OPINION: Student organizing gave us the power and platform to oust Sodexo

Drop Sodexo student protestors, black & white
Student protestors hold up signs to protest against Sodexo, Scripps College’s dining services provider, at a rally on March 8, 2019. (Courtesy: Drop Sodexo)

Four years ago, four Scripps College students and I were sitting in the Student Union talking about how to get rid of Sodexo. We knew there had been efforts to oust Sodexo — Scripps’ dining hall and facilities management provider at the time — before. Just the previous year, Students Of Color United for Liberation (SOUL) organizers had demanded that Scripps drop Sodexo because of its complicity with the global prison-industrial complex. 

The overwhelming profits that Sodexo has accumulated as the world’s 18th largest corporation are primarily derived from horrific human rights abuses — namely the underpaid or unpaid labor from private prisons, profits made from military contracts and consistent labor and civil rights violations

Sitting in that small back room, talking in hushed voices, I don’t think we understood our own power yet, nor did we really comprehend the magnitude of what we and others would build in the coming years.

Somewhere along the way, as we prepared for a rally, made signs, planned boycotts and stayed up late to make flyers, something changed in us, in me. At the start of our campaign, we weren’t sure if ending Scripps’ contract with Sodexo was even possible. Eventually, we knew it would be. 

Our will would become a reality. With May’s announcement that Sodexo is gone from Scripps, our student team is celebrating not just having achieved our goal; we’re celebrating having exercised our power.

Looking back, I see how our losses made our victories magical and real. I remember our first meeting with President Lara Tiedens in 2016. She was “happy to continue in discussions” with us, but agreed to nothing; in a later email she praised us for the “professional” and “personable way” in which we presented ourselves, but consistently diverted back to affordability when the time came for commitment. I remember how I, a sophomore at the time, felt defeated afterwards, standing in the courtyard outside her office and discussing how she hadn’t agreed to any of our asks, having instead used the meeting to placate us. We might as well have been attendees at a presentation.

I also remember the fire I felt that afternoon, determined to shift that power dynamic. We all felt it; it never left. 

Of course, we understood that the administration had more initial decision-making power than we did. That structural power imbalance meant that when President Tiedens conveyed to us that we should wait and be patient, we knew what she really meant was, “I don’t have to listen to you.”

In retrospect, I know the initial powerlessness we felt made us even less willing to wait — even though the administration had power over the dining services contract, it didn’t mean we couldn’t change that. After that first meeting, we began to take our lack of institutional power seriously. Our campaign entered a new phase.

We decided to go hard and go public.

Our first general community meeting in 2016 packed the Student Union. I still remember walking into that room, feeling the electricity from seeing the dozens of faces who wanted what we did: that Scripps drop Sodexo for good. During the rest of that year, we built our above-ground campaign and held our first rally outside of Malott Dining Commons.

We organized a consortium-wide lunchtime boycott of the dining hall that sent a clear and mighty message to the College. I remember an Italian language professor pulling me aside and asking if the faculty could cook a meal alternative next time; she insisted the Italian department would cook something delicious. Many of us still chuckle thinking about the small moments of love that resulted from our efforts. Those moments kept us going. Professors from Africana Studies, Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Politics, English and so many others showed up to support and urge our work forward during the entirety of the campaign.

After that action, the administration knew we were serious and could hit where it hurt. We started making dropping Sodexo a political issue across our campus and began thinking about how to build relationships with dining hall workers to, in part, clarify our campaign work as against Sodexo, not Malott. Drop Sodexo became a 5C effort as organizers from other colleges joined the campaign and consortium-wide awareness grew.

We did much of this while dealing with the crushing loss of Tatissa Zunguze SC ’18 — a fellow student organizer who led SOUL’s 2015 fight — to suicide in March 2017. Tatissa was our friend and our comrade, and she spent her time at Scripps fighting for the treatment and resources that she and her fellow students of color deserved — and still have not won. 

Grief over her death and our administration’s negligent response stopped most of our original organizers in their tracks.  

In 2018, younger organizers stepped into leadership and began to rebuild momentum. They ensured that Tatissa’s death did not end our campaign — that our grief simply strengthened our resolve to carry on organizing in her memory. This win is, in part, because of her presence at Scripps.

As we regrouped, Scripps quietly dropped its facilities and maintenance management contract with Sodexo. This stepping stone strengthened our resolve even more.

As we canvassed at family weekend in spring 2019, gathered over 1,000 signatures as part of a community-wide petition to drop Sodexo — signed by parents, faculty, staff and students — and delivered them to President Tiedens’ office, Sophie Peters SC ’20, Alex Hammond SC ’19, Griffin Cloud PZ ’19 and the rest of our campaign organizers’ continued resolve become apparent to the entire community.

Seniors wearing graduation caps with Drop Sodexo stickers at graduation.
Seniors in the Scripps College Class of 2019 wore caps with Drop Sodexo stickers at their graduation ceremony. (Courtesy: Drop Sodexo)

We made sure administrators got to know us and spent more time talking about Sodexo than they wanted to or could have imagined. By the time Scripps Associated Students elections rolled around, every single candidate was advertising their support of our campaign. Over half of graduating seniors and faculty wore Drop Sodexo stickers at graduation, sending a message up until the very end.

When Sodexo came to campus this past February to present why they thought they should be hired again, our campaign showed up in full force. We had developed, with other groups, a 5C Leftist Coalition that had our backs. Organized support packed the auditorium, all carrying Drop Sodexo signs. We had alumni who knew about our work urging us forward from afar. 

This final action was our strongest — emblematic of the narrative, personal and people power we had built over the years since that day in the courtyard when I felt so damn powerless against the structural barrier we faced. We had grown, just as our campaign had, into organizers that asked: “How will we make this happen?” instead of: “Is this even a possibility?”

Our Drop Sodexo camp dominated the Q&A portion of the presentation, armed with detailed research about Sodexo and cogent, biting questions. Our youngest organizer, Maddie Moore SC ’22, set the tone. Her power exemplified the entire Q&A, contrasting the values of Scripps and the practices of Sodexo. More importantly, she made it clear to everyone in the room that students had the power here, and were absolutely going to assert it. A professor in the audience later told us: “That was the moment I knew it was over — the moment I knew your campaign was going to win.” 

Scripps dropping Sodexo is a victory not just for our campaign, but for the College and our community at large. It is a win for prison abolition, labor rights and food justice. But beyond that, it is a win for student power. The organizers of Drop Sodexo, including those who came before me and those who will follow — we celebrate a victory that taught us how to build power and win a multi-million dollar divestment campaign.

Dropping Sodexo helped us break through an ideological barrier we didn’t even know existed. 

It’s not every day that you decide to build a campaign to force an administration to drop a multi-million dollar contract with a billion-dollar corporate global behemoth, and then make it happen. Through our organizing, we made Scripps drop Sodexo, necessitating that social justice values be applied to major financial decisions in the process. And yet, if there’s one thing I will take with me from this fight, it’s that when you collectively organize people into power, you can make your will manifest in the world.

So… What’s next for Scripps and 5C student campaigns? 

In-house dining services? A Drop Sodexo campaign at Harvey Mudd College? A 5C effort to defund Campus Safety and Claremont Police? Free comprehensive healthcare for all Scripps students? Five years ago, I’m not sure I would have thought that last one was possible. After the events of the past four years I know that, if future student organizers at the colleges decide to make it so, then it sure as hell can be.

In solidarity and with power, 

Drop Sodexo

Alicia Goode-Allen SC ’19 was a Drop Sodexo organizer. She currently works with JusticeLA and other abolitionist organizations to decarcerate nationally and is working on becoming an acupuncturist. 

Sophie Peters SC ’20 contributed to this piece. She was one of Drop Sodexo’s core organizers who brought the campaign to a close, and is currently planning her next steps post-graduation.

Rebecca Millberg SC ’17 contributed to this piece. She was a founding organizer of Drop Sodexo and is a current tenant organizer in East Harlem, New York City. 

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