Wall of Silence

I walk onto campus and notice a cactus, the maguey, king of all cacti. Shining in the morning air, it raises its smooth arms to the sky. The birds sing and there is moisture in the cool morning air. It is beautiful and alone. No weeds surround it–only crushed granite and other beautiful plants.

It is 7 a.m. Men in blue shirts, sun hats, and kneepads sit on the round pulling weeds.

“¿Qué paso? ¿Cómo has estado?” I ask. They look up and with a tired look shrug and say “Trabajando mucho.”

I stand there.

“¿Qué hiciste por el fin de semana?”

One of the men looks at me. “Solo tengo un día de descanso. Lo pasé con mi familia and mis hijos.”

The college does not directly employ them. The school does not give them benefits.

I shuffle my feet.

“Bueno. Ya me voy. Que le vaya bien.”

If the Claremont Colleges claim to provide their students with the tools to make the world a better place, what does it mean that the labor climate on campus is unsafe and exploitative? The schools do not teach students to question the conditions of its staff. They are silent when you ask why grounds crews are subcontracted and not given benefits. In creating this silence, they condition students to think and accept that people working in the cafeteria and on the grounds crew deserve to get less. This education that claims to spread justice teaches students to perpetuate inequity.

Pomona College describes itself as, “One of the premier liberal arts colleges in the nation. Pomona is a close-knit and diverse community of accomplished scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists who are passionate about making a difference in the world.”

Last week in the Frary Dining Hall, the manager on duty removed 24 student comments from the comment board. Thankfully someone took photographs of them before they were taken down.

Twenty-three of the comments praised the quality of the staff’s work, ten described how staff were overworked. Ten declared that the administration needed to value the staff more, and twelve said that the administration needed to hire more staff members. One described how the omelet line needed to become more organized so that students can receive their omelets in a timely fashion.

The critical voices of dissent are taken down and hidden. The administration leaves these comments unacknowledged.

In one such comment, a student described their interactions with the cleaning staff:

“The dining hall cleaning staff always make my day when I talk to them… it makes me sad, however, to see them being constantly watched and pushed to move faster and faster by the dining hall administration. That is ridiculous. This is not fair to them and its unneeded stress on them. They do their job well and they make my dining hall experience 10 times better. I hope this situation gets better. They are humans. Please treat them as such.”

When I was a first-year, I went to the dining hall for dinner. I started talking with a dining hall employee. They said, “Sorry, I’m not allowed to talk to students.”

Conversations are discouraged. Sometimes, this results in awkward silences; other times it results in lost goodbyes.

On Mar. 30, Pitzer College held a retirement party for Yolanda Retez. She had worked at the school for over 26 years in the facilities department. No students or faculty were told. The administration made no effort to inform anyone outside of her department. A staff member who is friends with Yolanda found out about the party from a co-worker. He told her:

“Hey, Yolanda is here. She is officially retiring. They want to have a reception for her I want you to know because they didn’t tell anyone.”

When asked about the event the staff member said the following:

“That’s fucked up because I’ve known Yolanda for years and many people have known her for years. They could have sent out an email or something, something should have been said so people could come and show her that they love her. They could have done something to give the community the chance to say goodbye and wish her well and tell her how much we love her.”

In a recent staff climate survey at Pitzer College the comment section was particularly telling:

“It’s hard to keep going with little/no recognition for hard work.”

“The school has a more corporate air.”

“Not respected. My supervisor does not communicate. My supervisor has no experience.”

Pomona offers “a comprehensive curriculum with 47 majors in the arts humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. With a student faculty ratio of 8 to 1, our students work closely with their professors in the classroom, in the lab, and in the field.”

What is the student-to-staff ratio?

At Harvey Mudd College, cleaning staff works throughout the night and goes home in the morning to sleep. The administrations do not talk about the silence. They tell students to go to student senate.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Patricia Weaver, the general manager of Pomona Dining Services, about an incident regarding rotten chicken.

She told me that policies in place made sure that all employees have a voice and feel empowered. When I asked if I could talk to other managers, she said no.

I then asked, “Doesn’t it seem ironic that you are talking about policies that empower all of your employees, but at the same time silencing the voices of your managers?”

Patricia responded:

“We are not silencing their voices, we just do not feel comfortable with them speaking to you.”

The cacti stand alone, polished and glistening on Pitzer’s campus. The managers at the Frary Dining hall quickly remove negative comments from the comment board and tell staff to move faster.

Staff at the Claremont Colleges give their lives to the campuses and are told to be quiet. They are treated as if they are not a part of the community. This is a problem because the colleges are lying. They are not making a difference in the world or spreading social justice and intercultural understanding, they are teaching students to be blind to injustice. They are teaching students to talk about change and simultaneously be content with the status quo.

This dishonesty hurts staff members every day, but it also hurts students. It indoctrinates students not to create a better world, but to create the same exploitative environment from which they took their education.

This needs to be acknowledged, and then it needs to change.

Belmont Pinger is a fourth year environmental analysis major at Pitzer College. He grew up in New York City and likes to cook, hike, and take part in direct action. He values sincerity and friendship.

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