clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Restaurant Industry Is Structured on Racism. This Nonprofit Wants to Rebuild It.

The Restaurant Workers Community Fund gained prominence for providing financial relief to service workers during COVID-19. Now it wants to create a racially just system.

Illustration by Carlos Luciano

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant workers have been deemed essential — perhaps not officially by local authorities, but certainly by consumers, who continued to want the convenience of meals prepared and brought to them by someone else. Without substantial support from the government, the chefs, waiters, dishwashers, bartenders, and grocery store clerks that make up the food industry were pushed to work in hazardous conditions. Choices for many were limited: keep working, get paid, and risk getting sick or stay home, lose income, and possibly be fired.

With support sparse as it was, one organization swooped in to fill the gaps: The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, a nonprofit created by industry veterans. The foundation, which first took shape in 2018, created a coronavirus relief fund, whose money was distributed directly in the form of zero-interest loans to restaurant workers, other nonprofits helping restaurant workers in crisis, and restaurants. Soon, the foundation’s logo — two hands holding up a tray with a pineapple on it — was all over social media, something of a rallying symbol for people frustrated by the government’s inaction. The RWCF saw an outpouring of support, and by the end of 2020, the organization’s coronavirus relief fund had brought in close to $7 million.

This relief fund has been crucial for the restaurant industry and its most vulnerable workers, but the foundation has a vision that predates and goes far beyond this most immediate of crises. So in 2020, building on its momentum from the successful coronavirus relief fund, the RWCF launched the Racial Justice Fund, aimed at helping to create a more just and equitable restaurant industry, one that will live on after the pandemic has ended. Because the fund is so new, its steering committee is still in the process of deciding how it will take shape, and where money will be directed. Here, Steve Ali, project coordinator for the Racial Justice Fund, and Vice-Chair of RWCF’s Fundraising and Development Committee, and John deBary, RWCF co-founder, join me to talk about the direction of the new fund, and their work to create a brighter and more equal restaurant industry.

Eater: I would love it if you would start by talking about the Racial Justice Fund, and its purpose.

John deBary: It goes back to the RWCF’s founding mission, and the need to advance structural changes in the restaurant industry. One of our program areas is racial justice, and everything kind of intersects: how much people get paid, gender and race, mental health and ability, all these things are intertwined. So racial justice has been baked into our mandate from the beginning. We had been raising small amounts of money up until the pandemic, and sort of building steam and trying to raise enough money to be able to do something. With COVID, we created a fund that was very specific and gave donors a very clear sense of where their money was going. The COVID fund did really well for a lot of reasons. Some of the feedback that we got from donors was that they loved that the fund was really transparent in what was happening with the money. We had almost-daily updates on where the money was going, and how much we raised and what we were doing with it. It wasn’t this sort of mysterious cloud that people were just throwing money at. So that was a good clue for us that maybe this is a good model for us to replicate, to give donors channels, and for them to be able to select what they were interested in supporting.

The events of last summer made racial justice a huge priority for a lot of people. So we began to formulate an idea for a fund whose structure was similar to that of the COVID fund. But rather than the COVID fund, where it’s very easy to say, ‘Okay, well, these people need direct financial assistance, and this loan program needs to happen,’ it’s different when you’re talking about race, and as a mostly white-lead organization, it felt a little weird to be like, ‘Okay, well, let’s decide who gets to get money for racial justice work.’

We really wanted to create a decision making model steered by people who were connected closely to the communities and to the causes that they were fighting on behalf of. And one of the key points of the fund was that we were going to trust people to distribute the money and create a steering committee of advocates, people in the industry who have been working on this for years. We wanted to launch in the beginning of 2021, so that it got on the right people’s funding schedules — a lot of the institutional donors map out their grant-making for the year relatively early.

With the timing, it felt important as a dovetail to the COVID fund’s momentum to say, ‘Okay, now we have your attention. Here are the structural issues that have been plaguing the industry for centuries. This is how we’re going to start to address them.’

As you were thinking about creating this fund, in what ways were you seeing people of color working in the restaurant industry be affected by the pandemic?

Steve Ali: I think the most disparity is apparent when you’re talking about undocumented workers. The former president’s administration did not include undocumented workers in relief plans, and a lot of states followed suit. So undocumented workers of color were in a situation where they would have to continue working if they wanted to continue living. But if they continued working, they may not stay alive much longer.

Steve Ali, project coordinator for the Racial Justice Fund, and Vice-Chair of RWCF’s Fundraising and Development Committee
Farrah Skeiky

The great irony of this is that when people have to keep working, the more they’re interacting with other people, the more likely it is that they’re going to spread the disease. By leaving off undocumented workers from relief, making it difficult for them to access without putting themselves and their families in danger of deportation, imprisonment, or something worse, it actually held back our pandemic response. We have a lot of situations, whether it’s with the pandemic or before that, where workers of color are getting the worst possible deal.

Also as a worker of color, I look at this situation and I wonder, where is my future? How can I expect to live a happy life working in this industry, if from the beginning it has been based on the exploitation of my body, my labor, my passion? The issues that Black people face — and the issues other people of color face, the issues indigenous people face — come into the workplace with them: your fear about how somebody is going to treat you, your insecurity in your financial situation, and health situation, those things affect the way that you contribute at work. And those things have all been worsened by the pandemic.

A recent study showed that that by job sector, cooks have faced the highest risk of death due to COVID-19. That overlaps with so many other risk factors, again disproportionately affecting people of color...

SA: In a literal sense, comorbidities are important to think about. And it’s also helpful to use that as a model to think about the wider problem. I do want to emphasize that the preexisting condition here is not being Black, is not being a person of color. It’s fantastic to have melanin; the preexisting condition is racism, and the effects of racism and the history of it, and how deeply it’s ingrained in our systems. If the racist elements of the hospitality industry had been spoken to a long time ago, we may be seeing less mortality. If these things had been dealt with before, things would be better now. I will not thank COVID for anything, but it’s certainly revealed a lot about how things have been functioning before.

Where does the Racial Justice Fund come into play?

SA: The goal of the fund is to collaborate with people who have been working on alleviating these issues for a long time, especially people of color, especially femmes of color, and queer people of color, who have been very sensitive to these things directly impacting them. The goal is to work with them to extend the work they’ve been doing. But more importantly, it’s also to come up with new things we could be doing, and funding, in the industry to change the way it works fundamentally.

John deBary, RWCF co-founder
Naima Green

JdB: Most foundations are made up of rich people or companies, who have money to start off with and are just giving it away. But a community foundation raises money from the community that they’re hoping to serve, and usually focuses on geographic areas, different identities like women and LGBTQ people, different religions. And for us, we’re applying this model to a labor population, and as far as we know, we’re the only ones that have done this so far. A lot of people on our board are deeply steeped in nonprofits and philanthropy and grant-making. And then there’s the other half of the organization, made up of restaurant people for whom maybe this is the first exposure to the inner workings of a nonprofit or to a grant making organization.

With the racial justice fund, it’s really about having the people on the steering committee come at this from a really fresh perspective, and with really deep connections, so that we can strategically deploy the money and not just compare this fund to the COVID fund. Because COVID is in some ways a kind of straightforward problem. It took our board 20 minutes of deliberating to figure out where to direct money. But with racial justice, it’s completely different. It’s still the same mechanism. We’re still helping move money from people who have enough of it to give away, to the people who make the most impactful change on the ground.

We have a yearly grant-making cycle, and this is just the beginning of it. It’s not like we’re just starting to give money away on day one. This is a multi-year effort, hopefully.

It’s early in the process and this fund is still very new, but do you have a sense for where a majority of resources might go when you start to distribute them?

SA: Each member of the steering committee is coming into this with our own ideas of what the restaurant industry could become. And we have certain benchmarks for a racially just industry. Things like making sure people are getting compensated fairly, and aren’t exclusively reliant on good tips to have a sustainable livelihood, making sure there’s a path to restorative justice in the event that harm is done. But the truth of the matter is that as steering members, we’re all coming from different generations, backgrounds, corners of the industry, and amounts of awareness of things like the literature around social justice work. So we all have different senses of what it takes to reach racial justice; the work of our steering committee is going to be to reconcile that. We’re looking to create a movement toward a better world, where BIPOC can live and thrive in this industry, without having to sacrifice themselves, or be ground under the gears of the industry just to make the rest of it function.

That’s the best I can do right now in terms of saying what the fund will become. Even within our community, we are not monolithic. We’re not all Black, we’re not all one race — I’m a Nigerian immigrant, my understanding of racial justice issues is going to be different from a Black person born in the United States, from a Black person who grew up and on the West Coast. Our goal is to try to represent as many perspectives as possible, and come up with plans that move the industry in a positive direction for as many people as possible.

When you think about this fund, what are you working towards? What, to your mind, does the racially just restaurant industry of the future look like?

JdB: Economic justice and racial justice are linked. It’s a symptom and a cause, where people aren’t paid enough because of racism. But then it’s a feedback loop, where the inequalities get further compounded by these systems. This is why the Racial Justice Fund is structured the way it is: If we wanted to just give out money, we wouldn’t have gone through this process of creating all these structures for decision making. The traditional philanthropic model creates a band-aid... not necessarily using the money to heal anybody, or to really solve any problems or understand them deeply. There’s a subtle, nuanced line between a band-aid solution, and structural change.

The COVID relief effort that we undertook was a band-aid and would not have been necessary, if we had a functioning tax system, and an equitable society. At the same time, it created an opportunity for us to be able to address the structural issues that are going on in the restaurant industry that led to COVID being so bad for workers in the first place. You don’t really see how something works until it breaks. And the restaurant industry was broken last year. COVID just magnified everything, and made everything so much more drastic, and so much more unequal.

In terms of what equality looks like for the restaurant industry, I think it’s people being paid equally, and not having those racial and gender disparities that are so obvious and significant right now. But I think that there’s also a world beyond that. There’s room for a lot of creativity in terms of other structures that can exist, ways of creating an economy that exists outside capitalism, which is inextricably linked to white supremacy. And creating space for those ideas, and trusting other people to come up with those ideas.

SA: I joined the RWCF after I stopped working in restaurants because of the pandemic, with a realization that after times of crisis, there becomes an opportunity to rebuild. I wanted to get involved with somebody, somewhere, who I felt was also interested in rebuilding and looking toward the future. I envision a racially just industry to be one in which we can thrive, even if the people who are in the insular top levels aren’t paying attention, and aren’t deigning to help us. There’s an idea that that comes up in a lot of Black Marxist social justice circles about dual power, the idea that we need to have institutions that exist parallel to the ones that already exist, to ensure that our people are taken care of. Because left to its own devices, the system that exists isn’t going to be what we need it to be. I think a racially just industry is one where people are getting paid, getting health care, people are getting the resources they need.