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