Editor’s note: This letter is in response to The Daily Northwestern’s Nov. 9 editorial, “Living Wage Campaign wrong for Northwestern.”
For the past year, the Living Wage Campaign has been changing the culture of Northwestern’s campus, challenging the divide that has surely long existed between students and service workers here. We’ve been changing the culture by listening, by learning, not only from our professors but also from the people who cook our meals and clean our dorms.
What we’ve learned motivates us to continue to fight for change. The Daily editorial board is not going to dampen that resolve.
When The Daily editorial criticizes us for relying on the emotional, we assume that they refer to the stories of workers’ lives. In that case, the emotional is the only fact on the table here. Everything else is hypothetical. The indisputable facts are found in the conditions campus workers live in every day. It’s the facts that make us emotional, that indeed make us angry. There is poverty on our campus and the university could end it. This isn’t a theoretical academic problem in our classroom, it’s real life. It’s our campus, it’s the person who just made our lunch.
From listening to workers we know that they don’t want to be stuck on food stamps their whole lives — we find The Daily’s notion that workers shouldn’t get a living wage because then they wouldn’t qualify for food stamps to be insensitive at best. Meanwhile, the suggestion to focus on getting workers better skills ignores a couple other key facts — the workers have skills, and even if they had the time to learn others while struggling to pay the bills and often working multiple jobs, there will always be workers feeding students on campus. We believe those workers should not live in poverty.
Certainly the kinds of service programs The Daily discusses are important, but Northwestern can do better. Not until this campaign raised the issue last winter did any discussion or awareness about the poverty that exists on our own campus exist. Only after over 400 students, workers, faculty, staff and community members rallied outside President Schapiro’s office did the university agree to extend basic community benefits like library privileges, parking at Ryan Field, and help for connecting workers to local organizations that do tax filing. The fact is the administration knows little about the workers on this campus because they do not see it as a priority. These community benefits would never have been realized for janitors at SPAC, Patten and Blomquist without our campaign because the university administrators who oversee those subcontracts didn’t even know they exist. Connecting workers to benefits, opportunities and programs goes hand in hand with paying workers a living wage.
There are great programs that help disadvantaged communities. These services are great band-aids, but they simply treat symptoms of poverty. We would know. Our campaign grew out of the Northwestern Community Development Corps (NCDC), one of the largest community service organizations on campus, with over two dozen direct service sites throughout Evanston and Chicago that hundreds of us, Northwestern students, volunteer at every day. Our struggle grew out of the Freshman Urban Program (FUP), which brings over eighty freshmen to Chicago neighborhoods that are not as privileged as Northwestern, not full of professors, but still rich with energy, culture and knowledge for us to learn from. Our campaign grew out of For Members Only (FMO), because too often the most familiar older faces black students see on our campus that resembles our diverse families and communities are dining hall workers and janitors. It came from Alianza, as we watched in disgust as our provost and university vice president sent an email to the entire Northwestern community last fall explaining that they would work to purge our community of staff who may be undocumented immigrants, instead of embracing diversity.
During the Freshman Urban Program last fall, we met with Julian Lazalde, a community organizer in Pilsen. Julian challenged us: he told us it was great that we volunteered once a year in Pilsen, the West Side and the South Side, but that the people who live there work at places like Northwestern. He asked us how many of us know the food service workers and janitors on campus, and whether Northwestern paid them a living wage? We came back and we found out.
As we contemplate our movement on campus at this moment, we wonder how many Southern newspaper editorial pages endorsed the Civil Rights Movement. They probably offered more effective ways to help black people. Frederick Douglass once said that “if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
We challenge The Daily and Northwestern to choose what type of community, and what type of world, we want to live in. Do we want to live in, and be known as, a country club university, or do we stand for fairness and justice?
We challenge Northwestern as we have challenged ourselves: to really get to know the workers on campus. When you do that, see if you still could look any one of them in the eye and say: “I think you really shouldn’t get a raise.” We can argue all the economics, but this is about looking at campus workers as equals, and treating them and paying them accordingly.
Adam Yalowitz, Kellyn Lewis and Maggie Birkel
co-directors, Living Wage Campaign