47 days ago a few dozen of us students set up tents in front of Kirkland Hall, the main administration building of Vanderbilt University, rallying with over 150 supporters. We did it to show that our university was administered in a way that violated our communities values: that our policies were hurting people, and the administration was doing it for profit and prestige. We are investing in EMVest, which grabs land from peasant in subsaharan Africa. We are investing in HEI which treats workers poorly and commits labor violations in the US hotel industry. We pay our dining workers about $16,500 a year, far below the federal poverty line.
There is a reason inequality is so systematic at Vanderbilt. It is because the community isn't allowed to manage its own resources; the community is decidedly against these injustices, with thousands signing petitions and rallying against them. The reality is that Vanderbilt administrators are some of the wealthiest university administrators in the country: the top 20 of them in 2010 made 24 million dollars, an average salary of 2.4 million dollars a year; they are out of touch with the people of Vanderbilt. The university is managed more like a ruthless Fortune 500 firm than a place for making the world better. They would rather perpetuate the status quo than do the right thing. At the beginning of the occupation, we wrote: "As members of the Vanderbilt community, we do not want to rise into the 1%, we want to rise with the 99% — for the ultimate benefit of the 100%." We continue now to stand against a system where some people's lives are devalued and ignored for the benefit of others.
We've packed up camp for the summer. We're not leaving, we're not just going back to our lives. We've changed and built stronger ties with workers and the community, and a majority of us will be pursuing social justice work elsewhere or in Nashville or even here at Vanderbilt, and we'll be coming back next year to continue the fight, more prepared than ever. And we hope to see you there!
And to all the friends we met along the way: it may have only been ~40 of us sleeping out there, but it felt like we were so much more with the hundreds of messages of support we got. So thank you.
PS. Here's what we did during the occupation:
The encampment is established with a 150 person rally. Click for videos of speechs: student Tristan, Worker Mrs. Anne, Ellie from Occupy Nashville.
Occupy Vanderbilt and OUR Vanderbilt host an "alternate worker's showcase" showing the poverty of our workers, simultaneously countering the managers' dining showcase occurring for the NACUFS dining conference held a Vanderbilt.
Occupy Vanderbilt mic-checks and interrupts a private reception for a dining management conference to protest the unjust treatment of our dining workers. Click for video.
Two classes held at Occupy Vanderbilt about neocolonialism.
Food politics teach-in.
Another class teach-in on Vanderbilt's Land Grabs.
March to "the rally for the right to exist", a rally for homeless rights on legislative plaza. Since brining "sleeping paraphanalia" onto the plaza is now a class A misdemeanor, we brought a flying tent:
Professor Barsky leads a teach-in on the university as a agent of social change.
Occupy Vanderbilt hosts the original researcher who discovered Vanderbilt's investment in Africa land grabs, Anuradha Mittal, as well as director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition Dan Apfel, and Jeff Furman (founding board member of the socially responsible corporation Ben and Jerry's). Click for a full video of the responsible endowment symposium.
Students cookout with hundreds of workers, organizing new relationships.
More than a dozen classes, undergraduate and graduate, hold class at the encampment, faculty standing in solidarity and leading classes on issues of inequality, global and local.
One month anniversary: we had a "sleep-in" to support the issues of poverty of dining workers and responsible endowment -- with over 30 students here.
We surrounded the chancellor and read him this letter from the dining workers, who earn below a poverty income. This was at an event celebrating the tearing down of Kissam, a dorm complex, and the building of a new $150 million dollar dorm complex. This is five years after Vanderbilt built new freshman dorms, The Commons for a cost of $150 million.
We released the satirical "Occupied Vanderbilt Hustler" with the "the news we wish we could print"! Vanderbilt seizes and destroys hundreds of copies of it, but it's read by thousands more in paper and on the web. (our school newspaper is named "The Vanderbilt Hustler"). Don't worry, we sent them a bill for the destroyed copies.
Occupy Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food organizes a picket action against our community's Publix grocery store, telling them "to do the right thing and pay the workers who pick their tomatoes a penny more per pound and end abuses in the tomato fields by agreeing to the Coalition of Immokale Workers' Fair Food Program's code of conduct!"
International Worker's Day rally with over a 100 students and community members again rallying for justice, as millions all over the country and world take the streets! In the The City Paper and Tennessean
OccuPotluck! And then we tore down camp :)
Our summer plans: regroup, hone skills, strategize, come back and kick ass for social justice (!).
Occupy Vanderbilt is a leaderless democratic decision-making assembly of Vanderbilt community members who answered Occupy Wall St.’s call to “exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” On March 19, more than a hundred community members rallied for (1) worker justice at Vanderbilt, (2) a responsible and ethically invested endowment, (3) and a more democratic student voice. More than twenty students have set up tents in front of Kirkland Hall and plan to occupy the space indefinitely to create real, democratic change in our community.
April 2, 2012 at 9:19am
Occupy Vanderbilt Joins in Civil Disobedience for the ‘Right to Exist’
On Sunday, April 1, Vanderbilt students marched from campus with a floating tent to reinforce Occupy Nashville and homeless advocates, participating in civil disobedience by sleeping overnight on the plaza in the “Rally for the Right to Exist.”
On March 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed HB 2638/SB 2505 into law, making camping, sleeping and cooking on state property a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by almost a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Without private property, existing as a homeless person has effectively now been criminalized.
Occupy Vanderbilt joined the mass “sleep-in” of 50+ homeless advocates to demonstrate against Metro Nashville and the State of Tennessee’s onerous anti-homeless laws. The event was part of a larger bi-national day of action with more than a dozen other cities across the United States and Canada participating to raise awareness about the ongoing criminalization of homelessness in our communities.
“As the largest private employer in Nashville, Vanderbilt has a responsibility to engage with the problem of inequality in our city. I’ve met homeless people here who were VU Medical Center employees, who couldn’t afford a place to live because their wages were so low,” says Tristan Call, a Vanderbilt graduate student, “we can’t stand by when the city criminalizes people who are already struggling.”
March 22, 2012 at 10:34pm
Occupy Vanderbilt lends the “People’s Mic” to Vanderbilt workers
Nashville, TN - As Occupy Wall Street goes global, Occupy Vanderbilt continues to work local. On March 21st at 5:00 p.m, Occupy Vanderbilt interrupted a private reception for a dining management conference to protest the unjust treatment of dining workers. They bypassed security guards by taking a service elevator up into “The Overcup Oak Pub”, a signature university dining facility.
The “people’s mic” is a type of disruptive direct action that originated from the Occupy Wall St. protests. Occupy Vanderbilt adopted this technique to escalate their protest and to continue demonstrating solidarity with the global occupy movement. Like other “mic checks”, one student made a short statement and then the group repeated it in unison. The protestors questioned why administrators are paid up to 315 times more than the typical dining worker at Vanderbilt. In a particularly moving moment students exclaimed, “Vanderbilt dining workers make $16,500 a year — that’s $7,000 below the federal poverty line.”
Employees face massive layoffs they face every summer after the students leave campus. This puts the majority of the dining staff out of a job – even those who have given 30 years of employment to the university. Additionally, the handful of year-round employees who are offered a promotion or pay raise risk losing their employment in the summer. “Treating workers like commodities—as simply costs to be minimized—isn’t only morally reprehensible,” said Zach Blume, one of the Occupiers, “but it also reflects a value set. If we really value our workers, shouldn’t we make sure they have stable incomes, so that they can lead decent, proud lives and provide for their families? Won’t that make them better workers?”
Tristan Call, a Graduate Student in Anthropology, speaks about why he’s involved in Occupy Vanderbilt, especially about Land Grabs.
March 21, 2012 at 7:47pm
Elli White, an Occupy Nashville participant, speaks in solidarity with Occupy Vanderbilt, and talks about how we should view ourselves in relation to the broader movement.
Ms. Anne of “Last Drop” speaks about the injustice dining workers face because of Vanderbilt’s current policies towards them. Let’s work to change them.
March 8, 2012 at 10:06pm
About Occupy Vanderbilt
We are Occupy Vanderbilt. We want a university that uses its resources to create greater equality in the world, not to replicate the inequalities which exist today.
We occupy this space in front of our university’s central administration in solidarity with those peacefully gathering around the world to express a feeling of mass injustice. All of us have all felt these injustices played out here at this university in many ways.
Opening our eyes to the connections between the different struggles of social justice at Vanderbilt, we have decided from a love of one another to unite, to fight together, and to occupy together. We are against our system where all persons are pitted against another to compete in a zero-sum game. We know another world is possible because that is the true project of a university: taking many from different socioeconomic backgrounds, pooling our resources, and attempting to live and produce knowledge together without privilege above one another.
Vanderbilt University does not fully live up to these goals. Although we do believe that Vanderbilt can be a place of great conscience, we also know that it is too often a place of striking disparities between those who have, and those who have not — those with power, and those without.
We see injustice in the 1:315 ratio in income inequality between its highest paid employee and lowest paid employees in 2008. Then, the vice-chancellor of health affairs made a 5.2 million dollar salary. Many executive employees of Vanderbilt continue to earn near a million dollars a year. Today, 90% of dining workers earn a yearly income below the federal poverty line — with the typical dining worker making $16,500 a year. Our dignified workers are not simply fungible goods; mercilessly minimizing their compensation should not be a goal of our non-profit institution.
We see injustice in our investment in EMVest, a company pursuing land grabs in subsaharan Africa. We see injustice in our investment in HEI Hospitality, a company which has been found liable of violating US labor law multiple times and refuses to let its workers organize through a fair process. We see injustice that Vanderbilt actively hid our investment in, and continues to refuse to publicly commit to not reinvesting in these companies, even while our community is outraged by them. We see injustice in the fact that there is no code of ethics for investment, no ethical review board, and no disclosure of where our money is going.
We see injustice in the way the university can ignore the voices of its community members without repercussion. We declare: we are that reprecussion.
We stand for workers’ justice here at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt must address poverty income among workers, unfair treatment by management, and unethical practices in employment.
We stand for a Responsible Endowment: for a university that manages and invests our collective money in a transparent and accountable way.
We stand for a community university, where the community’s thoughts are valued in all decisions, so that this can truly be our university.
We stand for a socioeconomically diverse university, to alleviate the tacit but obvious racial segregation and class divides on campus we have all experienced.
We do not want to rise into the 1%, we want to rise with the 99% — for the ultimate benefit of the 100%.
Being a student at Vanderbilt does not mean being blind to the suffering of the workers who serve us everyday, and being a faculty at Vanderbilt does not mean staying quiet while coworkers are silenced when they speakout against unfairness.
We lend our voices to all those that have been hurt by our university’s policies, and we call for all to join us in peaceful, nonviolent action.