Engaging in Meaningful Conversation Socioeconomic Status and Class Identity

Where are you going for spring break? How many colleges did you apply to? Why aren’t you going on the international service-learning trip? 

These are the sort of questions we hear students and colleagues ask each other in our advisories, classrooms, and hallways. No doubt they are born out of intentions to connect. They are not meant to embarrass or be unkind. But the truth is that they contain often overlooked class assumptions and, when raised, reinforce disparities based on class identity. 

At Wildwood School (California), a K–12 school, we have been working hard to help students and faculty develop a deeper understanding of and sensitivity to the influence of socioeconomic status and class identity in their daily interactions. In particular, the school has been actively pursuing what we describe as “experiential equity.” In the context of socioeconomic status and class identity, experiential equity is a matter of ensuring that all students have access to the resources they need to fully participate in the essential school experience regardless of cost. 

The proactive and strategic efforts to create a multicultural and inclusive community began a decade ago, though the intentional focus on socioeconomic status began in 2014. With other members of Wildwood School’s Multicultural Leadership Team (MLT), we initially sought to better understand how issues related to class were playing out in our community. To that end, the MLT, whose membership consists of faculty and administrators across grade levels and departments, partnered with VISIONS, Inc., an organization known for its change-oriented approach to diversity and inclusion work. 

Terry Berman of VISIONS, Inc. facilitated an introspective and productive summer retreat and asked us probing questions, such as: What was your class identity growing up and what is it now? How are issues of socioeconomic class dynamics playing out at the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels? What are some options to address the issues? What are the key issues that we want to focus on? 

What emerged from our conversations were insights into student experiences. We learned about the level and steady presence of microaggressions — those cutting slights — between students. We learned how adults and students could judge each other based on class-status indicators (i.e., size of home, cars, vacations, family support staff). Student access to technology and hot lunch programs, perceptions about whose families participate in the school’s Flexible Tuition Program, value judgments about parental involvement and engagement — these and more were threaded into the daily life of the school. 

What we learned, in short, is that our intentions and actions were not lining up as well as we had hoped. 

Understanding Levels of Change 

The process of illuminating these critical but often overlooked class differences led us to developing a long list of school-based cultural issues that needed attention. To avoid the temptation of turning only to the “easy fixes,” we set out to ascertain a holistic understanding of our school culture, as it relates to inclusion, through analysis. Before strategizing and developing options to address concerns, we also organized the various examples of socioeconomic issues under what Valerie Batts, founding director of VISIONS, Inc., calls the four levels of change: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural.1 

This step helped us identify the most effective approach for each issue identified. A personal-level intervention will not resolve a cultural-level problem. For example, we supported a student who was in need of lunch (the personal level) by using some of the discretionary budget to cover the cost for the year. However, the issue reemerged again when another student required the same need for lunch support. The issue was considered at the interpersonal level, when an institutional-level intervention — such as working to develop a policy to provide lunch to students who cannot afford to participate in the hot lunch program — would have better addressed the problem community wide. 

In an effort to address some of the personal, interpersonal, and cultural issues identified, we developed programming for faculty and students. We launched the 2014–2015 academic year with a half-day professional development session with Alison Park of Blink Consulting, a leading diversity consulting group.2 Her session included an overview of key concepts, theory, research-based practices and studies, personal sharing, and dialogue. 

The MLT led follow-up faculty sessions throughout the year. To avoid getting lost in the theoretical exploration of a complex issue such as class identity, the MLT developed case studies and role-plays based on real student issues that had surfaced in the recent past. The case studies served to sharpen faculty understanding of class dynamics. The exercises also helped the faculty cultivate empathy for students who have to navigate a system with hidden costs and upper-middle class cultural norms. 

It became apparent that faculty frequently felt a sense of sadness — and in some cases shame — in not realizing the unintended harm caused by routine actions, such as assuming computer and Internet access at home for assignments, misinterpreting late arrival to school as irresponsibility when it might have been due to transportation access, and participation in celebrating extracurricular achievements that are often financially restrictive. 

The role-plays provided an opportunity for faculty to move beyond what can be a paralyzing sense of guilt to a more proactive and supportive stance by practicing how they might respond to specific situations. We encouraged interventions that support all students, regardless of class background. We used some of the following scenarios: 

• It’s the Monday after Coachella (an expensive music festival). You recognize the excited energy in the room with several students wanting to share their Coachella experiences. How do you frame the conversation? 

• The advisory wants to have a potluck breakfast. Enthusiastic about their plan, students create a list on the board with a go-round of students claiming what they'll contribute. As the list builds, you notice reluctance from a couple of students who you suspect may not be able to contribute. How would you respond? 

• The families of your students want to have a parent potluck dinner. Room parents created an online invitation asking parents to contribute a food dish or money ($25). You suspect some families may not be attending due to financial reasons. What support or options might you offer? 

• There is a group of students working on a class project that requires meeting on the weekend. The students live a considerable distance from each other and the neighborhoods reflect racial and class differences. You witness the students trying to negotiate the problem. One student with limited financial resources expresses concerns about being able to travel to the wealthier neighborhood. The students who did have easy access to transportation continued to insist on the benefits of meeting at one of the homes that offered more space and better food. How might you respond? 

Our hope was to normalize the discomfort of not knowing exactly how to respond. We guided faculty to brainstorm and practice how they might respond to these and other predictable and unpredictable situations. 

Another scenario involved the classic post-break question, “What did you do over the break?” Again, the question arises from a genuine desire to connect, but it tends to result in serious discomfort for some students — as they listen to classmates talk about expensive international trips that their families could never afford. To avoid this dynamic, we discussed how to universalize conversations to make the topic of break accessible to everyone. The goal was not to prevent the realities of class difference from showing up, but rather to ensure that everyone had equal access to engage in the conversation meaningfully. For example, a teacher could prompt students to “describe an experience of connecting with a family member or friend during the break.” While some students might still share details about their travels, the trip itself would now be de-emphasized and the reflection around connection would gain importance. Students who did not travel can also share a significant experience. 

Another example of universalizing a conversation might be in response to weekend events, such as a major concert or sports event. While honoring students who want to share a big experience, everyone can be brought into a conversation by reframing the conversation and asking students to think about and share a memorable experience they had while listening to music. 

This exercise with faculty helped to highlight how casual attempts to foster connection and community can end up reinforcing class inequities. It also offered practical alternative strategies to interrupt subtle forms of classism. 

To explore attitudes and underlying assumptions about parental involvement that may be rooted in class identity, we drew on research by Annette Lareau, highlighted in her book Unequal Childhoods, that explores the influence of class differences on childrearing.3 The MLT facilitated a discussion with faculty after watching a 10-minute clip of Lareau explaining key findings from her research.4 Some of the questions we posed to our faculty included: 

• In what ways does this framework resonate with you?

• What are the implications of these studies? 

• What relevance do these conclusions have for us as educators? 

• How might this framework and reflection inform your professional practice? 

• What tools and/or strategies have you or might you employ to address these class-related dynamics? 

In leading this programming with our faculty, our hope was to educate colleagues about socioeconomic status and class identity, increase awareness about dynamics that were playing out in our community, and develop strategies to support experiential equity, even as we were still exploring institutional interventions. 

It was crucial that we did not promise nor look for quick fixes. We also tried to engage and respond to resistance authentically and supportively, recognizing that some faculty were at the beginning of their learning in this area. The heart of the work was facilitating learning and reflection. 

Engaging Students 

As part of our K–12 multicultural scope and sequence, we focus on socioeconomic status and class identity in our advisory program during the ninth- and tenth-grade years. The curriculum explores the influence of socioeconomic class on our individual lives, our interactions with others, and our experiences in the world. Through a variety of lessons and activities that include personal reflection, case studies, and simulations, students gain a deeper understanding of and sensitivity to the impact of class status on the way individuals experience the world. 

This unit of study begins with students reflecting on prior experience, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and worldviews on class identity. In the opening lesson, students recall their first memories of someone else having more or less wealth than they do. They also discuss why class is challenging to talk about and identify ways they see the issue of class showing up in the school community. The strength of the lesson rests in breaking the cultural silence around class by encouraging students to share their own personal timelines of encountering class difference. 

Recently, a student suggested that all students attending a private school must have considerable wealth. Perhaps his intention was to declare his own class identity, but his blanket statement clearly had impact on students whose experience was made invisible. It was heartening to see another student acknowledge his own relative wealth, and then gently challenge his peer’s assertion. There was some tension in this exchange, yet during the debriefing, several students expressed an appreciation of surfacing the differences rather than maintaining harmony at the expense of open and constructive dialogue. 

The second stage of the unit is designed to develop the students’ content knowledge. We study the difference between wealth and income, wealth distribution in the United States, and the definitions of institutional and cultural classism. Students engage in this learning by participating in a budgeting simulation, watching documentaries, reading and discussing articles from the blog classism.org, and walking through a gallery of facts from a study on socioeconomic status and health. The purpose of these activities is to inform students about how the sociological realities of class differences shape society and individual life in the United States. Each of the activities intentionally examines different areas of the economic spectrum — from wealth and affluence to working-class circumstances and poverty. 

The unit ends by developing strategies to support behavioral change. With an emphasis on skill building, students are encouraged to consider their personal actions and how to apply this new knowledge and perspective. Using the same case-study model employed with faculty, we ask students to think about intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics of class bias as it shows up in school. Students read through multiple fictional scenarios interwoven with varying themes related to class, including assumptions of peers’ access to technology, views of janitorial staff and their duties, and stereotypes about particular neighborhoods. To ensure a sense of authenticity, each of the short scenarios are adapted from actual events or stories faculty have witnessed or heard. 

In small and large group discussions, students describe the events from multiple perspectives and try to identity the interpersonal and the broader institutional and cultural issues at play. The aim is to develop tools to recognize and address class dynamics when they emerge. 

To end the unit, students create a multicultural video project in which they answer a series of questions about their key takeaways and lessons learned from the multicultural curriculum. The video gives students the opportunity to find their own language to express and integrate their insights in a meaningful way. This has been an important closing project because research reveals that, as “the ‘saying-is-believing’ effect shows, generating and advocating a persuasive message to a receptive audience is a powerful means” of internalization.

Student Leadership 

Wildwood School has an annual multicultural symposium largely organized by student leaders. Student leaders, who wanted to highlight socioeconomic status and class identity, made it the theme of that year’s symposium, titled “Mind the Gap.” They invited Alison Park to return to the community as the keynote speaker for our middle and upper student body. Students were challenged and energized by Park’s effective keynote address. 

In keeping with the theme, one of our seniors decided to bring awareness to class-based microaggressions. With adult support, the student led multiple focus group discussions with high school peers to explore student perceptions and experiences related to issues around class. He also worked with affinity group facilitators to gather additional feedback about student experiences through written reflection. From there, he selected 10 examples of microaggressions and constructed brief vignettes that best exemplified them in action. The end result was a powerful 10-minute performance with student actors in front of the middle and upper school students and faculty. This theatrical performance was followed by related discussions in advisory. 

Toward Experiential Equity 

By writing this article, we don’t mean to imply that we think our school has it all figured out. We don’t. But amid all the other complex issues facing schools — including questions of how best to allocate funding — Wildwood has made a commitment to supporting students and faculty in developing a deeper understanding of and sensitivity to the influence of socioeconomic status and class identity in their daily interactions. We hope that this approach — informed by the VISIONS, Inc. model, our work with Blink Consulting, and our own journey as a community of learners — leads faculty and students to appreciate the impact of difference so as to better understand, effectively navigate, and celebrate both our similarities and differences.6 The work we’ve outlined represents a yearlong process, yet it is only one part of the ongoing journey of pursuing experiential equity for all students. By courageously delving in this topic in our schools and addressing the issues at multiple levels, we believe we can all build and sustain inclusive communities. 

Notes

1. Valerie Batts, “Is Reconciliation Possible? Lessons from Combating ‘Modern Racism,’” Visions-inc.org. VISIONS, Inc. 2005. 

2. See Alison Park. Blink Consulting: Critically Rethinking Diversity, rethinkingdiversity.com.

3. Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011.

4. Annette Lareau. Mar 26, 2013. Do Parenting Strategies Affect the Long-term Outcomes for Children? An Interview with Annette Lareau. Video File. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/z1ortYT4TWg

5. David Yeager, Gregory Walton, and Geoffrey L. Cohen, “Addressing Achievement Gaps with Psychological Interventions,” Phi Delta Kappan, v94 n5 Feb 2013, p62-65.

6. Batts, p. 21.

Author
Rasheda Carroll

Rasheda Carroll is the director of multicultural affairs at Wildwood School (California), a diversity and inclusion consultant and trainer, and founded the Multicultural Leadership Institute hosted by Wildwood School’s Outreach Program.

Jason David

Jason David is a high school advisor and humanities teacher, and is a member of Wildwood’s Multicultural Leadership Team. He is also a cofounder of AWARE-LA and member of SURJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice.