Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing: Book Review

Linda Stout’s Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing takes the reader on a thought-provoking journey as she begins by recounting how her childhood has shaped her values and beliefs and ultimately led her to become a successful grassroots activist, characterized by many trials and tribulations along the way. In order to conceptualize the discrimination she experienced, she highlighted specific stories that could be considered mind blowing to some. Stout begins to outline her personal struggle with inequality and oppression through a horrible auto accident she and her family endured when Stout was very young. Although her father was not responsible for this car accident, the Stout family had to pay the price of being poor as they received inadequate healthcare and no compensation from their insurance company for the irreparable damages. This car accident left her family in shambles as her mother lost one of her legs, while her father was left with the burden of paying off hospital bills for the remainder of his life. After this initial standoff with classism, Stout continued to experience sexism in school where she lacked access to appropriate courses geared toward a college education as teachers and counselors demoted her into female classes, such as home economics. After a hurdle of obstacles, Stout made it into college briefly, where her self-esteem continued to teeter. Due to economic hardship and taking on the responsibility of caring for her mother, Stout left college and eventually moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where she would truly embark on becoming a social justice activist.

As Stout joined various groups in Charleston that were working towards social change, she still carried a shattered sense of self due to her attempts to include low-income women in a predominantly middle class group of women whose membership was based on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in one instance, and where she was quickly overshadowed by men in a peace group that she helped establish. Although Stout experienced oppression within progressive movements, it gave her the framework to move forward and utilize her lessons that ultimately led her to form the Piedmont Peace Project (PPP) in North Carolina. PPP’s mission and purpose is based on economic and social change as it relates to military and peace issues. PPP’s membership was primarily made up of low-income white and African American people, with some middle-class people to diversify the makeup. PPP’s initial efforts were characterized by voter registration drives, meetings held through word-of-mouth, door-to-door and more. Thanks to its dedicated members, PPP began to receive a lot of attention as they made victories within state government. However, as Stout mentions quite frequently within the book and dedicates the last chapter to this concept, with great power comes great opposition. PPP reckoned with this concept as members and volunteers were threatened or shunned from institutions within the community and even through family, friends, co-workers, employers etc. Public forms of opposition and the problems it created for the organization internally caused PPP to take a backseat momentarily in regards to their grassroots efforts.

All was not lost as PPP came back stronger than ever before about two years later, as they formed partnerships with activists in Boston and other states, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, coupled with increasing voter turnout. This allowed PPP to gain media coverage and leverage for economic based campaigns within North Carolina. Although PPP’s sense of community was ultimately revived, Stout makes it a point to mention the lessons learned from PPP’s failed attempts to gain social justice.  Through these experiences Stout mentions how important it is for grassroots organizing to connect local issues to the national level in order to create a lasting change. Stout introduces her seven principles for a new organizing model, which she conjured through her experiences at PPP and through comparisons of other grassroots models. Furthermore, Stout explains why PPP’s leadership model, which is based on sharing power, authority and responsibility, has allowed PPP to instill leadership qualities through training, development and encouragement in all of their members even if it took them some time to recognize their potential.

Although grassroots organizations have different incentives as compared to businesses, Stout explains that in order to ensure success, it is important for grassroots organizations to examine standard business principles and practices and to tailor them to their needs. Once a grassroots organization has properly established itself and has begun to gain influence on social and economic policies, what are they to do once they begin to win? Stout recommends that it is crucial for organizations to predetermine how they will handle opposition, backlash etc. that will arise from each campaign from outsiders as it can be very overwhelming and discouraging for individuals within the organization, allies, and the organization as a whole. After all, as Stout says, “if we are not getting opposition, then we must not be doing enough!” (1996, p. 180). The book ends with an explanation of the struggles Stout faced in order to write this book. Stout made her first venture of out the South when she was appointed as a Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe College. While this was an amazing opportunity for Stout, she feared that she would experience class prejudice due to the fact that she had no college degree. After moving to Concord, Massachusetts, Stout received positive feedback from most people she came in contact with, but if one person here or there said the smallest thing, her self-esteem was dismantled. It was not until she made a formal public presentation in April 1993 at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College where she discussed her own theories and ideas about social change that she truly began to see that her thoughts were valued by others. Through the process of writing this book, Stout was forced to learn how to communicate her ideas and visions, along with refining her ability to effectively deal with her insecurities. Lastly, Stout reiterates her definition of what a unity group should look like and how its goals should ideally be executed, that can be utilized by community organizers and other change agents nationwide.

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