Note: Names have been changed to protect the identities of dining hall workers, who fear retaliation from their employer. In addition, other identifying details have been kept purposefully vague.
In the spring, a lot of my friends chose to eat in Lulu on the weekends because of the famous omelet station. I usually ate in my dorm’s dining hall — partially out of pure laziness, since the walk to Lulu took a while, but also because my dorm’s dining hall was home to many friendly faces.
Whenever I entered the dining hall, I received a big wave and a smile from Mustafa. Last year, we learned that he lives down the street from my brother, and after that, we bonded over our love of the city and its food. I made my rounds and said “hi” to my friends that worked there. When grabbing pancakes and eggs, I stopped and talked to Estefani. She has kids, who are the pride and joy of her life, so she would usually tell me a story about one of them. I rounded the corner and saw Carlos, who typically talked about his love for sports or his child. With Adriana, I always got the whole scoop. Her love life, her kids, her multiple jobs — in these moments, we felt like old friends. I did not speak her language as well as I would like to, so I sometimes circumlocuted to get my point across. But I knew that my extra effort meant that she could speak freely without others listening in, which was worth it.
Many AVI Wellesley Fresh workers do not speak English as their first language. As a result, many workers develop close bonds with students with whom they can speak their preferred language. In Dec. 2019, however, staff members within one dining hall were restricted by their supervisor from speaking in a language other than English while at work. This offended, angered and frustrated many of the workers, who were much more comfortable communicating in their native tongue. A group of Wellesley students reported the news to the Title IX coordinator as an instance of discrimination.
Early last spring, I walked over to Adriana and Estefani to ask them how things were and if conditions had improved since the Dec. 2019 report. Adriana said that she had something to tell me, though not at that moment. In the time of our brief exchange, her boss circled behind her twice. She nudged me, then walked back into the kitchen.
After her boss stepped away, Adriana walked over to my table. Lowering her voice, she began expressing her concerns.
“La discriminación es diaria.” The discrimination is daily. “Can you write about this? About everything that is happening to us?”
She then explained that a few weeks prior, someone threw something at her when they were unhappy with her work.
“I can’t talk much about it now … can we meet on Monday?” I asked.
The following Monday, I met with Adriana and several other dining hall workers. When I asked about their experiences working for AVI Wellesley Fresh, both good and bad, their responses were concerning, to say the least.
“The good? The benefits. The union is a collective where everyone is friends and family,” Hugo explained. “The bad? The corruption which supports discrimination and racism. The bosses are not kind to us. They are bullies. They are hypocrites. They hate Hispanic people. They don’t like it when we listen to Spanish music.”
Hugo was joined by Carlos, who shared a similar experience with discrimination at AVI Wellesley Fresh.
“When we speak another language, we are mocked,” Carlos said.
After they described the constant discrimination that the Hispanic employees were facing, I asked if they felt that Wellesley as an institution cared about them.
“No,” Hugo began, “One man, he beat me. I reported it to the police and HR, but the report disappeared.”
Adriana placed a sympathetic hand on the table in front of Hugo. “We are tired — of all the abuse, of the discrimination … we need a break,” she explained.
When I asked about the reporting process, the harmful power structures became uncomfortably clear. Although she reported it once, Adriana is afraid to ever report again.
“I don’t feel comfortable reporting, because the person I have an issue with … I am afraid he will do something,” she continued, “He knows my last name, my address, my schedule, what my car looks like.” She described to me that while working here she lives in fear — she is afraid to walk to her car alone at night, to be alone in a room with that boss. She explained that at one point, that boss began making sexually suggestive gestures at her, but because of cultural differences, she did not understand them at first.
Despite her discomfort and fears, Adriana still shows up to work every day.
“I have to work, I have to make a living … I have three kids, and they come first. I need to provide for them, which is why I come to work everyday,” she explained. “ I care about the students here, too — taking care of them and understanding them when they need me. I try to treat them as if they were my own children. But the bosses don’t like it when I talk to the students here. When I talk to a student, the boss will circle around me two or three times, threatening me as if I’m doing something wrong. … I don’t feel safe here. Many of us don’t.”
To bring the interview to a close, I asked the group to share what they think AVI Wellesley Fresh could do to fix these issues.
“Stopping the discrimination against Hispanic people here and treating everyone the same … with respect, without yelling, without attitude, without arrogance,” Hugo said.
Estefani added, “They could support the diversity of other languages and also change the management.”
The interview concluded with sympathetic hugs. I walked back to my dorm room furious on their behalf, disappointed in the system and unsettled by Wellesley’s values as a whole.
Wellesley frames itself as a progressive institution. However, this vision of progressiveness is limited in scope. When the college touts a mission that includes words like “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion,” it fails to admit that this vision does not apply to everyone on campus. Wellesley claims to support diversity, yet it neglects to seriously address the reports of discrimination and violence raised by AVI Wellesley Fresh employees. Wellesley claims to support equity, yet it does not create a safe platform for union employees to speak of inequalities and be believed without risking their jobs. Wellesley claims to support inclusion, yet it looks the other way when union workers are restricted from speaking their native languages.
According to their employer’s webpage, AVI Wellesley Fresh is focused on “creating a warm environment where smiles and food are the focus.” However, speaking with this group revealed a shared experience that is anything but warm. “Racismo, discrimen y corrupción,” one worker told me. Racism, discrimination and corruption.
The interview left me wondering what we as students could do to show solidarity with these workers. My initial interviews began before we evacuated campus this spring. Months later, the situation still has not improved for employees. Based on my discussions, I will end by offering these suggestions to my fellow Wellesley students: To begin, I urge you to talk with the dining hall employees. Ask them how they are doing. Learn about them and their lives, rather than a simple “thank you” when receiving food. We must combat their feelings of isolation by intentionally showing them care, especially now that many are working reduced hours because of the pandemic. Secondly, we must put pressure on the higher-ups to take workplace complaints more seriously. This transition time may be an opportunity to question why Wellesley is partnered with AVI, a food service company that ignores employee misconduct allegations and partners with private prisons, among other things. We must let the administration know that students are watching. Let them know that we stand with union employees. Lastly, share this article. The workers with whom I have spoken want their voices heard.