Take a look at this detailed map of the 2016 U.S. national election results

Do you live in a bubble? In the United States, most of us do. Americans generally live among people who share a political perspective. This may have always been true to an extent, but it’s magnified now. This is a red country with pockets of blue. 

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There’s a racial element to the divide. But it’s even more about class than race. Red counties outnumber blue counties by about four to one. And even though many blue counties have pockets of deep poverty, blue regions account for over 70% of the national GDP. The main divide is between white people of different classes.

This isn’t news: class resentment is thriving in 2018. Not just here, either – it’s all over Europe and elsewhere around the world as well, in varying degrees. What’s behind this shift? The theories started coming in the day after the last election, but things don’t appear to have changed much in the two years since. It seems we’re locked in limbo on this issue.                                       

Why This, Why Now?

I live in a pink county, a less common moderate color. You’d think areas like this would offer examples on how to bridge the gap, but I’m sorry to report mine does not. People here are pretty much in one camp or the other, and there’s essentially no dialogue between the two. Instead, folks are polite and guarded, but I often have a sense there’s resentment just under the surface, all around.

I’ll contrast this with the Pennsylvania region I grew up in during the 70s, a largely blue collar area with white collar pockets. My neighborhood was the latter, and while we were aware of differences between our enclave and the nearby mill towns, you never had a sense that we weren’t on the same team. Political differences were considered private choices, and (it seemed) never became sources of conflict between groups of voters. (During the Vietnam War, the conflict was primarily between protesters and the government, and generally not usually with voting blocks or party affiliations.) The class divide wasn’t a noticeable source of tension. If anything, the racial divide was much clearer then, and it wasn’t associated with politics the way it is now.

So, what has changed to aggravate the class divide in the last 40 years? I encourage you to listen to this NPR podcast for a clear perspective on the class divide. The first half is an interview with Joan Williams, author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Listen to her personal experience of the class divide. To me, her assessment is spot-on. Three things have changed: an increasing economic divide, the cultural representation of blue collar workers and the prominence of cultural elites. 

The interview reminded me why I’ve never cared for elitists. It goes back to my childhood, where that attitude would have violated a shared cultural value that blue collar work was important.

What’s the solution? One word: respect. We’re losing the ability to respect people different from us, partly (or maybe mostly) because we don’t interact with them. When we get that back we can start to address the real economic issues.

Nonprofits and the Divide

Are nonprofits immune from this cultural class divide? Can they be part of the solution? 

On the latter question: Nonprofits can and should be part of the solution. That will require leadership at a community level and an ability to bring people together. How to do it can be a series of difficult and fascinating discussions, very few of which are happening now. (I’ve been in some of them, and I’ll return to this issue in a future entry. Please send me good examples if you have them!)

Nonprofits would seem to be neutral parties in the class divide, either islands of relative tranquility, or examples of micro-bubbles – like-minded people working together without conflict. But are they? The issue of class divide within nonprofits is one we don’t hear much about.

From my consulting perspective, I often see the dynamics between staff and board. Very roughly, about one-third have healthy synergy between staff and board around the mission, operations and strategic direction. A second group, also roughly a third, has some alignment issues, but potential to resolve them within a short time period. The final third has basic misalignment between staff and board and, nearly always, little or no awareness of the class roots of this gap.

In other words, I’m suggesting that a sizable number of nonprofits may be struggling with an in-house class issue related to the country’s class issue. These organizations lack synergy between board and staff, even though the interpersonal relations between the two can be  cordial. And, while individual people usually respect others on a human level, they lack a certain trust in the others to perform their roles properly. That’s a different type of respect issue, one that no strategic plan or restructuring will solve. Further, it’s difficult to raise directly, and usually isn’t discussed at all.

One general example is board members from the corporate world that believe they know how to run operations better than an organization’s managers whom they sees as naïve do-gooders. Staff members, for their part, may see the board as detached, though well-intentioned, naïve about the realities of the nonprofit environment, and/or having suspect political values. Let’s be honest, these two stereotypes are not uncommon. The two groups likely travel in different social circles. Both have elements of elitism.

Sound familiar? 

As consultants and leaders of organizations, part of our role can be to help groups identify and address obstacles to their success. We can also help clients, staff members and volunteers see their roles in helping to mend a troubled national culture. Sometimes the hardest part is starting the change process at home.

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AuthorScott Schaffer