In February 2018, Penn Hillel's Falk Dining Commons' workers celebrated Black History Month by cooking and offering students Southern cuisine. This year, however, the dining workers were told by the University that they could not do so anymore.
Troy Harris, a Falk Dining chef since 2000, said Falk Dining workers cooked Southern cuisine to celebrate Black History Month last year and several other times in past years. But earlier this month, Harris said Penn Dining and Bon Appétit management, which directly oversees Falk Dining staff, told the chefs they could not continue the tradition this year.
“They didn’t really give me a reason,” Harris said. “They just told me they had to reach out to other people and they didn’t want to offend nobody, but I feel like the only ones feeling offended is us.”
Bon Appétit management referred The Daily Pennsylvanian to Barbara Lea-Kruger, director of Communications and External Relations for Business Services, who then referred the DP to Penn Dining.
Penn Dining Director of Business Services and Hospitality Services Pam Lampitt wrote in an email to the DP that Penn Dining decided not to allow the dining hall workers to cook Southern food this year because of incidents at other schools, such as Loyola University Chicago and New York University, that have "mishandled" celebrations of Black History Month.
In February 2018, both of the universities served food and drinks that have stereotypically been associated with black people, such as fried chicken and Kool-Aid, for Black History Month. The incidents led to student backlash, causing dining hall vendors at both universities to publicly apologize.
Hillel Co-President and Wharton junior Jonathan Yushuvayev wrote in an email to the DP that Penn Hillel was not involved in the decision and does not have a role in University dining programs.
"Penn Hillel supports the celebration of Black History Month on campus and in the University dining program," Yushuvayev wrote. "The decision about how to celebrate Black History Month in University dining halls is one that is made by the University and Bon Appétit in conversation with dining staff and student leaders."
Harris said the Falk Dining workers will instead stage an open forum, titled "What Happened to Black History Month?" alongside 13 student groups on Monday afternoon at the Compass, where black Penn workers will be able to share their experiences with students.
Penn Dining and Bon Appétit also plan to recognize Black History Month by hosting a dinner at Falk Dining Commons on Thursday which will highlight "famous black chefs," Lampitt wrote. Harris said Bon Appétit management did not announce the dinner idea until their meeting with the dining staff on Feb. 21.
Harris said he had three meetings with Bon Appétit management and Penn Dining on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22. In the first meeting on Feb. 21, Harris met with Bon Appétit officials, and later that day, he met with University officials.
Staff from Falk Dining, Hillel, the Chaplain’s office, Makuu, Bon Appétit, and Du Bois College House Faculty Director William Gipson met on Feb. 21 to discuss the reasoning behind the decision, Lampitt wrote. On Feb. 22, Harris met with a Bon Appétit manager again to check in.
"This was not a 'shut-down-any-event' meeting," said University Chaplain Chaz Howard, who was at the Feb. 21 meeting. "The point was to hear from the Bon Appétit staff, Troy, to see what their original goals were and Penn Dining and Bon Appétit about their hesitations early on, the solution as well which is really important, and the rest of us to bear witness and help make it happen."
Howard said the controversy was likely due to poor communication of the management's decision to change their approach of celebrating Black History Month.
"I don't think that was communicated well and that ultimately, that miscommunication is the crux of the problem," he said. "I don't think that's one person’s fault.”
On Feb. 21, Harris met with Penn Student Power, a new student group that brings together Penn students and community members, to discuss setting up an event between the workers and students.
At the Monday afternoon open forum, students will be able to meet dining staff workers and Penn staff will be able to share their personal stories with students. The student groups hosting the event include Penn Student Power, Penn First, Penn Association for Gender Equity, and Students Organizing For Unity and Liberation.
“I think it’s our place to get involved because as students on campus, we have a lot of power and the administration cares a lot about our experiences,” PAGE Chair and College junior Tanya Jain said. "If we show that we care for these people and want their experiences to be better, the administration is more likely to take it seriously.”
College freshman Dallas Ryan, one of the founding members of PSP, said she sees a lack of representation and appreciation for Black History Month on campus.
“It’s important that we as students appreciate our black staff and black students, because they make up our everyday lives, and for the school to kind of ignore or even reject Black History Month is something we should all be upset about and that’s something we should all recognize and all notice,” Ryan said.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.