A very interesting discussion is currently hiding in the comments section of a recent post on NYCO’s Blog. The post, ”Limbo”, is a review of a book whose subtitle is “Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams.” The book looks at persons with working class backgrounds as they enter into a more middle class existence–college education and a white collar profession.
NYCO and Sean Kirst of the Post Standard trade observations on what that feels like, the pressures, trade-offs and family reactions. I haven’t commented because I initially thought that this feeling of limbo was not my experience. In fact, it is part of my experience, but I come at the issue from a totally different angle.
I grew up in a professional, college-educated family. While my family was not rich, we were comfortably middle class–two kids, two cars, stay-at-home mom, colonial in the suburbs. My family tree includes lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers, historians and government officials. College was not only expected, a prestige college was expected. I attended an Ivy League school but realize that Bob Dylan most accurately summed up my college years: “you went to the finest school alright . . ./but you know you only used to get juiced in it”. I started law school, but dropped out after a year.
I realize now that I was rebelling against those expectations that my class had placed on me (and that I was lazy.) If I had listened to my father I would have graduated from the best business school in the country right at the beginning of the financial boom of the go-go ‘80’s. I could have made, lost and re-made another fortune by now in accounting or investment banking. Even if I’d buckled down and finished at the lower-tier law school that my grades got me into I could have made an extremely lucrative living.
That never interested me and it took me almost 10 years of floundering to find the career that has afforded me happiness and professional satisfaction–community organizing. I help low-income folks learn how to to wrest some power away from the powers-that-be, in order to improve their neighborhoods.
So I have experienced this sense of class limbo. I have turned my back on upper-middle class definitions of success, yet I don’t have the working class roots that sustain other organizers with a sense of solidarity and purpose. Mike Gecan, a lead organizer in the Industrial Areas Foundation network, is able to spin tales about how he learned the true nature of power by watching his father being shaken down for protection money to keep his working class tavern in Chicago open (and how it was burned down when his father missed a payment.) A young female labor organizer I know is able to trade stories with grizzled union vets by drawing on her first-hand knowledge of her father’s life in the Laborers union.
My passion for social justice is cerebral, like any good Ivy Leaguer I drag my erudition around with me. I am left with a hunger for a more authentic working class experience, something that my white bread, suburban upbringing doesn’t provide. I value the labor unions, the ethnic social clubs and bars, the machine politician balancing corruption with the ability to uplift his people, all things that I have experienced only in books and movies.
So, I am betwixt and between. I’m not a titan of industry and I’m not a knight of working class resistance. My tenacity was forged on the tennis court, not on the shop floor, but I’ve found my own way to bridge the class divide. I use my knowledge and skills to help those not fortunate enough to have my class advantages and education. I give back in the best way I can.