Served at Williams College: Studying Service

Note: This post is the first in a series of reflections from three Williams College students who worked with Forklift on “Served” for their Winter Study course in January 2017. 

It’s a Monday morning at 7am, and I’m standing in Paresky’s underground kitchen surrounded by busy dining staff workers getting ready for another work-packed day. I look around trying to find a friendly face that’ll let me shadow them and hopefully help out, but most people I approach are just confused by my presence and too occupied to take in the burden of training me. I am standing there, feeling intrusive, awkward and increasingly anxious, thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here?’

This Winter Study, Adam Calogeras, Charley Wyzer and I joined a project called Served. The project is directed by Randal Fippinger (Producing Director at the 62 Center), Allison Orr and Krissie Marty (from Forklift Danceworks). At heart, Served is a dance where dining service staff get to show their friends, family members, and the Williams community the artistic movement that is inherent in the work they perform as part of their everyday jobs. According to Randal, the goal of Served is to humanize staff members and catalyze a community-wide dialogue on class and privilege. No worker will be required to participate and all those who do will be paid for their time. Allison emphasizes that Served is not an artist coming into a community to impose a preset rubric. On the contrary, Served starts from the bottom-up, and that’s where Adam, Charley and I come in. We embedded ourselves in different dining halls, getting to know the work, culture, and most importantly, the people.

After a couple of minutes awkwardly standing in the middle of Paresky kitchen, Ada Moreno, a cook at Whitmans’, took me under her wing. She was simultaneously cooking three massive pots of soup while preparing other main dishes for today’s lunch. As an international student from Ecuador, I quickly bonded with Ada, an immigrant from Honduras. By the end of the day, we had already made plans to go out to eat at La Fogata, a Colombian restaurant in Pittsfield.

Ada was one of the many dining service workers that opened up to me and helped me see an important side of Williams which I had previously failed to fully acknowledge. As I rotated across dining halls and learned different tasks, I got to hear stories of hard work and resiliency, pranks and friendships, frustrations and fears. Putting on the black apron momentarily blurred the boundary between who’s doing the serving and who’s getting served, but at the end of the day, I was only doing this job for a couple of hours, while they have been doing it for decades.

Janitors, trash collectors, phone solicitors, hair dressers, dining hall workers – these are all occupations that are institutionally undervalued. They are positions that are consistently underplayed and that receive little interest and attention from many of us – those that find ourselves in privileged social circumstances. This undervaluation of certain occupations is true even at Williams, where wages are fair, benefits plentiful, and most students are respectful.

As I talked with different dining hall staff, I realized many feel ignored and come to work solely for the purpose of making ends meet. By showing interest, asking questions, and thanking them for the ways in which they make my life as a student a little bit better, I hope I was able to at least challenge that mindset.

I believe that Served has an incredibly valuable potential. By placing staff in the spotlight, we can get staff’s friends, families, and our Williams community to see their work as something that is challenging and beautiful. Moreover, by participating in this performance, I think this project can change the way staff see their own work. Most importantly, I see Served as a call to pay attention and value to the work that people around us are doing.

Written by Isabel Andrade, Williams College Class of 2018

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