Outside a fancy lounge in downtown Minneapolis, I duck behind a marble column and change my winter boots to dress shoes. I breathe heavily, having booked it from the lightrail, and bend to notice the crack along the front of my right shoe.
I have researched the people I am about to meet inside, because that it is what fundraisers do. The people have Ivy League educations, wear neutral tones, and speak in low, even keeled voices. I prefer jewel tones, no one researched my public school education before this meeting, and my voice is a product of a confusing mix of messages about who a working class woman is to be: a fighter, strong, and also vulnerable to the whims of men around her, suddenly cut off and quiet.
My brain imagines a distracting juxtaposition, taking these paper doll characters out of the fancy lounge and transplanting them to a garage on a gravel road in Iowa, where I was a few days ago, where we slurped Bud Light and discussed how long a family friend has been sentenced to prison. What’s it like visiting him in the county jail. How he’s scared he’ll go back to meth in prison, because it’s easier to get there than it was on the outside.
In my imagination, the paper doll characters don’t know where to put their shoes. They are patent leather and full of gravel dust. Their Louboutin red soles blink Morse code distress signals from a sea of construction boots and Carhartt overalls.
This helps me somehow, knowing they would feel out of place with my people, but there’s an underlying insecurity there on my part – insecurity that I don’t belong either place, really. That if either saw the other setting, the jig would be up. I would be exposed as the imposter, hints of which have been seen already. Not having anything to contribute to talks of boat culture on the river. Or yacht culture on the lake.
Choosing fundraising as a career regularly highlights the chasm between my roots and the gatekeepers to money. In prep for an YNPN Emerging Leaders Networking (ELN) event on the subject of class dynamics of fundraising a few weeks ago, I tried to research existing work on the topic, and sadly enough, there isn’t much to read out there. (The welcome exception I know of is the Headwaters Foundation for Justice’s Giving Project, which brings together a multi-racial, cross-class group of people who are passionate about social change to raise and grant money.)
I’ll be honest; part of my exploration of the topic of class is rooted in resentment – of power, institutions, and struggles made soft by money. During the ELN, I brought up code-switching and how I feel inauthentic switching between the speech I use for my colleagues with graduate degrees and the words I use with my friends who didn’t graduate high school.
And then, Tenzin Kunsal shared her insights, which I asked her to re-create for this blog. Tenzin described her intentionality in sprinkling aspects of her identity throughout conversations, and for her, that helps the code-switching feel more authentic.
“Code switching can be an exhausting act of survival for those who are not a part of the dominant culture. However, sometimes, code switching is not about being fake. It's about highlighting certain parts of your identity based on the situation you are in – as long as you acknowledge the multifaceted nature of your identity. This is what I’ve come to believe as I’ve started to accept that my multicultural identity does not fit neatly in just one box.”
Tenzin is very wise.
I haven’t yet arrived at my conclusions on the class dynamics of fundraising, but her insight helped me value the abilities my code-switching gives me: to shed light on struggle, to quickly adapt to a variety of situations, and to speak with a variety of audiences in mind.
If you’d like to do your own reflection, I’ve listed some questions here. Feel free to comment below if you’d like to share.
- Think about a time in your fundraising career when you felt your experience of class deeply or felt different from others.
- Fundraising involves frequent discussion of money, a topic that can be laced with fear and shame. How comfortable are you talking about money?
- What’s an example of code-switching in your life?
- When have you felt authentic in fundraising? When have you felt least authentic?
- If someone with a similar class background to your own was just starting out in fundraising and asked for your advice, what would you say to them?