Current FEAST Garden staff plan resignation and hiring committee for Spring 2022

469
Plants and the composting bin inside FEAST Garden at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 6, 2021. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

Amid accusations of discriminatory hiring practices in the Occidental Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST) Garden, current employees are planning to resign as a group at the end of the Fall 2021 semester in the hope of forming an independent committee to hire a new set of staff members, according to three current employees. 

FEAST Garden was founded in 2009 by a group of students as a club on campus, and later became a student service in Fall 2017.

According to a group of current FEAST employees, hired or rehired in Fall 2021, all current employees plan to step down from their positions following concerns raised by some students regarding the equity of FEAST’s fall hiring process. 

Some students alleged that the hiring process intentionally pushed out students of color, according to a Sept. 21 Instagram post by FEAST in which they addressed student concerns. 

The most recent student director of FEAST,* a child of Indian immigrants from South Africa, said she resigned in September because she faced harassment and accusations of racism. In the comments section of a Sept. 12 FEAST Instagram post announcing the reopening of the FEAST Garden, several students commented asking about the alleged exclusion of Black and brown students.

“I think when I heard that people were calling me a racist, or that I had intentionally pushed out BIPOC people, it was shocking. … So, to hear things that are not only untrue, but very hurtful and strong accusations — that doesn’t just go away,” the most recent director of FEAST said. “Being surrounded by these rumors makes you question yourself, and that’s not right.”

FEAST received 30 applications for seven student worker positions in Fall 2021, according to Linda Schraeder, Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) associate director and finance manager. Every year, the FEAST student director works with Schraeder to hire employees, she said. 

The most recent FEAST director said that in addition to passion, she looked for professionalism and thoughtful responses from applicants.

“We’re not just here looking for who has the most things on their checklist,” the most recent FEAST director said. “I wanted to see a thoughtfulness in people’s answers. I wanted to see that they took the time to sit down and really think about why they would be a good fit for FEAST, and what they could bring to the table.”

According to Schraeder, four employees who had worked during the remote semesters or the summer reapplied. One was rehired. Of the seven students who were hired during Fall 2021, two were returning employees who had worked at the garden before the COVID-19 lockdown. The most recent FEAST director said Schraeder, her supervisor, asked her to initiate a rehiring process this semester which all ASOC student service employees must go through.

A,* a current FEAST employee, said they were concerned to hear that some employees of the garden who worked during the remote semesters and summer of 2021 were not rehired for their roles.

“It essentially seems like … people were stripped of jobs that they had had with little warning, and in the rehiring process, they were replaced by a staff that was a higher percentage of white students,” A said.

FEAST Garden is a student service funded by ASOC student fees and is subject to all of the college’s hiring and payroll policies. Schraeder said while the reapplication process for previous employees varies depending on the student service and position, all students who work at ASOC student services are expected to reapply in order to be rehired at the start of each new academic year.

Like all student services, FEAST is an Equal Opportunity Employer according to Marcus Rodriguez, assistant dean of students and director of Student Leadership, Involvement & Community Engagement (SLICE).

According to Diego Julian Zapata ‘19, who served as student director of FEAST 2017–2019, hiring students from a diverse set of backgrounds was a priority throughout his tenure as student director. 

“I would never encourage, you know, sort of affirmative action-oriented hiring, like, ‘Oh, you have to be [a] POC to work at FEAST.’ That certainly wasn’t the case,” Zapata said. “But I certainly considered each individual candidate according to how well they can articulate the sort of issues in regards to access, to nature-based education, nature-based programming and how well, intersectionally, they would like to make a change in that regard. That was the real sort of thing I was looking for when I was hiring individual candidates.”

A sign outside FEAST Garden on A.G. Coons Road at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 7, 2021. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

B,* a current FEAST employee, said they felt that some people directed their pain and anger toward the current FEAST employees.

“We weren’t responsible for the hiring. We were the students who got hired, and we saw a job posting and we applied. None of us had the awareness of what had happened, in terms of not rehiring students,” B said. “That’s where it feels like, ‘What can we do as students?’ So we came up with this plan [to step down].”

According to C,* a current FEAST employee, the current employees’ decision to resign together is part of a broader plan they hope will make structural changes to FEAST hiring practices in the future, namely an independent hiring committee made up of students, staff, faculty and former FEAST employees. 

“Our main goal is just to have a hiring process conducted by people who are intimately familiar with FEAST and the garden,” C said. “We think that is not necessarily how it has always happened, or how it happened this semester.”

While current employees are in agreement about stepping down, C said other variables may affect their ability to make changes to the structure and timeline of hiring. 

“The consensus up to this point has been that this is what we’re going to do,” C said. “I don’t want to say with certainty that it’s going to happen, because it doesn’t only rely on our opinions — it relies on a bunch of other things, including the consent of the people who we want as part of the hiring committee to actually do this.”

According to Zapata, FEAST employees reached out to him this fall for advice on finding an equitable strategy for FEAST hiring.

“I honestly think they [current employees] have gotten the short end of the stick here,” Zapata said. “If SLICE was the one who hired them, and then they came up all bushy-tailed, came into FEAST with the positive intentions of stewarding living systems and engaging the student body and the broader community, and then for them to be accused of having some sort of racial bias — I really do feel like they needed my support.”

Former FEAST Director Diego Zapata sorts through FEAST’s greenhouse plants at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Georgia Arnold/The Occidental

According to Zapata, an email invitation he received to attend a committee meeting invited some staff and faculty from Facilities, the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and the Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) and economics departments, among others. 

“I think a lot of the existing committee members who will [hopefully] help oversee hiring are people like myself who have experience with FEAST, managing FEAST and have an understanding of what skills are needed to at least make sure nothing dies at FEAST,” Zapata said.

B, a FEAST employee, said the specialized nature of many of the responsibilities that FEAST Garden workers have, including caring for the garden’s chickens, were considerations when the group decided to wait until the end of the semester to step down.  

“We’re feeding them [the chickens], cleaning and taking care of plants which are live beings as well and need constant attention and upkeep,” B said. “We planted a lot of new things in the beds, [have] taken out a lot, propagating a lot in the nursery, collecting a lot of seeds, … all of these things almost like to prepare it so that when there’s a new rehiring process. … Then we can give the garden to the new hires in a healthy productive state.”

*The Occidental has omitted the names of students in this article in accordance with our anonymous source policy. The three current student FEAST employees are distinguished as employees A, B and C. For more information on anonymity, visit our Frequently Asked Questions.

Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) declined to comment for this article.