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Three Ways Restaurant Workers and Diners Can Be More Politically Involved

Activists Shakirah Simley and Julia Turshen on how to make change, right now

Overhead view of a group of people serving themselves dinner at a restaurant. Shutterstock

Shakirah Simley knows that restaurant workers — and customers — already have the skills to make political change, she just wants them to know it and do it.

She should know. Before her current role as a legislative aid for the San Francisco board of supervisors, Simley owned a jam company, served as a fellow for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and amassed a decade of experience working on food access and policy issues.

“Food is a really powerful organizing tool because if you solve for food you can solve for gender, for labor, for immigration, for our economy,” she said on stage at the Eater Young Guns Summit in July. “And it’s something that we all take for granted. Everyone has three opportunities every single day to make these conscientious decisions, and see how it plays out into our general community.”

Simley took the stage with Julia Turshen, author of 2017 Cookbook of the Year Feed the Resistance, for a conversation moderated by Eater’s special correspondent Meghan McCarron on how the food and restaurant world intersects with social justice, community building, and activism. Those words might feel big, Turshen pointed out, but are already a part of our lives. “How many of you have ever made a meal at home? It’s probably more of you than work in a restaurant. How many of you have ever invited someone over for that meal or maybe live with someone you’ve shared that meal with,” she asked the audience to several raised hands. “So you all have experience organizing community.”

And as Simley points out, food and politics go hand in hand. “Revolution and food have always been intertwined. Of our major social movements throughout the course of history, a lot of them had to do with people that were hungry, right? If farm workers are being brutalized, that’s where revolution happened. It came from the farms. It came from the fields. During the civil rights movement, we had folks using their restaurants to protect civil rights activists in their food spaces. So this isn’t a concept that’s new to food. I feel like it’s upon us to find our way again and start actively leveraging our food spaces to make the change that we want to see in our neighborhoods, our cities, and also in the country.”

Here are some more suggestions for how to get started.

1. Fill out the census.

Shakirah Simley: “Census 2020 is such an incredibly important thing. Please everyone fill out the census. If you are multilingual, please find other folks in your community and help translate for them to get them counted.

“If you are not counted, that means that funding, research, and resources do not get sent to your community because we don’t know that you’re even there. So many communities are not counted, and we see that in how resources are spread across the country. The census is really important. Next year, if you have an hour or if you’re multilingual, working to get folks counted is really important.”

Julia Turshen, Shakirah Simley, and Meghan McCarron sit on stage, smiling.
From left: Julia Turshen, Shakirah Simley, Meghan McCarron
Alyssa Ringler

2. If you have access to a restaurant space, activate it.

SS: “What I’ve been seeing in San Francisco is that a lot of restaurants are starting to do two things with their spaces: Number one, protect the people who work there. We’ve been having ICE trainings and helping inform our frontline and back of house staff on what it means if ICE comes to the door. We’ve had several ICE raids in San Francisco and they specifically target restaurants. Informing your community on what happens in those situations is a really great way to start. The ACLU and other organizations like that have resources on what you can do. That’s something you can do during a staff meeting. You’re already at work, take 20 minutes to talk about this.

“The second thing I see food spaces doing is using their spaces to have community-based conversations on really hard issues. Nopa in San Francisco has something called the Civil Table Project where they offer a very low cost lunch. No one’s turned away. And then they have a facilitated conversation about housing, or what gentrification means in San Francisco, or talk about some of the issues around #MeToo. It’s created a very small intimate [environment], breaking down the barrier between what people think about this restaurant and the spaces that they’re curating.

“At the Mill, Josey Baker hosted my boss, Supervisor Vallie Brown, [for a] get to know your local official [event]. He just reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, your constituents are at my business every single day. How are you serving them?’ And we had a conversation about that. Any local elected officials should be able to do that... They should be able to show up. Not everyone can show up at City Hall and go to meetings or committee meetings, but bring those people into those spaces.”

3. Host a dinner party to learn what’s on the ballot.

SS: “We have a presidential primary in March 2020, and then we have another election in November 2020. When we have primaries, people do things like put really important things on the ballot that you might not know... Me and my friends, we developed something called a Ballot Party. You can host a Ballot Party at your house and educate your friends about certain issues and talk about it in a really accessible way.”

Meghan McCarron: “It’s the best excuse for a fun dinner party... We all grilled, we looked at every major newspaper doing a rundown... different editorial boards are going to weigh in in different ways on what they support or don’t support. The information is out there, and everyone just picks a measure that they tell each other about over dinner. It’s a wonderful way to bring people together and participate in democracy. I’m starting to think 2020 is this urgent festival of democracy in our country. And I think that we need to really lean into that, celebrate that, and just keep each other motivated.”

Reminder: When you have these conversations, check your privilege.

SS: “Julia and I are talking about this off a certain backdrop, and that backdrop is that folks are also recognizing their privilege and doing the individual education that’s needed in order to uplift and center queer folks, trans folks, people of color, women, and folks who haven’t necessarily had opportunities to be centered and celebrated. If you are in a position of power, if you’re a manager, or an owner, or an editor, you have a responsibility...

“We have to make sure that we’re checking our own shit and our own power and our own privilege and if you do have that, making sure that you’re sharing that or giving up power to make room for folks who necessarily wouldn’t be here. And not in a tokenizing way but in a way that’s like, ‘You know what? I got you, I will be your ally, I will be your accomplice. I will take on that emotional burden. I will take on that financial burden. I will stop taking up physical space. I’ll stop talking over you.

“That’s the kind of daily resistance that we need to see on behalf of folks who hold a lot of power. That’s the backdrop that we’re talking up against, and we want to make sure that that’s important and we ground the conversation of that as well.”

For more from this conversation — including more ways to get involved — listen to Julia Turshen’s podcast, Keep Calm and Cook On:

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