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Out of the Ashes

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College’s first biennial Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership (May 2013) attracted 188 entries from across the U.S. and 22 other countries. Three global prizes ($10,000) were awarded. The January issue of BeLight featured articles on two of the organizations that won awards: The Dalia Association and Language Partners. This issue features the third global prize winner: Restaurant Opportunities Center.

It was September 11, 2001, and Fekkak Mamdouh remembers having the morning off. He was to return to work that afternoon as a waiter at the Windows on the World restaurant, perched on the top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Of course, his job was the last thing on his mind as he watched the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that day. He had been in the restaurant the night before, working a late shift. He feels lucky to be alive, but mourns the loss of 73 of his fellow workers who died. More than 350 other workers at the restaurant lost their jobs.

“They were my brothers and sisters, and they died,” says Mamdouh, a native of Morocco. “I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to honor their memory. A movement was needed.”

Advocating for better pay and working conditions for his fellow restaurant workers—the bussers, wait staff, cooks, and cleaners—was the way Mamdouh and others felt they could assure that those who were lost became memorials to the betterment of all who work in food service.

Members of Restaurant Opportunities Center accept the ACSJL Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership.

Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was born. And for its effort to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers, the organization earned one of the three $10,000 awards in the 2013 Kalamazoo College Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership administered by the College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.

Mamdouh is one of ROC’s co-directors.

The restaurant industry, he says, is a behemoth in the United States economy (employing 10 million workers) and one of the only industries that grew during the Great Recession. It’s also home to seven of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America, including the two absolute lowest.

Restaurant servers in the U.S. have three times the poverty rate of other Americans and use food stamps at double the rate of their fellow workers across the nation. It is not uncommon, says Mamdouh, to find restaurant workers around the nation who are homeless.

The issues don’t end there, he adds. Ninety percent of workers in the industry have jobs with no paid sick days, and two-thirds admit to working while sick. Matters of race and class also abound. Workers of color earn on average $4 less than their white counterparts and are often segregated from the best paying jobs at restaurants. Many wait-staff work for much less than minimum wage, averaging about $2.13 and hour.

“It’s usually like this: ‘If you don’t like the job, if you have a problem with what’s gong on, then go home. We can replace you,’” Mamdouh says. “That’s the way a lot of owners approach things. But we have a right to a fair, equal, and dignified workplace.”

We are fighting the good fight.

In response to these challenges to fairness and equality, ROC organizes around three strategies: 1) Foster workplace justice campaigns that develop leadership skills of workers at high-profile restaurant companies to win policy changes and economic benefits; 2) Promote companies that are taking the “high road,” providing their employees with better wages and benefits than the industry standards; and 3) Support national research and policy development, that becomes the basis for local, state, and federal policy.

ROC has grown rapidly in New York City and across the country. It now counts more than 10,000 members in more than two dozen U.S. cities, and has chapters in Canada and Japan. During the next five years, they hope to count two million members in their ranks.

“This Global Prize from Kalamazoo College makes us more well-known. It increases our exposure,” Mamdouh says. “It’s going to help us a lot, and we can use it as leverage for more fundraising. But it’s more than money. It’s recognition by a wonderful organization that we are fighting the good fight.”

“We are growing leaps and bounds,” he adds, “But there are always struggles to overcome.”

In many ways, it starts with the consumer. No one would want a sick person cooking their food or a wait staff member berated and humiliated by their manager, then asked to put on a happy face, according to Mamdouh.

“Ten years ago no one cared about free-range this or organic that. Now people demand it. They can demand the same of restaurant owners, that they treat their employees with dignity.”

Restaurant Opportunities Limited has helped open restaurants under the nameplate “Colors” in New York City that is worker-owned and operated, serving as a positive, supportive learning environment for those who want to enter the restaurant industry. But the well-regarded restaurants also are destinations where customers can see how workers are supposed to be treated.

“Come down and see how it’s supposed to work,” Mamdouh says. “The food’s pretty good, too.”

Ghost Voice

You know you want to. Go ahead, do it. Just don’t get caught.

Sneak into your sister’s room while she’s out to the party, fish under her fluffy ruffled pillow—and there it is, with its tiny gold key attached by a thin orange and black ribbon. Read her diary under the bedcovers at night, using a flashlight to skim her rounded handwriting. All her secrets …

A picture of Claire Wight Payne from the scrapbook of her classmate, Lydia Buttolph ’16.

It’s a lot like that. Only these diaries are one hundred years old, they’re available online, and the girl sharing her secrets on the written page is Claire Wight, Kalamazoo College Class of 1916. She’s a student (and athlete) at K, walking the Quad with her boyfriend Ralph, tennis racket under her arm, telling him how she’s pretty darn sure that “Tuffy,” her math professor, is going to flunk her this time.

Some things change and some never do.

The diaries, nine of which may be viewed by appointment at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, are dated between 1909 and 1938. In 1909, Claire Wight is 15 years old and attends Kalamazoo Central High School. “Mamma gave me a lovely new diary,” she writes. And she writes in her diary most every single day.

“She’s at the stage of figuring out who she is, what love is, what she wants to do with her life,” says Lisa Murphy ‘98, College archivist at Upjohn Library Commons. Wight’s diary entries about her years  at K begin with 1913. Her entries for the year 1912, when she was a freshman in the fall, are missing.

September 17, 1913:

“College opens! It seemed good to see all the students back and it was regular ‘pandemonium’ with them all talking at once.  I have a very stiff program. The hardest there is and I don’t know how I will come out with it. I have 7:55 math, 9:15 german 10:15 public speaking, 11:15 history 1:30 Chemistry besides Lab work gymnasium etc. I have Prof. Williams, Prof Bacon, Prof Dagistan, Dr. Balch, Prof Smith, This P.M.  E & I went down town and got our books then came home & went over to the gymnasium & practiced tennis against the brick wall Oh I hope I can beat Miss Gregg, It was quite fun watching the Freshmen and helping them out of their dilemas [sic]. This evening I studied a while then Ralph & I went walking through town out onto East Main got some ice cream & candy then came home.”

Murphy has been in close contact with Paula Metzner, assistant director for collection and exhibit services, who has been meticulously transcribing the diaries to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum website, entry by entry, with spelling and grammar mistakes intact for authenticity. In the Kalamazoo College archives (third floor of Upjohn Library Commons) are collections of photographs, programs, notes and various mementos from Claire Wight and from her school years at K in general.

Reading these diaries is a great way to get an idea what K was like a century ago.

“Claire Wight was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Rev. Wallace Wight, who also went to K and graduated in 1892,” says Murphy. “The Baptist roots of Kalamazoo College were very strong during that time, so it makes sense that she came here. Women had few career choices back then—maybe teachers or nurses—but a minister would have thought it was important for a young woman to be educated.”

Students back then, explains Murphy, would not have declared majors and minors, but rather designated a course of studies. It appears Claire Wight studied chemistry along with Latin and German, and other general courses, including what was then known as “hygiene class.”

“Hygiene class promoted health and efficiency,” says Murphy. “It would have included gymnastics, dancing, graded physical training, and games.”

Claire Wight ’16 donated her many MIAA tennis medals to the K archives.

Wight made her mark most, however, in tennis. She won eight MIAA medals in Tennis Women’s Singles throughout her years at K, one silver and seven gold, all but one of which are in Kalamazoo College archives. She credited her father with teaching her how to play and notes elsewhere that he was “an instigator” of building the tennis courts at Kalamazoo College.

Lillian Claire Wight was born in South Dakota in 1894, but moved to Kalamazoo, where she lived on Ingleside Terrace with her parents when her father was appointed to minister at First Baptist Church and later Bethel Baptist Church.

“Women lived in the Ladies’ Hall at that time,” says Murphy, “but Claire would have lived at home since she was from Kalamazoo. The men lived at Upper Hall.”

During Wight’s years at K, Herbert Lee Stetson was president; she writes in her diary at times about her friendship with his daughter, Elizabeth, who was also a student at that time. The student body included 253 students; some 22 were women members of the senior class. A master’s program was available, but with only one graduate student attending. Two students from Egypt attended Kalamazoo College during the same years.

“Reading these diaries is a great way to get an idea what K was like a century ago,” Murphy smiles. “I can identify with some of the pressure she feels about doing well in class, her panic over exams, and how busy she is. Like Claire, I had a professor tell me that I can do better.”

In an entry dated December 6, 1913, Claire writes:

Claire often alluded to her math professor, C.B . Williams, as “Tuffy” in her diary entries.

“Well diary I’m going to College and we do have the parties and spreads and receptions and stunts that you read about and I guess I’m in my share all right but somehow it’s different from what I supposed it would be. I think the books of college stories hide the hard work of college life too much because really most of the time we’re working away at our books and recitations and then too [it] isn’t just having a banquet but we have to get busy and wash the dishes same as ever and sometimes I get so tired out that I feel like the old woman… but I love college just the same and we do have grand times.”

All in all, Claire seems to have done well in her studies, although she was not beyond playing occasional hooky. She was also apparently popular with the boys, although one in particular, Ralph Payne ’15, was most attentive and persistent. Claire wrote about his frequent attentions, as he often asked her to go walking with him, or to attend various events or parties.

“She kept writing in her diary that she had doubts about her feelings for Ralph,” Murphy concedes, “but as often as she went walking with other boys, she kept coming back to Ralph. Eventually, in July 1917, she married him, and she writes in a note later that they had a good marriage for 59 years.”

The diaries illustrate a time very different from today in terms of women’s rights and choices of lifestyle. Claire writes on February 11, 1914:

“This evening Helen and I and Mother and Gene & Mrs. Weaver went to a woman’s meeting at the 1st Baptist Church and heard Evangelist Drum speak on the subject ‘How to chose[sic] a husband.’ It was a fine address but I thought it was more of a womans duty than a man’s to talk of such things and while the address was helpful and good I wish a woman had given it. I’ll jot down some of the points that appealed to me. Have the home tidy when your husband returns. Always be tidily dressed and dress young and wear a bit of color. Get what you want done by your husband by indirect suggestion. Don’t tell your Mother the faults of your husband. After the lecture Mother & Helen & I stayed down town to see the new gas lighting system, chester lights, turned on. It was beautiful and a pine tree in the park was all wired with red, white and blue lights and flooded with water so it was just a mass of sparkling icy crystals when it was turned on   the display of soft and sparkling light was beautiful and wonderful.”

While writing that she worried if it was “sinful” to attend the theatre, Wight several times remarks, “but it doesn’t feel sinful.” She took roles in several plays staged at Kalamazoo College. Murphy has found her name listed on theatre programs, including playing the part of Queen Elinor in a production of “Sherwood” in 1916, staged in the woods rather than on a stage.

In an alumni survey, to the question “Who was the most significant and influential College person in your own Kalamazoo College experience?” Wight answered: Lemuel Fish Smith, a chemistry professor.  She writes of other transformative experiences, too, such as hearing Helen Keller speak, attending many concerts, and enjoying many cherished friendships with fellow students.  And pranks, too …Wight relishes writing about freshman boys who crawl through stealthily opened windows to steal ice cream from school freezers, and sophomore girls who sneak into the dorm rooms of freshmen girls to steal all of their clothes.