Fifteen student groups held an open forum Monday afternoon to stand in solidarity with Penn Hillel's Falk Dining Commons workers, whose traditional Black History Month event was canceled by Penn.
The forum, titled “What happened to Black History Month?" included speeches from students and Falk Dining workers, who were encouraged to share with students their own experiences working at Penn. About 40 people gathered at the Compass on Locust Walk and held hand-made signs that included messages such as “Worker Student Solidarity” and “Black History Matters."
The event came after Penn Dining and Bon Appétit management told Falk Dining workers that they could not celebrate Black History Month by preparing Southern cuisine for students, a traditional celebration they were allowed to do in February 2018 and in several past years. Penn Dining told The Daily Pennsylvanian that they called off the tradition in fear of backlash of serving food and drinks that have stereotypically been associated with black people, such as fried chicken and Kool-aid.
Penn Dining and Bon Appétit plan to recognize Black History Month by hosting a dinner at Falk Dining Commons this Thursday which will highlight famous black chefs. Penn Hillel was not involved in the decision to cancel the traditional celebration, Hillel Co-President and Wharton junior Jonathan Yushuvayev said.
The student groups who hosted the open forum include Penn Student Power, Penn First, Penn Association for Gender Equity, Asian Pacific Student Coalition, and Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation.
Student leaders at the forum took turns speaking into a megaphone about being in solidarity with dining employees and their disappointment in how Black History Month has been recognized on campus this year.
“The reason we’re all out here today is because Penn has failed to acknowledge Black History Month this year when it has in the past, and we’ve been organizing this with the dining hall workers because we really want to show how much we appreciate them,” said Engineering sophomore Janine Liu, a member of Penn Student Power.
Troy Harris, who has worked as a chef at Falk Dining since 2000 and who reached out to students to help organize the event, expressed his gratitude for the students who gathered at the forum.
“We're not just workers, we're human too, and we have a history behind us too, not just serving food," Harris said. "So I feel like everybody coming together now, this is a strong bond, and if we keep it strong like this we tackle any matters together."
"I can't even imagine where I would be, where my family would be if it wasn't for Black History Month and our leaders that set the path before us," said Kareem Wallace, a chef at Falk Dining Commons.
College senior Aiden Castellanos, a member of Penn Student Power, said Penn administrators reached out to the student group on Feb. 24 to call off the event.
"The issue is we're talking about Black History Month, about the fact that Black History Month was left out of the general space of the school," Castellanos said.
Barbara Lea-Kruger, director of Communications and External Relations for Business Services, wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that administrators reached out to students to "provide context and clarity" on their decision and inform them of the meetings Penn Dining had with administrators and dining staff workers.
"Our goal is not to stifle debate but rather to engage with the Penn Community to help us formulate an approach for marking these holidays that is thoughtful, inclusive, and accommodates the diverse views of our campus," Lea-Kruger wrote.
Communication Chair of Penn First and Wharton sophomore Maribel Davila said the student group, which serves first-generation, low-income students, decided to participate in the event to show appreciation for dining hall workers.
"Penn First is in full support of the appreciation and recognition of historically marginalized people and we believe our dining hall workers have the right to celebrate Black History Month and their history without University intervention," Davila said.
Student Outreach Coordinator and College junior Claudia Silver spoke about Fossil Free Penn's experiences working with Penn administrators and past efforts to get the University to divest from fossil fuels.
"There is a long documented history of Penn’s administration not being willing to engage with both student communities, with the workers here, with the faculty, and that's not okay that they see themselves as an autonomous body from the people that are helping this place run," Silver said. "We are the people that make this University and they are trying very hard to silence us and our concerns."
Castellanos also invited audience members to speak following announcements from the student leaders.
Operations chair for SOUL and College junior Britney Firmin, spoke about the crucial need to celebrate Black History Month on campus.
"The celebration of BHM is not a privilege but a vital right to remind everyone of the sacrifices and contributions of black people in this country," Firmin said. "As a community and university, we need to question who we really stand for. Who are we valuing and who are we ignoring? Who has the right of free speech and expression and who is granted and given that right?”
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