Twenty Years of Working-Class Studies

This week, the Working-Class Studies Association will hold its annual conference. This year’s conference is special in two ways.

First, this year the WCSA is partnering with the Labor and Working-Class History Association for a joint conference. With two organizations involved, we expect more than 400 people to attend the Fighting Inequality conference and/or present their work. As always, the conference will include academic papers but also plenaries with activists, artists, and scholars from several disciplines talking about working-class issues. We’ll also have film screenings (in partnership with the DC Labor Film Festival), poetry and music performances, workshops, and a DC Labor History tour. All of that is pretty typical for a working-class studies conference, since the field has always been committed both to bringing more (and better) attention to class within the academy and to connecting in meaningful ways with working-class people and movements.

This year’s conference is also special because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the first working-class studies conference, which we organized with several colleagues at Youngstown State University in May of 1995. That conference helped to create the Center for Working-Class Studies (CWCS), the first of its kind in the US. That more than 150 scholars, activists, artists, and other interested folks came to Youngstown to spend a weekend talking about working-class lives demonstrated need to establish Working-Class Studies as an academic discipline. With support from the Ford Foundation in 2000, the CWCS helped to build that field, including several other centers around the US.

The conference also left us with two big questions that would shape our work at the CWCS. One was inspired by composition scholar Gary Tate, who reminded us of the value of supporting and facilitating other people’s work – an essential form of academic labor. At the conference, Tate spoke with a number of participants about his next project: an edited collection exploring how teachers’ class backgrounds shaped their work in the classroom. Editing a book wasn’t new for Tate. He’d helped develop composition studies through this kind of facilitative labor. Moving forward from the conference, one of the questions we asked ourselves was “How will the work we’re doing help to develop the field?”

That question led us to another: “Working-class studies for whom?” From the beginning, we believed that those of us engaged in working-class studies should pursue two ideals. First, building a field had to be about more than creating a space for our own work. On the academic side, we focused on outreach and organizing, trying to engage colleagues from across the disciplines with research and teaching about class. Even more important, we needed to reach beyond academic work, to ensure that we did not approach the working class merely as the object of study. We needed to collaborate with working-class people and communities, in local unions halls, in our classrooms, in political and organizing campaigns.

We were always concerned that working-class studies could become overly theoretical and distant from working people’s lives. We committed to writing and speaking in accessible, inclusive ways, and we also looked for opportunities to reach beyond academic audiences. Working-Class Perspectives is one result of that effort. We hoped that what we wrote and posted here would reach not only other academics but also workers, students, and journalists. Commentaries from Working-Class Perspectives have led dozens of journalists from print and broadcast journalism to interview our contributors, and the blog is assigned reading in many high school and college courses. In our first year, 2008, WCP had about 7500 hits. In 2014, we had almost 107,000 views from readers in more than 100 countries. One recent post was read by over 10,000 people within three days.

We have good reasons to celebrate this week’s anniversary. We have not done all of the things people suggested at the closing plenary of our first conference. When we asked, “If there was a Center for Working-Class Studies, what would it be doing?” our colleagues generated over 180 suggestions that ranged from basic vocational education to “starting a revolution.” Florence Howe cornered us afterward with wise advice: “pick five.”

At first, the Center for Working-Class Studies was an information clearinghouse and orphanage for academics who thought no one else on their campuses cared about class. Over time, the CWCS Studies helped launch working-class studies as an academic field of inquiry that engages in a wide range of academic and activist work. Along with publishing articles and books, we and our colleagues teach hundreds of courses about class, collaborate with workers and our students to create films and exhibits about working-class stories, work on labor issues and campaigns, help non-profit organizations understand how class shapes their work, and work with unions and other organizations on issues of peace, climate change, and electoral politics.

A few years ago, we announced that the CWCS was closing, but a few of our colleagues at YSU are trying to revive it. While their work is just beginning, our work continues on through the Working-Class Studies Association and the Center Working-Class Studies Legacy Fund,* which helped fund this year’s conference. We look forward to seeing many of our readers at Georgetown University this week, where we’ll talk about all of this work, toast to twenty years of working-class studies, and consider how we can continue fighting inequality.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

Founding Members and Former Co-Directors

Center for Working-Class Studies

*If you would like to contribute to the CWCS Legacy Fund to support the future of working-class studies, please download this donation form.  Thanks for your help.

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