The responsibilities of privilege: why UBDS cares about workers justice and why you should, too

It has been quite an interesting and exciting semester so far. United for Better Dining Services (UBDS) started off this spring with a powerful campaign to raise awareness of workers’ rights, especially about the conditions of Sodexo workers on campus. We triggered conversations, opened up spaces for dialogue, and invited the community to become aware of the implications (ethical, social and economical) of supporting Sodexo—a very questionable multinational corporation—on campus. Even though we think Sodexo is far from an ideal corporation, our proposal is to enact change from within. We are interested in working with Sodexo and Colby to change worker’s wages and health benefits.

We sat down with President Greene to discuss demands for better worker’s justice, and his response was surprisingly uplifting. After a few meetings, we called for a meeting with other administrative staff to discuss the issues further. We have now made a big step in our campaign, and together with the administration we are hosting an Open Forum to the whole community on April 8 to discuss worker’s conditions on campus and a budget proposal for increased workers’ wages. This is rewarding, and we are walking on the right path. We’ve engaged in serious and respectful dialogue with the administration, and we will continue to work hard to enact changes.

Beyond any political and ideological identification, UBDS is a group of privileged individuals (students and faculty) who understand the responsibility this privilege entails. Collectively we decided to work hard toward workers’ justice on campus, because we should, and we are able to. As members of UBDS explained in a previous article run by the Echo, we recognize that our commitment to voice workers’ justice does not undermine workers voices. There are power structures in place that instill fear and risks if workers voice out their concerns. Our intention is not to speak on behalf of, nor to represent workers. Instead we want to actively address a reality that is shared. We see and talk to workers everyday in the dining halls, and we know life for them is far from easy. Many workers have approached us with deep gratitude for this campaign, and can’t express enough support for a cause that aims to promote justice in their working conditions.

As a personal outflow, I must confess: I have for a long time been frustrated with the level of apathy present at Colby’s campus. I believe it is a lack of responsibility towards global citizenship that permeates such disconnect with the oppression, injustice and harm our fellow humans suffer. We have not been taught to understand ourselves in relation to the world around us. We are disconnected to harm and oppression because we don’t feel responsible for the pressing issues in the world today. But let me tell you something: we are all responsible for the disheartening reality the majority of the world lives in. Apathy is a choice, it is not a given. We can choose to change ourselves, to demand and build righteousness, or we can choose to ignore our responsibility and live happy privileged lives while many suffer under the expenses of our privilege.

Many in the world wish they had the privilege to speak out, to have the resources we have to articulate and enact change.  We study in one of the most privileged liberal arts colleges in the world, yet we neither act nor think as though we acknowledge this privilege, and that’s selfish to say the least. To have privilege is to have resources, opportunities, life styles and knowledge that the majority of the world doesn’t have access to. At Colby, we can take classes on social theory to understand the wrongdoings of colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism, yet we ignore what’s happening right here. Just look at our own lives on the Hill. There are people working and living under the same roof as us who live much harder lives than we do. Many worry about getting their paycheck at the end of the month in order to feed their families, while we stress out about finishing a paper on time or about having to walk across campus when it snows. We have access to knowledge and tools on this campus that are unimaginable for many out there.

I believe we don’t want to recognize our privilege because it’s hard. It’s hard to reconcile with the fact that we are involved in the harm done by institutions like Colby. It’s even harder to acknowledge that we reinforce and reproduce structures of power with our own life habits. If we understood ourselves as part of a big human family, we would build on our compassion and heal from our individualism. We would start caring for others as we care for ourselves.

I urge us to move beyond our comfort zones. I urge us to learn about our relationship to systems of oppression, to come to understand how our lives here reinforce the suffering of others. And more greatly, to reconcile with our privilege, to heal ourselves, to offer each other support and get real with the reality we’ve been taught to ignore. I encourage us to act as part of the problems, not as intellectuals studying them.

Members of UBDS and I humbly open ourselves to constructive dialogue. We will continue to act against injustices, and we call upon all those who understand—and those yet to understand—the responsibility that being privileged entails, to support workers’ justice.

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