Great plagues subvert our expectations about how things work, opening up new opportunities and widespread mobilization for social change. According to one massive study of historical epidemics, “civil unrest” often follows – as we are seeing now. Whatever direction the future takes, I think we are in for a bumpy ride. We are still grappling with a stubbornly mutating virus, facing a looming recession, unequally suffering the effects of climate change, and viewing with horror a conventional war of territorial aggression and brutality in Ukraine.
If the winners of the 2022 WCSA awards are any indication, we have room for both hope and concern. Capitalism does seem to be thriving, still. But so are collective mobilizations against its worst manifestations. Rhiannon Stevens’s (Cardiff University) dissertation, Young People’s Access to Employment in Disadvantaged Communities in Wales, one of two winners of the Constance Coiner Award, demonstrates this point. In her study, Stevens uses young people’s voices to consider how class stereotypes and low expectations affect their sense of their futures. As the judges note, Stevens also “show[s] the importance of community and relationships for young working-class people.” They praised her ethnography for its “care and sensitivity” and for “center[ing] the stories of the subjects.” They also noted that the project offers new methods of class analysis of precisely the type we need in WCSA. “The thesis is clear and accessible, and its message of hope and agency is to be applauded,” wrote the judges.
The other winner of the Constance Coiner Award was Kim McAloney (Oregon State University), whose dissertation, Virtual Liberatory Women of Color Mentorship, also models unique methods of class analysis and intersectional interpretation. Combining personal narratives and poetry with more traditional methods, McAloney argue[s] that mentorship is crucial for working-class women scholars of color. The judges described her project as “an affecting narrative that demonstrates the liberatory potential of such mentor relationships (what McAloney calls ‘liberationships’).” They also appreciated McAloney’s attention to ways of mentoring online during the pandemic, as well as her attention to “the value of ‘women of color ways of knowing’ and ‘endarkened feminism.’” Her project reveals “how these ways of knowing operate to resist white supremacy and racial capitalism,” and it helps to “push working-class scholarship to intersectional methods” “the intersections of class, race and gender.” Judges found the work “engaging,” “accessible,” “polished and sophisticated,” and “brilliant and necessary.”
Gabriel Winant’s (University of Chicago) The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America was one of two winners of the CLR James Award. Winant’s book also considers the intersections of race and class as it links two historical periods in Pittsburgh, where the union-dominated steel jobs have largely been replaced by service jobs in health care, and both have been racialized. The book shows how and why the U.S., with its unfinished New Deal, has diverged from other wealthy deindustrializing countries. Judges called The Next Shirt “scholarly yet very accessible.”
A second CLR James Award goes to Heather Berg (Washington State University), whose work offers hope for successful organizing during end days of decaying capitalism. Judges described Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism as “an important study of pornography as work in the contemporary U.S., looking at the industry without stereotypes, as a part of the gig economy. Porn Work is a well written, theoretically nuanced ethnographic discussion of sex work in terms of precarious labor, shifting class positions, and the rejection of alienated labor.”
Gretchen Purser and Brian Hennigan’s (both from Syracuse University) study of “job readiness programs” for the poor in Pittsburgh feels less hopeful. Their article, “Both Sides of the Paycheck: Recommending Thrift to the Poor in Job Readiness Programs,” which won the John Russo and Sherry Linkon Award, considers programs in which professional middle class entrepreneurs “train” poor people in job and financial “literacy.” Such programs have become ubiquitous but are almost wholly invisible to most in the professional class. Judges praised the article as “concise and to the point, with a biting critique that pulls no punches.” By combining “excellent field work and personal stories,” Purser and Hennigan present “financially illiterate” subjects with “irony, tenderness, and insight” and their “trainers” as “clueless, classist, and racist.” Judges described the article “as an exemplar of how well capitalism excludes and blames people on the bottom rungs of our economy for their plight.”
Several of this year’s winners take us back to the past, to learn from both losses and wins. The second winner of the John Russo and Sherry Linkon Award is Matt Nichter (Rollins College), for his article ‘Did Emmett Till Die in Vain? Organized Labor Says NO!’: The United Packinghouse Workers and Civil Rights Unionism in the Mid-1950.” Judges noted that Nichter’s reconsideration of the Emmett Till case is “insightful, and seamlessly unites civil and labor rights.” They praised both his research and his “engaging style of writing,” and they wrote that the piece is “particularly relevant to our current social moment” because it “demonstrates the immense solidarity that can occur when labor fights racism.” Nichter’s article reminds us that “the often-noted racism of white working-class workers can be, and has been, overcome to spectacular effect.”
Christine Walley and Chris Boebel (MIT) won the Studs Terkel Award for their digital humanities project ‘The Southeast Chicago Archive and Storytelling Project.’ Judges described the project as “a path-breaking, collaborative digital humanities project” that “uses a range of research methodologies to interpret historical aspects of the working-class experience in the South-East side of Chicago, Illinois.” They praised the project as “accessible to a wide audience as a compelling work of public history” that “will be of enormous interest to labor activists, rank-and-file workers, and academics.”
The Working-Class Studies Association has long honored the creative arts and their potential to foster change through its Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. Olsen wrote that “Every woman who writes is a survivor,” and that is true for winner of this year’s award, Crystal Wilkinson (University of Kentucky). Her book Perfect Black “expands the sense of place that many diverse working-class people claim as home.” Through poems and a short prose piece, Wilkinson, Poet Laureate of Kentucky, tells her own story as an Affrilachian woman whose mother is not able to care for her. Judges described Wilkinson’s imagery as “strong and fresh” and her voice as “natural yet commanding.” The poem “Bones” stands out for its imagery and sound and the pure force of capturing her working-class world, while “The Water Witch on Reading” uses dialect to “vocalize Black rural speech. Judges also appreciated the interplay between Wilkinson’s writing and Ronald W. Davis’s illustrations, which added “nuance and energy to the writing.” Wilkinson “stay[s] true to her roots while on the journey to becoming the writer and academic she has become.”
Our newest award, the Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award recognizes work by or about working-class academics (WCAs). Strangers in academic” paradise,” WCAs have had a unique impact on working-class studies, making substantial contributions to our understandings of how both class and academia work. This year there were two winners of the Ryan and Sackrey Award. The first is Davarian Baldwin (Trinity College), for In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities. Baldwin is an historian, cultural critic, and social theorist who is also a first-generation scholar of working-class origins. Judges wrote that his book “expands the interdisciplinary promise of Working-Class Studies by combining urban studies, critical university studies, and Black and Latinx studies” in its analysis of how wealthy universities engage with their neighborhoods, not as “responsible community members” but as gentrifiers and landlords. Baldwin’s work considers the effects on the poor and working-classes and people of color who live in those neighborhoods, people who “might have crossed over into the academy to become scholars themselves but who instead are exploited as low-wage higher education laborers and overpoliced outsiders.” Judges wrote that “In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower tells an old story of class warfare in the new context of the knowledge economy, the universities that ground it, and the underclasses who pay.”
While many award winners are new to the WCSA, the editors of the second winner of the Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award are all former presidents of the Association: Michele Fazio (University of North Carolina -Pembroke), Christie Launius (Kansas State University), and Tim Strangleman (University of Kent). Their book, the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, takes a sweeping look at the field, with key chapters on methods, history, and contributions to the academy and working-class people. As judges note, the volume “make[s] substantial and impressive contributions,” and many of the chapters “map the many locations and innovations of working-class academics’ scholarship and teaching.” As they write, “the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies shows working-class academics doing their work—on the page, in the classroom, in their communities, and in interdisciplinary conversation with each other” and shows “what is possible now and for future generations of scholars of working-class background.”
As the coordinator of this year’s awards, I want to thank the 18 WCSA members from around the world who served as judges (see the press release for their names). We celebrate all of our award winners and thank them for showing us some of the ways out of the dark days ahead!
Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University