The Restaurant Industry Is Structured on Racism. The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation Wants to Rebuild It.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Restaurant Industry Is Structured on Racism. The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation Wants to Rebuild It.

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant workers have been deemed essential — perhaps not officially by local authorities, but certainly by consumers, who continued to want the convenience of meals prepared and brought to them by someone else. Without substantial support from the government, the chefs, waiters, dishwashers, bartenders, and grocery store clerks that make up the food industry were pushed to work in hazardous conditions. Choices for many were limited: keep working, get paid, and risk getting sick or stay home, lose income, and possibly be fired.

With support sparse as it was, one organization swooped in to fill the gaps: The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, a nonprofit created by industry veterans. The foundation, which first took shape in 2018, created a coronavirus relief fund, whose money was distributed directly in the form of zero-interest loans to restaurant workers, other nonprofits helping restaurant workers in crisis, and restaurants. Soon, the foundation’s logo — two hands holding up a tray with a pineapple on it — was all over social media, something of a rallying symbol for people frustrated by the government’s inaction. The RWCF saw an outpouring of support, and by the end of 2020, the organization’s coronavirus relief fund had brought in close to $7 million.

This relief fund has been crucial for the restaurant industry and its most vulnerable workers, but the foundation has a vision that predates and goes far beyond this most immediate of crises. So in 2020, building on its momentum from the successful coronavirus relief fund, the RWCF launched the Racial Justice Fund, aimed at helping to create a more just and equitable restaurant industry, one that will live on after the pandemic has ended. Because the fund is so new, its steering committee is still in the process of deciding how it will take shape, and where money will be directed. Here, Steve Ali, project coordinator for the Racial Justice Fund, and Vice-Chair of RWCF’s Fundraising and Development Committee, and John deBary, RWCF co-founder, join me to talk about the direction of the new fund, and their work to create a brighter and more equal restaurant industry.

Eater: I would love it if you would start by talking about the Racial Justice Fund, and its purpose.

John deBary: It goes back to the RWCF’s founding mission, and the need to advance structural changes in the restaurant industry. One of our program areas is racial justice, and everything kind of intersects: how much people get paid, gender and race, mental health and ability, all these things are intertwined. So racial justice has been baked into our mandate from the beginning. We had been raising small amounts of money up until the pandemic, and sort of building steam and trying to raise enough money to be able to do something. With COVID, we created a fund that was very specific and gave donors a very clear sense of where their money was going. The COVID fund did really well for a lot of reasons. Some of the feedback that we got from donors was that they loved that the fund was really transparent in what was happening with the money. We had almost-daily updates on where the money was going, and how much we raised and what we were doing with it. It wasn’t this sort of mysterious cloud that people were just throwing money at. So that was a good clue for us that maybe this is a good model for us to replicate, to give donors channels, and for them to be able to select what they were interested in supporting.

The events of last summer made racial justice a huge priority for a lot of people. So we began to formulate an idea for a fund whose structure was similar to that of the COVID fund. But rather than the COVID fund, where it’s very easy to say, ‘Okay, well, these people need direct financial assistance, and this loan program needs to happen,’ it’s different when you’re talking about race, and as a mostly white-lead organization, it felt a little weird to be like, ‘Okay, well, let’s decide who gets to get money for racial justice work.’

We really wanted to create a decision making model steered by people who were connected closely to the communities and to the causes that they were fighting on behalf of. And one of the key points of the fund was that we were going to trust people to distribute the money and create a steering committee of advocates, people in the industry who have been working on this for years. We wanted to launch in the beginning of 2021, so that it got on the right people’s funding schedules — a lot of the institutional donors map out their grant-making for the year relatively early.

With the timing, it felt important as a dovetail to the COVID fund’s momentum to say, ‘Okay, now we have your attention. Here are the structural issues that have been plaguing the industry for centuries. This is how we’re going to start to address them.’

As you were thinking about creating this fund, in what ways were you seeing people of color working in the restaurant industry be affected by the pandemic?

Steve Ali: I think the most disparity is apparent when you’re talking about undocumented workers. The former president’s administration did not include undocumented workers in relief plans, and a lot of states followed suit. So undocumented workers of color were in a situation where they would have to continue working if they wanted to continue living. But if they continued working, they may not stay alive much longer...

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