One Black writer finds a connection in service staff rather than the students and faculty.
I remember walking to Plex one night and being greeted by my aunt, who sat in a corner booth. I ordered a bowl of stir-fried rice that her coworker generously overflowed with noodles and asked about her daughters and how her back is doing. She told me that her second daughter is still very picky with men and that her back hasn't felt right since the school year began.
Before her 30-minute break ended, she asked how I was doing, and I told her how hard the quarter had been. She reminded me that I can do it. Our dinners, albeit short, feel like home. I only feel this comfort when around someone who knows my experiences as a person of color on this campus.
Both of my parents work in the service industry — my dad is a taxi driver and my mother is a parking lot cashier. People who look like me dominate the industry, and sharing a racial identity with service workers allows for a connection and sense of mutual respect.
I expected Northwestern students to share my admiration for service workers, but this wasn’t as common as I hoped. To grasp this disconnect, it’s necessary to address the racial and economic disparities that exist between Northwestern’s service workers and its students.
Compass Group employees make, on average, $29,000 per year. The students they serve tend to be much wealthier: In 2014, 14 percent of Northwestern students represented the country’s top one percent (a family income of over $630,000). Only 3.7 percent of students came from families representing the bottom 20 percent income of about $20,000, according to the New York Times.
“There are a lot of rich people here ... They never had to think about service workers or what it’s like being poor,” Sharmain Siddiqui says. Siddiqui works with Students Organizing for Labor Rights (SOLR) to advocate for campus workers’ rights.
Students often view swiping into dining halls as a transaction instead of a human interaction, says second year Haku Blaisdell, rendering Northwestern's socio-economic divisions especially obvious.
“I think that is rooted in the way that we, as a society, see workers as disposable instead of as human beings,” Siddiqui adds.
Still, some employees form positive relationships with students. My aunt, Sowainesh, works for Northwestern Dining Services. The Compass Group transition has been hectic, she says, because Elder being closed for renovation crowds other dining halls.
Moments with students make the job worth it, Sowainesh says.
“I talk to them like they’re my kids,” she says. “I love them.”
Still, Sowainesh says her wage is lower than desired. Fortunately, SOLR works to protect employees from low wages and general workplace discrimination. During the January 30th extreme weather, SOLR petitioned the University to let workers stay home without dipping into sick days. They also raised $2,000 to cover transportation costs for those who trekked in.
Clear racial differences add to economic disparities between the workers and students. As of fall 2017, about 47 percent of Northwestern students identified as white. In comparison, only about 16.2 percent of American service workers were white, according to a 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
There is little minority representation in the student body, especially in contrast with the service worker population. Only 6 percent of the student body is Black and 12.5 percent is Latinx, whereas Black and Latinx representation doubles among service workers.
Haku Blaisdell says her identity as a woman of Filipino and indigenous Hawaiian background fosters a bond between her and the Northwestern staff.
“As a person of color … I feel comfortable [around them],” Blaisdell says.
Being a minority determines the reality of my Northwestern experience. I'll always be proud to share significant parts of my identity with individuals as diligent and warm as service workers.
Still, I’ll always struggle to feel valued on this campus when seeing myself most in the overlooked and under appreciated staff. Their work is indispensable to our community: they sell us desperately needed Norris meals, clear our messes and provide stability among the NU chaos.