On Day 3, we visited the UN headquarters in NYC. It was awesome that the snow storm cleared up and despite the freezing cold, our trip was not canceled. The tour guide was a cute South Korean woman who did not exactly deny the shortcomings of the UN, while giving her usual speech on the tour. When our professor answered the question of how many member states are in the UN correctly, she said, yes! I give ten points to Gryffindor!
But the best part for me was not the tour to the UN itself, but the seminar by Manu Bhagavan after we toured the UN. A history professor and the chair of the Human Rights Program at Hunter College, Professor Bhagavan told us an interesting history of how the UN came to be, the UN's commissioned human rights instruments, the great turn in UN functions and perceptions, and imperialism and human rights. Basically, Professor Bhagavan is an optimist and believes that the UN has worked before according to his expertise, and CAN work again, even though the circumstances are grim. At the end of his seminar, he pointed his pencil at us and urged us to enact change in our time. He said to raise our voices, and I asked him to elaborate further on how we can enact change. He said that we need to believe in ourselves, although some people believe that advice is trite, which he disagrees with. If privileged people like us do not believe in ourselves, how can others with less do it? he said. He also mentioned that inspiration is so important, because if our voices inspire others, it can magnify the voices by spreading the word. He especially emphasized the importance of connecting the power of the one to the power of the many.
The discussion from Professor Bhagavan on positive and negative rights and their justiciability has been instrumental in our discussions today, too. A positive right, which obliges action, such as the right to food, is often ambiguous on who/what exactly is supposed to provide/ensure that right is met. It is easy for us to support the idea of right to life, and right to food is probably a necessary prerequisite to guaranteeing one's right to life, but people experience food injustice way too often.
On Day 4, we looked at a photo exhibit that attempts to capture themes that unite the Human experience across cultures. We appreciated how the photos have a way of relating to us and our lives, but we also pointed out the things that are missing and questioned by what standard are these themes and experiences "universal." For example, do the photos on education focus exclusively on portrayals of a Westernized education system that privilege certain people? Do the photos on marriage account for non-heteronormative marriages and atypical non-legally binding unions and families? There is so much missing in this "universal" experience.
For the afternoon, we separated into groups to visit different grassroots organizations. I visited the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY). I have never worked in the restaurant industry so I knew little about that specific sector except from my Work and Occupation sociology course, which definitely covered a lot of ideas that apply to the restaurant industry. We learned about how some restaurants are willing to adopt worker-friendly practices and policies like providing employees with safe and healthy working conditions and benefits like vacations and paid sick days. We obtained a copy of the organization's Diner's Guide and visited a restaurant that had worker-friendly practices. John, the only organizer for ROC-NY, told us that as consumers we should be advocates for workers' rights every time we go out to eat. That sounds like a good place to start.
One issue that hinders John's work to organize restaurant workers for better conditions and rights is workers' lack of identification with their jobs. Many workers do not want to stay in the industry as a career and thus are less invested in making a change. I think this resonates with the increasing job precariousness in America. People are changing jobs more than ever before and jobs are increasingly unstable, so maybe people do not foster the same sense of attachment and hold the same stakes for their jobs in the restaurant industry.
Community organizing is fascinating to me because it is dynamic, grassroots, you meet and work with so many different personalities, and you get to empower others to enact their own change. John invited our group to a protest next week to mark the 2 year anniversary of their current campaign against Darden restaurants (which include the Capital Grille, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, etc). We are excited and definitely interested in showing up to support and maybe join the activity.