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How waitressing made me a better organizer

A couple years ago I found myself in the kitchen of a white working-class organizer with decades of food service and movement building experience. Airen’s eye rolls, laughter, cursing, and ability to cook, strategize movement work and build relationship all at once offered me a place to reflect on the gifts working class folks bring to organizing.

Multitasking life, work and the movement

Grassroots organizations are often led by working parents, people with full time-jobs, no jobs, welfare recipients, part-time jobs, students, retirees, etc. Most of us are working for survival—for rent, bills, transportation, medical care—and all of us are working for liberation. We become organizers multi-tasking life, paid work and the movement.

Valued skills from undervalued work

Job experience outside of the movement is often of great use to the movement. Yet too often the professional middle–class people are seen as having the most valuable expertise. Years of working as a waitress made me an expert in switching from the shit-talking back-of-house camaraderie among workers to the language of customer service. I now see the valuable skills I bring as an organizer come directly from the undervalued work I have done since I was 14 years old. I began talking with other organizers who also worked extensively in food service and noticed some common themes.

Holding our ground as women

The first element is our working-class feminism. As a teenage girl, I was subjected to patriarchy from customers, co-workers and bosses. I learned to hold my ground when men tried to push me around. I teamed up with other servers—who were predominantly women—to protect each other against predatory customers or bosses steeped in toxic masculinity. We understood the hand women were dealt, and we refused to accept that would be all we got. We noticed how men treated their girlfriends, wives and daughters—and on a number of occasions we found ways to ask if they were safe and offer some solidarity.

Learning from each other while serving beer and burgers

We worked hard for our tips knowing all our interactions could affect our monthly budgets. I learned to keep my power, shake off the bullshit and spin my words to uplift feminism and smash the patriarchy. I also learned that while capitalism hurts all workers, the added layers of race, gender and ability create very different experiences. While front of house employees tended to be white, I often worked with Native, Black or immigrant Women of Color. These women were subjected to racism every day at work and it was through building relationship with them that I began to develop a racial justice analysis in my Feminism. At the end of the day, there was no article to read about feminist thought that reflected our language or experiences. We learned from each other and co-developed an analysis of patriarchy and white supremacy while serving beer, burgers and pie.

Finding the sweet spot for all sorts of people

Good organizers and facilitators know how to read a situation and approach people where they are at. If you want to make any money serving food or drinks, you’ve got to be able to adapt to the needs of each customer. Whether it’s how they want their food prepared or how much sass they want you to serve, you’ve got to aim to find a different sweet spot for each table. Effective organizers talk to all types of people because everybody has got something to give and get from the movement. To build a broad-based movement we certainly can’t spend all our time talking to people just like ourselves. We’ve also got to learn to prioritize who to spend more time with and how to create a welcoming space for a variety of folks.

Noticing and addressing needs

Timing is everything in a restaurant and in a movement. To be effective in both spaces, we have to notice when somebody needs something and address those needs. While waitressing I learned to notice whether people are ready for a check or to talk about dessert. As an organizer, I learned to notice whether people are ready to hold a sign or talk to the press. A good server helps people move through the restaurant experience and a good organizer helps people move through the movement experience. How quickly can we figure out what people want to give or get from the movement and then, can we work with them to get there? Can we retain active membership in our organizations or do we have a base of occasional customers who stop in for one drink but don’t come back?

The crucial importance of your team

A really good waitress or organizer cannot provide excellent service without an excellent team. The past few years in the movement have felt like working two weeks straight where every night is slammed. Seasoned organizers are trying to keep up while struggling to provide support to new organizers/activists who just joined the team and, just like a new restaurant worker, are asking important questions we don’t always have time or patience to answer during “the rush.”

You can’t shrug off responsibility and survive

The work is exhausting; the accelerated pace can sometimes trip us up. We have to have teammates who understand their role in the big picture, can manage their stress and follow through with their tasks. If someone didn’t want to finish their side-work at the end of the shift, they just created extra work for the next person. In organizing when someone doesn’t follow through with their commitments, they shrug their responsibility off onto others. In a restaurant you can’t do this more than twice before you’re definitely gonna hear about it. Somehow in the movement, you can do this for years and people will still work with you despite knowing your sloppy work ethic.

Your word is your character

This is where class culture really comes through. In the rural working class communities I come from, the work a person does is more valuable than the work they talk about. A person’s work ethic and “word” (aka following through on what they say they will do) are how we evaluate people’s character. Sometimes there’s a bit of internalized classism wrapped up in these beliefs, but mostly there’s a strong sentiment that if you don’t work hard, you aren’t gonna help yourself or anybody else.

A big project takes a lot of time

The realistic refrains around my house were usually “you don’t always get what you want” and “life is tough; get used to it.” They may sound grim, but let’s face it—we’re trying to tear down massive interlocking systems of oppression—this isn’t easy work. If we want to dedicate our lives to the movement, we have to contend with continually pushing against the power structure and making slower progress than we envision. We have got to have a team that can persevere against the odds, keep our word and at the end of the day, shake off the bullshit and wake up with a sense of responsibility to continue the work. I certainly don’t always want to follow through on the day to day organizing tasks, but if we can’t figure out how to make time to send a few emails or make some phone calls, how the hell are we ever gonna figure out how to make time for the bold project of creating “another world”?

Systems of mutual aid are key

The poor and working-class organizers that I work with know what it means to struggle and support each other. We gift each other groceries, medicinal herbs, rides to appointments, child care, meals. We create systems of mutual aid that extend in our communities to fill holes left by neo-liberalism, tax cuts, shrinking social services, climate change. We manage 14 hours days that usually include demanding physical and emotional labor and are the first ones to sign up for a volunteer shift. When people say they don’t have time for organizing responsibilities but manage to take multiple vacations, I see that our stake in movement work is different. Showing up in movement spaces is what keeps me alive and I know it is our work to fight for each other’s lives. And sure, I’ve had to learn to pace my learned-Protestant work ethic. Some hard lessons have taught me that I’m not responsible for doing all the labor and joy is an essential ingredient to the good life —but I don’t need a fancy vacation to practice that.

Making your skills visible

If you are in my “back of house” poor/working class organizing crew, I encourage you to name the ways you show up for the movement. Make visible the labor we have been trained in capitalism to keep invisible. Find each other, be with each other, build each other up and push your middle-class folks/spaces to build a more complex analysis of racialized capitalism and lift up poor/working leadership. We have such important hard-earned skills and perspectives to offer the movement – and right now, we need all of them.

Sarah Stockholm is a community organizer and Popular Educator working with Showing Up for Racial Justice and Washington Community Action Network at the intersections of race and class and community & legislation. Contact her at sastockholm@gmail.com.

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