Updated at 4:19 p.m. on Oct. 22, 2021
Student protesters on Thursday evening focused on a single unifying question: “Does Brown care?” to which they chanted a resounding “No!”
Further calls of “CPax, can you hear us,” “Overworked, understaffed” and “Say it loud, say it clear, we want fair wages here,” echoed across the Main Green, down Brown Street and onto Power Street as a large crowd marched to Gardner Jackson Park, across the street from upscale Italian restaurant Bacaro where Corporation members were believed to be meeting.
The protesters were participating in a sit-in organized by the student group Better Brown Now, which is among various student organizations calling for action from President Christina Paxson P’19, the University administration and the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — in response to an Oct. 3 Herald article detailing poor working conditions faced by Brown Dining Services employees.
The sit-in began around 5:30 p.m. outside of Friedman Hall, where a crowd of sign-carrying students packed together and chanted their demands of the University. The goal of the protest was to capture the attention of Corporation members, who the organizers had learned were meeting inside of Friedman. The few Corporation members who walked past the protesters were met with a shower of boos; others entered Friedman through the side door, according to the event organizers.
About a dozen Corporation members were meeting at 6 p.m. inside Friedman to participate in student discussions, which take place each October, Senior Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt wrote in a Friday email to The Herald.
Not long after 6 p.m., the organizers told the crowd that Corporation members were gathering at Bacaro, located about a half mile away on South Water Street. The Better Brown Now organizers partnered with the leaders of #DoesBrownCare, a coalition of 18 student groups led by Brown Democrats, to head the march to Bacaro. The crowd walked from Friedman to Bacaro, echoing chants ranging from “All across Providence, fair wages for all of us” to “Treat them fairly” to “Whose pockets are you lining, pay your dining?” to “CPax: Resign.”
The crowd ultimately assembled across the street from the restaurant at Gardner Jackson Park, continuing their chants directed at Paxson and the Corporation, whom they believed to be inside the restaurant.
At two different times, Bacaro employees crossed the street to speak to the event organizers and inform them that the restaurant would not be attempting to compel them to leave. They also informed the organizers that Paxson had ordered 20 pizzas for the student protesters. According to @betterbrownnow on Instagram, an account run by the organizers, the 20 pizzas that were supposedly ordered never arrived.
Organizers considered the reported decision to order pizza for the protesters a hollow gesture. Paxson “bought 20 pizzas when that money could be put to way better use,” Better Brown Now organizer Lauren Griffiths '24 said.
Paxson did not order pizzas, according to Cliatt.
“Brown is a learning community where individuals hold and express a wide range of views,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “Each of us as members is free to debate and protest while respecting the freedom of others to disagree.”
Better Brown Now organizers Zoë Fuad ’23.5, Jada Wooten ’24 and Griffiths spoke to The Herald about their motivation and aims in planning the sit-in.
“The Brown Daily Herald article about the conditions (dining) workers are facing — particularly how they’re understaffed, how equipment is not being replaced (and) how there are some things that are not following sanitation protocol — was really kind of the last straw for us. We had been doing research throughout the summer about students’ experiences with COVID, looking specifically at how dining, ResLife, (Counseling and Psychological Services) and financial aid negatively impacts students’ health and well-being, which was already worsened because of the pandemic,” Wooten said. “Seeing also how these same conditions are affecting staffers in the Brown dining halls made us realize that the system is not only harming students but also harming staff. That was our inspiration to organize.”
Fuad added that “it has really been the cumulative efforts of a huge coalition of groups, and that final BDH article was really just the straw that broke the camel’s back. This anger has been building up all summer (and) students really want to say something. All we’re doing is providing them an opportunity to do so.”
In an Oct. 22 op-ed for The Herald, Vice President of Dining Services George Barboza wrote that by the end of this week, BDS “will be at a 93% filled staffing rate.” He noted that the University recently purchased $300,000 in new equipment and created a new role in BDS focused specifically on facilities and equipment. “Across everything we do, safety and hygiene are our top priorities,” he wrote, adding that “our employees are valued and important members of the dining family whose voices, ideas and concerns are critical to our success.”
The organizers emphasized that, upon learning of the Corporation meeting, they were especially motivated to take action. “When we looked into it and figured out how this could really be used as an opportunity to leverage the voices of the dining workers, we really wanted to take it on,” Griffiths said.
The organizers received an outpouring of support, according to Fuad. “A lot of students were already ready to say something,” she said, adding that within a day of spreading information about the demonstration on social media, the group received nearly 100 responses. “So many communities within this school are already so upset and talking amongst themselves about what they want to do to make change.”
Ultimately, the organizers hope that this will provide an opportunity for cooperation between student leaders and University administration. “We want to take a collaborative approach to this. We think that everyone has really the best interests at heart for this community: for students and for our staff,” Fuad said. “We hope that by bringing people together, we’re making a statement that shows we want things to change. We believe that we can work with those in charge and in power right now to really bring about that change.”
The organizers acknowledged that immediate change is difficult to achieve, but they hope that the University will begin to address the issue. “We are hoping for a response from Dining or from the administration to The Brown Daily Herald article,” Wooten said. She also hopes the University will “allow a forum to begin outlining ways to improve the conditions for workers.”
Wooten attributed much of her motivation for marching to Bacaro to her disappointment with the Corporation’s lack of engagement with the protesters. “I went in thinking that we’ll use this action (as) a starting point for conversations. It was kind of clear (the Corporation) didn’t want to engage with us,” she said. Upon hearing that some Corporation members may have been at Bacaro, she “just really wanted to be heard. I really kind of wanted to disrupt the conversation.”
Matthew Rauschenbach ’23, one of the leaders of the #DoesBrownCare coalition, echoed Wooten’s sentiments. When the group heard about the Corporation’s possible move to Bacaro, “we decided that the whole (goal) was (to) make them hear our voices here,” Rauschenbach said.
For Wooten, the Corporation’s possible meeting at Bacaro reflected how out of touch it is with the issues students and employees face. “It’s telling that when they did move, (they didn’t) move into one of the Brown dining halls,” Wooten said. “They’re clearly not seeing the conditions that workers face or students experience. They moved into one of the nicest restaurants in Providence.”
"The dinner at Bacaro, which was not funded by the University, was a regular part of the schedule for the full Corporation, and it was not an impromptu 'move,'" Cliatt wrote. "The greater Corporation already was scheduled to be there for an informal dinner."
While he was also critical of the Corporation, organizer Shazain Khan ’24 called on students themselves to do more to support Dining Services workers. “It is the fault of the Corporation (for) not foreseeing this problem and not taking care of it, but students also have to do our part,” he said. “Demonstrating is a great first step, but we have to be involved at the dining halls. We have to support our dining hall workers. They’re severely understaffed, on the student side and on the normal staff side, so we need to show them kindness (and) we need to show them that we are there for them.”
Rauschenbach, who wrote an Oct. 3 op-ed critical of the University’s response to dining worker conditions for The Herald, believes that conditions are favorable for Brown to respond to student activism with immediate changes. “The University has become accustomed to pretending like what we’re saying doesn’t matter. I think that this time is going to be different because they are renegotiating the union contract. We are in this kind of pandemic transition to a new economy where workers are saying, ‘We’re tired of bad conditions,’” he said. “This is the moment we have to capitalize on to make sure that we improve the biggest issues: the conditions (and) the communication.” He added that wages are another major issue, but one that he hopes will be addressed in contract negotiations.
BDS’s contract, which was negotiated three years ago, will expire Nov. 1, The Herald previously reported.
Ellis Ward ’24 specifically cited the conditions faced by dining workers detailed in The Herald as his reason for attending the protest. “But also, I do know some of the Brown Dining Services staff personally, and I listened to their stories,” he said. “They’re completely overwhelmed and they don’t have the support that they need.”
Ward also hopes that the University will take action to improve the day-to-day conditions of dining workers. “We want the University to raise wages for Brown dining staff and to address the equipment shortages and (the) shortage of workers,” he said.
For attendee Isabella Garo ’24, the protest was deeply personal. “I come from a Latino working-class family. I busted ass to get into this school, and I was told that Brown University was an institution that fought for people like me from my community,” she said. “To get to Brown and see the dining staff — who are largely Latino and Black, like myself — being overworked and underpaid was just like a huge slap in the face. It just showed me that I don’t belong here and was not ever intended to be in a place like this.”
Garo’s main request of the Brown administration was a simple one: “Empathy.”
“I’d like to see that actual connection finally happen and for (the University) to actually do something instead of just this performative, empty promises bullsh*t that’s been happening this whole time,” she said.
Fellow protest attendee Oren Kohavi ’24 hoped to see tangible change, including improved transparency and communication, on the part of the administration. “What it feels like right now is like the student body is just like this nameless mass that the administration just needs to calm down instead of actually addressing their concerns,” he said. “The other thing I want to see is genuine effort. I want the administration to tell us concrete steps.”
Anne-Emilie Rouffiac ’24 also attended because she wanted to see improved conditions for dining workers. “I’d love to see (the Brown administration) make concrete changes … to ensure that every member of our community is valued, because they always say that they are doing just that.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article implied that the Corporation was meeting formally in Friedman. In fact, about a dozen Corporation members were participating in student discussions in Friedman.
Peter Swope is the senior editor of digital engagement for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. He previously served as a Sports section editor and has also written stories for University News. Peter is a senior from New Jersey studying history.