As many students have returned home following Penn’s decision to move all classes online for the semester, the Penn community can feel farther away than ever. But this hasn’t stopped groups of students from coming together to advocate for their peers and community members amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
When the university significantly reduced operations after Spring Break, many students and staff were left to deal with challenging circumstances. FGLI and international students, facing financial problems, travel barriers, and volatile home lives, scrambled to find stable living situations before online classes began. Penn’s retail dining staff was laid off by Penn’s dining provider, Bon Appétit Management company, with little notice. All around University City, businesses are struggling to make ends meet due to a reduced consumer base and social distancing policies.
In response to these developments, students have stepped up. We celebrate them here.
Penn Covid Fund, a collection of students from all over campus, mobilized to crowdfund resources for vulnerable students. In a Facebook post shared across Penn pages and groups, the students linked a form where people could donate, as well as a form for students to fill out if they were in need of funds.
Dan Gonzalez (C ’20), Penn First Internal Outreach Chair, is one person who helped organize the fund.
“I was really distressed by how everyone was displaced,” Dan says. “Not everyone has the means to just get up on their feet and go, or buy an emergency plane ticket to come back to campus or go home, or even has a good situation at home.”
The fund has since closed after raising around $4500 and collecting 88 applications for funding, Dan says.
“We were focusing on the short term [needs], and based on the number of responses we got, we had to make a decision on how much we would give to students,” Dan says.
About half of those who applied for funding received it, but the funding group emailed everyone who applied to help connect them to additional resources. Dan has been in contact with administration to bring attention to individual students who have not received the assistance they need, and he’s working with alumni to push the university into action.
“It's definitely complicated,” Dan says. “It's not something that’s meant to be done by students, which I think we all understand. This is something that we're doing out of pure necessity, not because we're trained to do it.”
Watching the extended Penn network come together to support each other was very encouraging to see, Dan says.
“I'm really grateful for everyone who's trying to do a little bit to help out, because there's so many questions and so many needs,” he says. “This was a moment for everyone to work together or be as collaborative as possible to get something done.”
Working with other students to raise funds remotely has made Dan appreciate Penn’s community and its reach beyond the physical campus.
“Penn has marvelous people, and I feel like students have diverse opinions, but we’re generally people who care a lot about social issues, who are really smart and talented and can work quickly,” he says. “We're able to build capacity and get things done. I really think we're more than just this campus, and I hope that everyone remembers the community that we built, and that you can find Penn in a little bit of everywhere.”
Petition and Fund for Penn Dining Workers
After the Daily Pennsylvanian published an article saying Bon Appétit planned to lay off their 140–person retail dining staff without pay beginning March 31, the Penn Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) took action by starting a petition to put pressure on the university to support the dining hall workers. Inspired by the Penn Covid Fund, SLAP also partnered with Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, a group that advocates for the fair treatment of workers, to create a fund for the dining staff.
“We just wanted to do as much as we can to help these workers because they're being left in the dust by their employer and the person who is contracting their employer,” SLAP member Claudia Silver (C ’20) says.
After gaining over 5,000 signatures, the SLAP petition proved effective. On March 30, Penn decided that they would pay the laid off dining workers through May 15.
“I'm very happy and very impressed with the outpouring of support that allowed this to happen,” member Ivanna Berrios (C ’21) says. “It was really really awesome because I feel like the fact that we were able to get that policy change was a reflection of that [support].”
In addition to their goal of getting immediate help for the workers, SLAP also hoped to use the opportunity to call upon Penn to hire the workers directly, not through a contracting service, Ivanna says.
“Right now, they are Bon Appétit employees, and they're not Penn employees, but we're asking Penn to take over responsibility over their community and put them on payroll,” Ivanna says. “So then part of the [the purpose of the] fund, as well as supporting objectively during this time, is also to say, ‘Penn, you have billions of dollars in endowment. Why aren't you supporting these workers? We had to step up and support them, just through grassroots fundraising. It's time for you to do your part.’”
SLAP member Ella Bei (C ’20) says they felt that the administration went against the values of investing in the community that it preaches by initially laying off the workers.
“Especially in a time where everyone is really struggling, I thought it was especially bad Penn wasn't stepping in to help their workers more, considering these workers have served the Penn community for decades,” they say.
Ella feels frustrated that Penn didn’t step up to help the workers, even with their multi–billion dollar endowment.
“There was definitely a need for this fund to fill a hole that I wish hadn't been left in the first place,” they say. “But I am glad that it is coming together because workers need the money. However, this is definitely a temporary means to an end, as opposed to the end itself. ”
While the activists are currently unable to organize on campus and confront the administration directly, Ivanna says they haven’t lost their momentum. The group has been using online resources like Zoom and phone calls to organize.
“It's nice to see that not being in person hasn’t cost us,” she says. “The Penn community without campus is just what we want to see, and that doesn’t change, even if we can’t see each other.”
Penn Appétit Gift Card Exchange
Some students sought to reach out beyond the immediate Penn community. Grace Leahy (C ’21), Managing Editor of Penn Appétit, and the Penn Appétit Board opened a gift card exchange to help Philadelphia restaurants.
Grace, who organized the exchange, had people fill out a Google Form to participate and then proceeded with a “Secret Santa”–style exchange, which closed on March 30. Over 30 people signed up and had to spend a minimum of $10, Grace says.
Grace had previously shadowed women who worked in the restaurant industry for a class, allowing her to develop a greater connection to the Philadelphia food scene.
“When this all happened, they were the first people I thought of,” Grace says. “I just kept thinking, ‘Okay, well what can we do? What can I be doing to make this easier on them because their services are something that I still appreciate and so love?’”
Grace thought the gift card exchange could be an enjoyable way not only to bring funding to restaurants who need it, but also to bring together the Penn Appétit and Penn community, she says. Grace encouraged those who filled out the Google Form to add a personalized message to the digital gift card.
“That way, you’re sending it with a little note or a word of inspiration or support, strengthening ourselves a little bit, fortifying ourselves with small acts of kindness like that,” she says.
Even though many students are not in Philadelphia right now to use their gift cards, Grace says this gives them something to look forward to when they do return to Philadelphia.
Through the exchange, Grace hopes to bring awareness to the difficulties the restaurant industry is facing and the small ways that people can help local restaurants.
“A big problem with the restaurant industry is that most employees and most service workers have no source of income anymore,” Grace says. “A lot of them have been laid off, or are people who rely on tips, or people who are really struggling to make ends meet. There are still a lot of small ways for you to still stay engaged and involved in supporting organizations and businesses that you really love and trust.”
With people struggling across the globe amidst the COVID–19 pandemic, it’s crucial to do what you can to help. The Penn and Philadelphia community is a great place to start. The fund for Penn’s dining staff is still open for contributions. The Penn COVID–19 Mutual Aid is an easy way to offer housing or emotional support. Check in with your friends and professors. Support local restaurants and small businesses by promoting them on social media and buying merchandise online. And look forward to a safe and healthy return to campus.