Lordstown plant, created an online archive of materials reflecting the many different ethnic and racial communities of the Mahoning Valley, called Steel Valley Voices, and published many articles and books about the working-class history and culture of this area.

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the Center was able to expand its programming.  Workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.  We created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies at YSU.  Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.

In collaboration with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, we sponsored an interracial, cross-class community reading group to study mass incarceration.  With the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, we helped lead community discussions on class and race. The CWCS also created an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations. We conducted opinion polls, helped journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities, and established this blog.

All of this might seem like bragging, but the point is simply to say that we have worked hard to make the Center for Working-Class Studies a dynamic, multidimensional project.  We’ve done some good and important work.

And now the Center is closing.  Over the past month, John and our administrative assistant, Patty LaPresta, with help from colleagues in the American Studies and History departments at YSU, have packed up the books, sorted through files, and moved dozens of photographs, posters, maps, and a/v materials to the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.   The Center is closing because we have left YSU.  Sherry began a new position at Georgetown University in August, and John just retired.

But the real reason the CWCS is closing is not that we left YSU.  It’s that YSU left us. The administration at YSU was not willing to provide continued funding.  Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work.  They chose not to do that.  Some have suggested that our visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision.  The official version is simply that the resources are not available.

We appreciate all of the kind words and support you’ve provided over the years, and we know that many of you share our sadness and anger at the Center’s demise. We hope you will also share our commitment to continuing to work with and for the working class.  As Jack Metzgar wrote in the fall newsletter of the Working-Class Studies Association, the Center may be gone, but Working-Class Studies is not.  Here’s what will continue.

First, we will continue to publish this blog, offering commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.  Since we began in 2008, the blog has received almost 300,000 page views, and it gets about 30,000 hits each week.  Last year, it was read by people in more than 100 countries.  It’s been listed as a Washington Post staff pick, cited in dozens of other blogs, and reblogged by the United Steelworkers, Portside, and others.  The most widely read piece, an early blog on “Stereotyping the Working Class,” has almost 18,000 hits – many more readers than anything we’ve ever published in an academic journal.  Put simply, people are listening, and we hope they will continue to do so.

Second, the endowment fund originally created through donations from many colleagues and supporters, as well as our own contributions, will now become the CWCS Legacy Fund.  It will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.  This ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you may do so by downloading and sending in this form.

Third, the Working-Class Studies Association has already taken on much of the work started at the Center.  The WCSA organizes annual conferences, publishes a newsletter, and starting in January, a new WCSA website will become home to many of the online resources we created at YSU.  If you’re not already a member, we urge you to join and become active. Better yet, organize a session for the WCSA conference this June in Madison, reaching out to colleagues who haven’t previously participated.  The deadline for proposals is January 14.

Finally, the most important thing any of us can do to ensure that Working-Class Studies continues is exactly what Joe Hill told us decades ago:  don’t mourn, organize.  Teams of faculty and local activists around the U.S. and beyond have the potential to create many more centers for working-class studies.  Begin with small steps.  If you’re a student or academic, invite a guest speaker to campus, or just show a film, and announce the event widely.  Get the names and contact information of everyone who attends, and get a discussion going about shared interests and possibilities. If you’re an artist or writer, follow the lead of folks like John Crawford and Larry Smith and organize anthologies or magazines to help make working-class voices heard – and send a link to your work to the editors of the WCSA website, so we can list it.  If you’re an activist or organizer, advocate for attention to class as part of local, regional, and national debates about policy.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, follow the advice of former Youngstown steelworker John Barbero, who explained that after the mills closed, he made it a point to keep “shouting Youngstown.”  Now it’s our turn.  Shout working class.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

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10 responses to “Shout Working Class

  1. I just want to say thank you to those who posted here and elsewhere and who’ve written to John and me in the past week. Your support and kind words mean the world to us.

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  2. Dr John, I’m so sorry to see this happen. I want you to know what a profound effect you have had on my life. It figures that now that I finally have the opportunity to attend YSU full time, you won’t be here. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I hadn’t participated in your “teaching on turns” experiment. I want you to know that I will carry your teachings and inspiration with me always. Thank you so much…Denise.

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  3. John and Sherry, I totally agree with Mark’s comment and thank you both for helping to re-energize the journalism program. You are both generous colleagues and friends and will be sadly missed in Youngstown.

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  4. John and Sherry — many thanks for the countless hours you have spent trying to build a forum for the meaningful discussion of working-class issues. In particular I would like to thank Sherry for taking the time to interact with me in sorting out the complicated overlay of topics that represent the academic view of the working class and its culture. Sadly, however, I think the closing of Center represents the uphill battle we face in promoting awareness and appreciation of the working class. While this seems to be the status quo in mainstream America, I am also struck by how difficult it is to motivate members of the working class to participate in a collective effort to enhance our status. For my part, I will continue to blog away as though the world should care about us and the important work that we do. My grade school teracher once told my parents that I had the longest attention span of any second grader she had ever taught. Perhaps I’m uniquely qualified for such a thankless job!

    Best wishes to everyone who cares about the working class.
    Scot

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  5. Well, life moves on, and I’m glad to hear that the Center for Working-Class Studies will survive and even evolve. I am not surprised to hear the YSU abandoned such a worthy program and vision. We live in times that are run by the dollar sign, and the Center was always run by a deeper dedication that corporations no longer understand. We salute all of your good work and believe it makes a difference. It has in my life and work.

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  6. Sherry and John,
    Many thanks for all the work you’ve done over the years. It has been a huge inspiration to working-class researchers I know here in Ireland and elsewhere, and those seeds continue to bear fruit.
    Solidarity,
    Laurence

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  7. The closing of the Center is very disheartening. You brought attention to the issues of class that affect so many, not just in Youngstown, but across the US. You helped to educate students and caused us to reflect on where we come from and what has shaped who we are, and we became both more analytical and self-aware in the process. The CWCS was an asset to the university & community. I’m afraid that much will be lost in its absence.

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  8. An aspiring urban research university cutting loose a proven, acknowledged, world-class academic resource is counter-intuitive and sad.

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  9. Denise A. Narcisse

    Best wishes again, Sherry and John. I “grew” as a teacher, scholar, and activist as a result of my affiliation with CWCS. Thank you for providing guidance, encouragement, and a distinct world-class forum for me to “shout” about working class issues through teaching, scholarship, and service. Denise Narcisse

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  10. John and Sherry – I’m proud to say I remember attending what had to be some of the earliest events and lectures CWCS organized while I was a student at YSU from 1992-1997 and have done my best to keep up with your projects over the years, especially since you started the blog. Your work made a undeniably huge and lasting impression on me and many others. Congratulations on everything else you and the great staff accomplished. I’m saddened that the university administration appears to have turned its back on workers and our families and only wish I could say I’m shocked as well. Thank you for giving a voice to workers and for talking about the issues that impact us all. I’m sorry we weren’t able to spend more time collaborating. I’ll be sure to keep reading the blog and look forward to continuing the fight. Again, thanks and solidarity! /Tony

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