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R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Leo’s Workers and their Fight for Fair Treatment

How often have you trudged into Leo’s, backpack laden with books and a clunky laptop, shoulders sagging with the weight of an entire semester’s worth of work and extra-curricular activities? At this point, you aren’t paying too much attention as you thrust your GOcard into the hands of the Leo’s worker at the entrance, avoiding any eye contact and pleasantries since the only thing on your mind is wolfing down a hot stir-fry before you go back to studying. How frequently do you pause to reflect on the experiences and working conditions of those who clean up after you in your dorms when you rush past them on the way to catch the latest episode of Scandal? Surely, many of us can attest to the fact that we don’t consider these things very often. After all, the life of a Georgetown student can be very stressful, and broad issues of social justice and human rights may not cross your mind unless you were in some way directly involved in such work.

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Crestwell and Smith addressing the audience

“Behind the Kitchen Doors: a Conversation with Leo’s Workers”, held on Tuesday, October 8th formed part of the effort to inform students about the ongoing efforts to ensure justice for dining services workers as well as to challenge students to harness the power they have to effect change. GUSA in collaboration with the Kalmanovitz Initiative, BSA, CCC, MECha and the NAACP hosted this event that brought Tarshea Smith and Donte Crestwell, two individuals who were instrumental in the struggle to unionize dining service’s workers, to share their experiences and reflections with students.

The theme of the night was the importance of building relationships as well as the idea of agency, respect and accountability for our personal actions and those of our community as a whole. According to Crestwell, who has worked on Georgetown’s campus for about 16 years, the movement started with “One student talking to one worker.” Smith, who now works for UNITE HERE as an organizer also noted her initial surprise and confusion at the overwhelming support students demonstrated in working alongside Aramark employees to obtain humane working conditions and benefits.

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Vail Kohnert-Yount and Brittney Blakely

Vail Kohnert-Yount  (SFS ’13) who joined the Georgetown Solidarity Committee as a sophomore, highlighted the pivotal role played by students, faculty and staff in connecting with the workers and standing by them against authorities that were initially unwilling to take into consideration any of the grievances that were being brought to light. Brittney Blakely (COL ‘14) also emphasized the influence students have to propel movements for change and the importance of getting to know those members of our community who work to make our lives easier by simply acknowledging them on a personal level.

Another eye-opening aspect of the discussion was the level of mistreatment endured by workers at the hands of their supervisors, including racial slurs and intimidation. Smith recounted an incident in which a supervisor told her “We don’t fire workers, they fire themselves” in response to her pleas to be excused for missing a shift due to hospitalization. Shockingly, situations like these were everyday occurrences, taking place right underneath the noses of students and the administration.

Despite the uphill struggle towards unionization, great successes have been secured in terms of holding supervisors accountable for their actions and ensuring that the employees are treated with decency and respect. Union leaders present any shortcomings at meetings with the management and ensure that the authorities take their cases seriously. However, Crestwell noted that there are still instances of injustice occurring in the workplace, especially on shifts with newer workers.

“Behind the Kitchen Doors” was definitely a call to action for all students, making us aware of the potential we have in living up to the very ideals that our Jesuit identity is founded on, being men and women for others. Smith pointed out the power that lies in students’ hands by engaging with workers, “ Management knew from the very beginning that students were on our side. They’re so intimidated by students having a conversation with a worker, it gives us so much power.” It’s up to us to build a truly inclusive community, taking into account the needs and wellbeing of all its members. In the words of Father Kemp, who also spoke at the event; “Do we do diversity? How well do we really do diversity?”

Zoe Gadegbeku, Editor-in-Chief

Photo Credit: Zoë Epstein, Graphics and Photography Staff

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