We read profiles of students during Commencement Week, spotlight the accomplishments of alumni during Homecoming weekend, and showcase faculty work at a whole variety of lectures and events, but very rarely do we learn beyond a mere Q&A of the lives of those whose physical labor runs every aspect of Amherst College. The people behind the counters, pushing the janitor carts, sweeping the floors, scrubbing our dishes, and setting up events are individuals with aspirations, intellectual pursuits, families, and are defined by things beyond their job. These are also people, however, that carry struggles, loss, anger, and other emotions that oftentimes complicate their relationship with the institution they work for.
Earlier this past year, I had the opportunity to meet, collaborate, and, most importantly, form relationships with several staff members through the Amherst Labor Alliance (ALA), a student-staff group established at the start of the Fall 2021 semester. The group’s intentions, as the name indicates, are to demand better conditions for workers (initially, Val employees to be more specific), bring attention to the exploitative conditions that Val workers face — whether it be unwelcoming work environments or lack of benefits — and cultivate radical solidarity.
At the same time I joined this club, I was enrolled in two anthropology courses: “Feminist & Queer Ethnographies” taught by Professor of Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies Katrina Karkazis, and “Protest!” taught by Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Hannah A. Holleman and Associate Professor of Anthropology Nusrat S. Chowdhury. Both classes have helped me understand what solidarity (or radical solidarity) means in practice and informed my perspective throughout my time in ALA. The staff we support have been historically disempowered and often feel that it is unsafe to speak against unfair working conditions. As a student, I don’t experience the same working-class realities that many of the staff members in Valentine Dining Hall face. However, as a daughter of low-income Ecuadorian immigrants, it doesn’t require a lot of effort to empathize with the struggles the workers face. I relate to some of their discontent with administration and feelings of helplessness in the midst of injustice. However, I know that as a student, I have the power to use my voice to disrupt the status quo without fear of retribution (such as loss of employment) and that combined with other student voices, the voices of college staff members would be amplified and listened to for the first time.
Many posters, public demonstrations, and social media posts later, ALA has been able to recruit new students, spread awareness about labor issues, and help pressure the administration to convert casual staff positions to regular benefitted positions. However, the work of showing up to support staff members doesn’t stop even after securing many successes. There remains more work ahead to change the campus culture surrounding student-staff relationships and in order to improve labor conditions for staff beyond those working in Val. Nonetheless, the most important thing a student can do is understand that we only exist comfortably on this campus thanks to the work of other people.
My skills as an ethnographer have reminded me not only of the power of sharing the stories of those rendered invisible by our society, but also of the importance of sharing these stories in a way that prevents the reinforcement of inequalities, namely by always considering one’s position. We are in an interdependent relationship with not only the other people here — staff, faculty, and other students — but also our living environment — the campus and Amherst town. It is our responsibility to ensure that the working and living conditions of every member of our community are equally valued and respected.
By sharing the story of Jules, a pseudonym used for the Val worker employed by the college back in 2021, I hope that we can take one step towards acting on this responsibility of interdependence.
I first met Jules at Amherst Labor Alliance’s first meeting, located underneath a tent in Webster Circle when it was still warm and sunny outside. When they first spoke, I was immediately impressed by their class consciousness. Their rage at the oppression that Val workers faced made me feel angry with them, but never made me pity them. In fact, it was their steadfast determination that we, students, could do something to disrupt the endless cycle of administration’s abuse that motivated me (and, honestly, everyone else) to keep coming back to meetings every week — even if many of these left more questions than answers about how we could best act in solidarity. I took away many things from those meetings, such as further examining my own role within a wage-labor system at Amherst. One of the major things that I gained from my participation, however, was a friend.
Carving a Life Outside of School and Home
Jules’s journey to Amherst began shortly after they graduated high-school and decided not to pursue college, a path that they felt mentally and financially unable to take on. Born into a lower-middle class white family — their mother, a reporter, and their father, a college professor — Jules acknowledged the many privileges they had while young: “I grew up in a 10-room house in a nice neighborhood where I never felt unsafe. And I went to a school that wasn't a public school, it was a charter school. So I was very fortunate to have more individualized attention. [My school, and what it offered,] still wasn't enough for me.”
Jules’ disenchantment with the educational system at an early age also heavily motivated them to seek a life outside of what school defined as success. “Looking back I’m just like, ‘Why isn't everyone anxious in high school?’ It's a system that's broken and doesn't work for anyone. It segregates people with their learning, and [segregates based on] social groups and economic classes. It sucks. So I didn't want to be a part of that system,” Jules reflected.
About two years after graduating high-school, moving out of their mother’s house and working multiple jobs, Jules landed at Amherst in 2015. While leaving home and living independently had left them impoverished, Jules explains that it was “a time when [they] had to choose to [either] appease people or fix [their] mental health.” Choosing their mental health meant escaping a gendered social narrative they didn’t agree with.
“Lots of trans people have to move out of their homes because their parents don’t accept them. I wasn't out at the time, so that wasn't going to be an issue. But I was kind of concerned that it might be … I was dating someone who was transgender at the time and they didn't feel safe where I was living,” they mentioned.
As a trans person themselves, Jules wanted to be in a location where they could transition safely — both medically and socially. “[Amherst] is a place where it's everyone's weird soup. You can just kind of come and be yourself in college. No one really looks twice because there's so much change, like you can't keep up with it.”
Balancing Teaching and Food Service Jobs at Amherst
Moving to Amherst, however, came with its own challenges. Jules struggled to obtain their financial footing and to feel a sense of belonging in their new community. “I didn't really feel like I could depend on Amherst economically. I [had] lost jobs here, and I [had] had to move around without any real assistance.” Jules had been working multiple jobs prior to moving and continued doing so when they landed their first job with the college a couple of years ago. The flexibility of their job in the dining hall allowed them to balance side gigs, including taking on some work at a local school.
“I worked there for a year as an assistant teacher and then substitute assistant teacher, and then the pandemic hit,” Jules commented.
Looking back on their time teaching, Jules remarked “I'm still worried about being conceited or full of myself, but like, when you're good at something you can just do well, that is so exciting.”
In particular, teaching helped tap into their passion to fix what they call an “ableist, racist, industrialized” educational system. The desire to better a system that played a role in driving them to leave home, is what also drew Jules to seek professional experiences in teaching and to later enroll in a local community college.
“The kind of subjugation that happens with students at school is the same kind of obedience that we were taught throughout our whole lives in America. And we are told to accept [this reality] without questioning many things that are not good for us in school … Whether you're a student or a working-class individual, you maintain the relationship with authority that you have in school as a child,” they said. This reality could not have been made any more clear for Jules during their time employed at Amherst College.
‘Holding Back Anger’ While Working for Amherst College
It didn’t take too long for Jules to draw parallels between the patterns of subjugation they encountered in their school and those they faced as a worker in Amherst’s Dining Services.
“The college talks to us as if we’re children a lot of the time, which is very frustrating … the college is not working to serve us. They work just to steal our labor and that's the dynamic that they've set up,” Jules said. An example of this injustice, according to Jules, is the disparity between casual workers and full-time employees, where the latter are awarded human rights, such as health-care, which are not provided for casual workers such as themself.
“I know that they are exploiting me, and that they couldn't care less about what actually happens in my life and that I'm very easily replaceable, but I have to pretend that isn't the case,” Jules confessed.
Yet pretending isn’t easy for someone who has been sustaining their livelihood for seven years all by themselves. “The college really enjoys promoting this idea that they're not actually controlling these people's lives to the degree that they are with wages and stuff. But their minor decisions about payment [like the 2020 and 2020-2021 school year’s wage increases] can change my life in an incredibly drastic way. Extra money has contributed to my mental health improving,” they revealed.
“My hobbies, my routine, my energy were all depleted for the sake of managing the stress of not having enough money. Realizing how much I was skimping on quality of life things to afford living in Amherst, unable to put money away, it's no wonder I never felt stable,” they stated.
The college has since taken away hazard pay once the 2021-2022 school year began, decreasing many people’s minimum wage from at least $20 an hour to roughly $15 an hour. “Holding all of my anger back is a very frustrating experience. But that's not unique to me. It's not unique to my class experience,” they admitted.
Long-Term Goals: Building Community and Reforming Educational System
While working at Amherst College for the past three years has helped Jules feel more connected to the town, they still think more effort is necessary to bridge the gap between students and staff. “I think I mentioned this once before, but there's a mentality that's promoted in catering where it’s like the less that you're seen, the more effective you are … We're there for wages and you're there for food, and that's it. So, there's that intentional divide where workers don’t really think about students as entirely people, and the students don’t think of workers as people,” they stated.“That’s what capitalism is great at.”
Jules, nonetheless, has gone out of their way to bridge this distance of their own accord, namely through their participation in ALA. They believe that more intentional community events could help change the campus culture of student-staff relationships, allowing students to examine their own class identity and increasing comradery amongst both groups.“Community is something where you can't choose it. It has to be an interdependent relationship,” they said.
For now, Jules wants to continue investing in their community at Amherst and pursuing their goal of becoming an educator. “I really enjoy working with anybody who is interested in learning and honestly, we're all interested in learning, but there's so much that the education system that we live in does to externalize our validation,” they argued.
Nonetheless, Jules aspires to create a role for themselves as an educator that they can “benefit from instead of needing to survive.” “I don't want [teaching] to be my full-time job because I think that's part of how you get jaded. You don't want to depend on the system,” they affirmed. Of course, they recognize the many benefits of becoming either a full-time employee in dining or as an educator, but for Jules, the most important things are being stable and working towards goals that don't go beyond what they can achieve within the context of their community.
At the end of the day, Jules’ goals are twofold: choosing to remain loyal to their class identity while also creating meaningful change for those around them.
And, if possible, they’d like to pick back up certain personal hobbies that they had left back home.
“I have a five-year plan written somewhere. I want to get back into ballet once I am in a situation where I can afford it … I'd like to be a more proficient and more prolific artist,” Jules shared.
Whether they end up underneath the stage lights, becoming a teacher, or both, I only hope to cheer them on as they continue to reach these milestones in their life.