Ohio State President Drake and Vanderbilt Chancellor Zeppos: You can run, but you can't hide....

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As the spring semester begins to wind down, SFA's national "Boot the Braids" campaign is heating up! It's been quite an exciting start to the week as Notre Dame University, Georgetown University and Barry University take on the torch in the national rolling student fast, and two major Boot the Braids actions take off at Ohio State and Vanderbilt. We've got on-the-ground action reports from Columbus and Nashville, proving that sooner or later the leaders of this country's top universities will be forced to face student concerns over contractual ties with greedy corporations, like Wendy's, that turn a blind eye to farmworker exploitation in their supply chain. 

Ohio State:  “All eyes are on you, President Drake.  Keep your word and cut the contract with Wendy’s!”

Just as the semester drew to a close in Columbus, scores of students with the OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance and Real Food OSU gathered on the university’s Oval for a march calling on President Michael Drake to keep his word and cut OSU’s contract with Wendy’s, unless and until Wendy’s joins the Fair Food Program.

After nearly four years of campaigning for OSU to take a stand for fundamental human rights, 19 students and alumni fasted for 7 days last month during CIW's major action — a courageous act that sparked a national movement of rolling student fasts in the Wendy’s Boycott.  As the rolling fast spread like wildfire to nearly a dozen universities across the country, all calling on President Drake to honor his promise and cut the contract with Wendy’s, students were told to expects a decision by the end of the semester.

Yet, with the last day of classes behind them, and finals season coming to a close, the OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance has yet to receive a response from the administration.  But the OSU students would not stand for silence.  On Tuesday, students held a spirited march through the heart of campus with their message focused squarely on President Drake. 

As dozens of red-braided participants gathered at the heart of campus to begin the march, Reyna Lusson ’18 (below) brought the crowd up to date on the rolling fast that has swept the country: 

OSU has the power to stand with farmworkers on the right side of history, and create a beautiful example for universities nationwide … This movement is gaining power every day, and has the support of allies across the country.  OSU students and community members did a 7 day fast for farmworker justice last month, which has turned into a rolling fast through many other schools, including University of Michigan, Vanderbilt, Georgetown University, Notre Dame, and New College of Florida— where the university’s president, Don O’Shea, fasted for a day in solidarity with the OSU Boot the Braids campaign.  We will not compromise, we will not back down, we will not take no for an answer.  All eyes are on you, President Drake: keep your word and cut the contract with Wendy’s!

With that, the crowd marched into the library, breaking out in song, and inviting all those studying in the stacks to take a moment to learn about the crucial role OSU could play in the struggle for farmworkers’ human rights.  As a banner dropped from the third floor reading “OSU is Complicit in Wendy’s Human Rights Violations,” hundreds of students gathered to hear Alex Hoey ’19 clearly lay out why OSU must ‘Boot the Braids’ before she and the other marchers were escorted from the building.  

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But the marchers were undeterred, making a beeline from the library to OSU’s administration building, where only a month ago, 19 students and alumni were camped out for their weeklong fast.  Told that President Drake was unavailable to meet them, faster Emily Evans ’17 turned to the group and read aloud what she would have shared with Dr. Drake to the group:  

“During our weeklong fast, we met with Provost Bruce McPherson, Geoff Chatas, and other top administrators.  We had farmworkers with us, sharing their direct experiences of oppression in the fields.  And what did these administrators do?  They laughed in our faces.  President Drake, human rights are not up for interpretation!  Listen to Buckeye Nation!”

As the group chanted “President Drake, where are you?  Who are you accountable to?” the group ended their march by heading to the Ohio Union, once again drawing the attention of hundreds of students on the Oval and hundreds more inside the Union itself.

To bring the inspiring march through campus to a rousing conclusion, Rachael Birri ’20 closed with these words:

“Justice delayed is justice denied. President Drake, the world is watching.  We will be back in the fall stronger than ever, should you chose to stand on the wrong side of history and continue to break your word.  We won’t allow our university to profit off of exploitation any longer.  President Drake, cut the contract now!”

Vanderbilt students:  “Food without justice is no food at all…”

Bright and early on Tuesday morning, ahead of the noontime march through campus and the breaking of the students’ 7-day fast there, the Vanderbilt Political Review published an op-ed by student faster Ania Szczesniewski.  In her hard-hitting piece, Ania calls out Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos for his unacceptable failure to heed students’ calls for justice and cut ties with a fast food company that has willfully evaded its responsibility to protect farmworkers’ human rights.  In just one of the highlights from the article, she writes:

“Whereas the Fair Food Program has nearly ended modern day slavery in Florida and empowers workers to defend themselves from sexual assault, physical intimidation, the deleterious health effects of unprotected contact with pesticides, wage theft, and other human rights violations, Wendy’s continues to source from farms without such protections, fetching a lower price for produce. Their search has transported their sourcing  out of the US and into Mexico where there is no comparable program in existence or even forming on the horizon. In fact, egregious human rights violations, from child labor to slavery, have been widely reported on Mexican farms where Wendy’s is currently purchasing…

…As someone who has had hundreds of conversations with different students about the Wendy’s campaign, there’s no denying that a large share of the student body is disturbed by Chancellor Zeppos’ tolerance of Vanderbilt’s complicity to human exploitation.”  Read more

And those hundreds of conversations were not without result.  Even amidst the buzz and bustle of final projects, term papers and graduation preparations, Vanderbilt student leaders spent the days ahead of Tuesday’s actions gathering over 600 signatures for their petition to remove Wendy’s from VU’s Taste of Nashville Program (totaling in more than 1,300 signatures from VU students this year, on top of the 700 gathered last semester!).  

At noon, students kicked off the breaking of the fast with a lively picket at the Wendy’s on West End — the campus restaurant where students can use their Vanderbilt dining card to grab a burger or Frosty.  In addition to dozens of students, the protest was further bolstered by members of Nashville Fair Food and Workers’ Dignity — and of course, CIW members from Immokalee!

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The picket soon turned into a march to the heart of campus, where student fasters had been camped out all week.  And despite the deep physical toll exacted by seven days without food, the fasters’ spirits were stronger than ever — faster Cal Filkin even led the protest march in song!

When they arrived at the fasting tent, they were greeted by over 50 awaiting students, many of whom had committed to fast for 24 hours in solidarity with the Boot the Braids campaign.  From there, the march numbers continued to swell, as more and more students joined the trek to Chancellor Zeppos’s office and upon arrival, began to file into the building, with a little helping hand for those who had fasted for the week. 

Nearly 100 students packed the room once inside the administration building to deliver the 600 new petition signatures, along with dozens of letters of support from faculty and campus organizations, directly to the Chancellor.  

Rather than come out to face students himself, however, Chancellor Zeppos sent Vice Chancellor for Administration Eric Kopstain to receive the students’ demands.  Undaunted, Cal took the opportunity to explain to Vice Chancellor Kopstain why he chose to go without food for seven days during the last week of the semester: 

“I’m here to talk about the workers that are here, the people they represent, and the changes they’re trying to make in our food system… One thing that Vanderbilt can do to help bring about that change is terminate our contract with Wendy’s. […]

[…]  As a moral institution, it is the thing that we ought to do, that we’re required to do if we want to call ourselves an institution with a moral code, with a compass.  I think it is important for us to think about the people who produce our food, who might not be treated properly… who are not allowed water breaks or shade breaks, or who might be subjected to physical intimidation, sexual assault and harassment, and unable to report those things.  I think that Vanderbilt can lead the charge in terminating its university contract with Wendy’s and help persuade them to sign the Fair Food Program, which provides protections against those things.”

CIW’s Nely Rodriguez, standing by the student fasters, reaffirmed the commitment of students and farmworkers in seeing the campaign at Vanderbilt through until the Wendy’s contract is cut, so long as the fast-food chain refuses to join the Fair Food Program: 

“Today, the Fair Food Program is changing the lives thousands of people.  It has been recognized by the White House, earning a Presidential Medal for its advances in protecting workers’ human rights and ending modern day slavery.  This is also an opportunity for Chancellor Zeppos to take responsibility and be accountable to the students of this University who are here… We will continue to lead this boycott and support these students in their campaign to end the contract.” 

Vice Chancellor Kopstain thanked all those present for coming, and promised to pass the letters and petitions along to Chancellor Zeppos in order to continue the dialogue about the campaign.

Once back outside, the group gathered to break bread together — some, for the first time in a week.  Joseph Sheeran, a Presbyterian student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, shared a biblical reflection to mark the end of the seven-day fast:

“Those of you who have fasted this week understand that we cannot live simply on bread or food.  But that food without justice is no food at all.  We understand that as students at this university we have an obligation to speak to the powers that be, and the powers that be away… about this profound need for justice.” 

After the emotional fast-breaking ceremony, the group shared a meal together at the Rand Dining Center before sharing their own reflections on student/farmworker solidarity and the extraordinary excitement built on campus for the Wendy’s Boycott over the last week.  Vanderbilt students and Nashville community are fired up and already making plans for the road ahead in bringing the Boot the Braids campaign to victory! 

BONUS: As scores of OSU students marched on President Drake's offices in Columbus demanding that he cut the contract with Wendy's, DC Fair Food members confronted him regarding his inaction to meet student concerns after a panel presentation on higher education at the Economic Club of Washington. Caught off guard, and feeling the pressure even outside of Columbus while visiting DC, President Drake said, "What we've said is that we've been talking with them (Wendy's) and looking toward policies that effectively protect workers, which I've been working on actually for my whole life and will continue to work on. So I appreciate your support and will continue working on it. “

Well, President Drake, live up to your values! Cut the contract with Wendy's to support worker-driven social responsibility and ensure that the tens of thousands of farmworkers who harvest the food served at OSU can do so with dignity.