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Finding Joy in Solidarity: A Conversation Reflecting on Student Protest

Opinion | April 8, 2019

On March 5, 2019, the Tufts Dining Action Coalition’s (TDAC) picket in support of dining hall workers made Tufts history. With over 1,200 students, workers, faculty, community members, and staff from Boston’s food service and hospitality workers union, UNITE HERE Local 26 in attendance, the demonstration was the largest ever seen at Tufts. In the days and weeks following the event, I’ve found myself discussing the experience and its implications constantly with my peers—a process made possible by the massive, unprecedented turnout.  

Talking to friends after the picket, I found an interesting common sentiment emerging in nearly every exchange: joy. People expressed feelings of excitement and community, labeled the protest (sometimes somewhat hesitantly) as “fun,” often accompanied by expressions of personal confusion at this feeling (“I feel like protests aren’t *supposed* to be ‘fun’… but I don’t know, I was just having a blast!”). While these descriptions were all fitting with my own experience, I found them inherently at odds with almost all of the previous protests I had attended. In attempting to make sense of my experiences, I began to reflect on my past connection to protest and to evaluate the factors at play in setting the TDAC picket so distinctly apart.

I grew up a block from Union Square in Manhattan, a park known for its long history as a site of protest and political organizing. For much of my childhood my main associations with protest were ones of frustration: my parents would complain about the noise and police presence while simultaneously undermining the efforts of whoever was choosing our neighborhood as their site of demonstration by lamenting the inefficiency of protest as a political action. Growing up around these opinions (which were almost always invoked in response to the near-constant presence of protest in our daily lives), they soon became ingrained in my political ideology, and I quickly assumed a rather cynical outlook.  

When Occupy Wall Street protestors flooded our neighborhood in 2011 and some of my friends flirted with our newly minted, eighth grade freedom by attending actions, I kept my distance and secretly looked down on them for their naivete. I associated the movement with disorganization and confusion, descriptors which I still think are apt despite their obviously inability to fully encapsulate the campaign, but now I also associate the movement with radical community and solidarity.

The first protest I attended on my own was a Black Lives Matters protest in 2014. I remember walking up the West Side highway with my friends (many of the most heavily trafficked areas in the city had shut down completely for the protest), flooded with adrenaline and in complete awe of the size of the crowd in which I found myself submerged. The chants were angry and intensely provocative as they were shouted by thousands in choppy unison, and the current running through the crowd felt similarly charged with undeniable intensity.  

Now, five years later, the dining protest felt entirely different. Members of Tufts BEATS marched alongside us, providing rhythmic accompaniment to chants led by TDAC organizers wearing bright yellow vests and brandishing megaphones. Almost every one of the 1,000 plus individuals who showed up were given picket signs bearing the slogans “One Job Should Be Enough” and “UNITE HERE Local 26” to hold and wave upon their arrival, drawing in newcomers instantaneously. The Residential Quad was transformed into a sea of picket signs and homemade posters raised high in the late afternoon light. People were laughing and smiling, welcoming late-arriving friends to their ranks and linking arms as they marched in a continuous circle outside of Carmichael Hall.  

The Friday following the picket, March 15, dining workers voted almost unanimously in favor of authorizing a strike to ramp up administrative pressure on contract negotiations. The Tuesday after we returned from spring break, on March 26, an “Urgent Community Meeting” was held to discuss what a dining workers’ strike would actually look like and the actions that students and allies could continue to take in support of our workers. And on Thursday, March 28, I sat down with Noah Harris, a Tufts Senior and long-time organizer with Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) to discuss the picket, the movement, and the future of the dining workers.  

Sasha Hulkower: So the first thing I’m curious about is your perspective of the demonstration as one of the organizers. How did you feel while organizing it?

Noah Harris: It was really energizing for me. It’s a beautiful feeling to feel at the end of an action like that––I left feeling like I had so much more energy to pour into this campaign and feeling inspired to keep doing this work. And it’s great to hear that other people were inspired, too.

SH: I felt like there was such a common energy. Many people stayed from beginning to end and were so involved and clearly looking for more ways to get involved. What were other organizers’ feelings and experiences like?

NH: Yeah, TDAC debriefed the next night and a lot of similar sentiments were expressed. It was really emotional. For a lot of people there was this sentiment of like, ‘Wow, we’re so inspired by this community.’ It was amazing that so many students showed up in the way that they did, and I think it made a lot of folks feel really confident in the energy surrounding this campaign.

SH: I definitely also want to credit you guys (TDAC) with so much of that. What was the planning process for the picket like? I know that you went around to so many people individually to confirm attendance in-person and made all of these really personalized actions. From the beginning of the movement, for me at least, it has felt really personal since it is so close to home, [and] since it’s about people that you see every day and, to varying degrees, develop bonds with… and then moving that sense of closeness over to the organizing side of it, did that feel like an intentional move on your part?

NH: Yeah for sure—I mean, that’s the model we use. Before actions, we sit down with people in our communities and people in our networks and we all have a conversation in which we say why this is something that we care about so much and ask the person we’re talking with explicitly whether or not they can come, and making it clear that we’re expecting them to be there if they say they’re gonna be there.

SH: What did you learn from following this model of individual-based meetings?

NH: I’ve learned so much from that experience––just about how we can build community and build a movement, and how much of a difference it makes in terms of getting people to show up if you just sit down with them and explain that this is why it matters and that this is why you care. And it’s so cool, hearing what you’re saying, that it makes you feel like you have a big stake in it too, and makes you want to show up more, which is totally the goal. I’m curious to hear from you though, like why do you think it matters that people left the picket with those feelings [i.e. joy]? Or do you have any thoughts about why it felt that way?

SH: I mean for me it was such a unique experience because I’ve never been involved in the organizing process at Tufts, and only started showing up more consistently for actions within the past year or so. I think a large part of that is probably due to my childhood perception that it didn’t really matter… Organizing with dining hall workers made me feel like I had the ability to actually make a difference compared to the much larger, less personal, and less organized protests that I’d been to in the past. I would often feel jaded, where it’s like, ‘Yeah I can show up and I know that this matters and that numbers matter.’ And there is a very different kind of power in a space like that, being surrounded by literally thousands or hundreds of thousands of people.

NH: Do you feel like that familiarity contributed to the campaign’s success?

SH: Yeah, absolutely. Being in this space where you can look around and recognize 80 percent of the faces both showing up in support and those that you’re showing up in support of––there’s something really special about having this smaller scale situation where you can see the outcomes of your action more clearly and directly, especially as someone who’s about to graduate and re-enter those much larger spaces. It teaches you about perceiving and enacting change on a smaller scale which helps it translate to those larger spaces I think. It feels a lot more tangible on this level.

NH: That’s awesome, that’s super cool. I would add also that this campaign has been really challenging, especially with negotiations. The University has been disrespectful. It’s been a year of negotiating. The University has the capacity to meet these demands and has refused. It was incredibly frustrating.

SH: How do you feel like you’ve managed to keep up morale throughout the campaign? Have there been specific efforts surrounding that or is it more of just a convenient byproduct type of situation?

NH: Well, workers are organizing workers and students are organizing students. It’s a worker organized campaign so that’s where the movement has really been coming from. In terms of the student campaign and morale, just having support for each other, directing our energy towards turning people out for actions, and giving it as much as we can as a group, knowing that none of us are doing this alone. Not even just in terms of the TDAC organizers, but everyone who’s been showing up for actions, we’re all doing it together. It’s not like any one of us is alone, and that’s amazing.

SH: Yeah I so agree. I loved the idea that was brought up in the meeting on Tuesday about having Community Meals in the event of a strike, and having those be spaces for solidarity and community and support. Could you talk more about community empowerment and avoiding burnout? Has there been anything that’s helpful for you outside of the protests and actions that has kept up your morale?

NH: Yeah, just reminding myself that showing up to actions really does matter. It’s not just an, ‘Oh I could show up, but also I might not…’ at least for me, I mean. It makes such a huge difference in terms of supporting the workers and showing the university that the students are in full support of the workers, and that students aren’t taking breaks from the campaign, losing interest, or losing energy. Knowing that does matter––that keeps negotiations moving forward and boosts morale for the community.

SH: The idea of having social spaces in tandem with political spaces is also really interesting to me and feels really important. Having something more than just like, ‘Oh hey! I saw you at the protest, let’s chat about it for a few seconds,’ and instead, saying, ‘Ok we’re going to this protest and then we’re gonna make a meal together and talk about the experience.’ Like making an intentional effort to give ourselves the space to interact and think about it in person.

NH: And did you feel like you had that?

SH: Yeah, I did! Not intentionally though. I didn’t go to the protest with the plan of coming home afterwards and having a ‘community meal’ per se, but I just happened to leave with a friend and then go back to my house and make dinner and kind of debrief the event, which felt really good. And also just smaller conversations over the next couple of days––or even during the protest itself.  

NH: That’s awesome. We’re definitely going to be emphasizing that sense of support and community if the workers decide to strike, so hearing that people are already feeling that is really cool.

SH: Do you have any updates you can share about how things have been going?

NH: Well, nothing I can share, but I can say that things will become a lot more clear in the next couple of days––be sure to keep an eye out on the TDAC page for updates and ways to help out!

SH: Amazing. Thank you so much for sitting down with me and good luck with everything.

Moving Forward:

Two days after we spoke, on Saturday, March 30, the dining workers reached a resolution on their contract and put an end to a year of negotiations. Though this was a challenging year  during which dining workers continued to face workplace harassment, unfair conditions, and continuous disrespect from an administration unwilling to meet their demands, the campaign was bolstered by unwavering support from students. The personal nature of the movement contributed to its success––these are individuals who care for us on a daily basis, transforming Tufts into a home away from home for many.