Why Discuss Class?

Yolanda AlindorA few weeks ago, my book club discussed Danny Dorling’s No Nonsense Guide to Equality. Danny Dorling is a British economist who creatively and repeatedly made the case for why equality is better for everyone–rich and poor alike—than inequality. Many of his examples were startling: inequality affects selection of careers and marriage partners, the stature that children attain, as well as infant mortality rates and the level of crime. It was both true and surprising when one of the readers called the book subversive.

I took the opportunity to mention that I have been, for some years now, making sporadic efforts to start an ongoing conversation on class issues here at the Foundation. When I first arrived at the Foundation to run the Multicultural Fellowship Program (then 25-years old), I was surprised to find that there was no mention of class issues in the otherwise comprehensive curriculum that I inherited.

One of the book club members asked me: “So what do you hope to achieve by having a discussion on class issues at your Foundation?” To me, the case for talking about class seems patently obvious: grantmakers should have a basic understanding of the foundation’s role in society. As a community foundation, that includes awareness about our multiple roles in working with wealthy donors as well as the nonprofits that service and work with the most disenfranchised sectors in our region. So what I hope to achieve is an opportunity for emerging grantmakers to create a personal framework that defines the socio-political values underlying their work. To me, the question of “Why discuss class issues?” is akin to asking, “Why would you teach mathematicians about the number system?”

Yet it was also a great question. Discussions on class are remarkably absent from the philanthropic discourse nationally. Yes, we talk endlessly about serving the underserved, providing a safety net, increasing accessibility, decreasing disparities, etc, but these conversations are remarkably devoid of the class context within which we do this work. I wonder:  How can this be? To paraphrase Mike Royko, no self-respecting grantmaker should want to be wrapped in a cloak of ignorance.

But philanthropy is only reflective of American society; like star-struck lovers, we remain focused on the romantic vision of the American Dream, not wanting or willing to see that over the last 30+ years that Dream has increasingly become an empty fantasy for the majority of us (yes, that would be the 99%). It turns out that it’s not easy to have discussions on class issues, largely because we are so inexperienced in doing so. I am heartened, however, that here at The San Francisco Foundation, we are re-doubling our efforts to understand the economic impacts of our country’s political decisions and to work with community partners that also see and speak to how political action—or inaction– affect the communities we serve. I like to call it a class analysis.