The Home of Student Journalism at Lesley University

An Interview with Lesley Student Filmmaker Najifa Tanjeem

As students, we tend to always ask for more from Lesley’s Dining Services, like longer operational hours at on-campus dining halls or a greater variety of food choices. While it’s important and advised to advocate for our own needs, admittedly, we don’t stop nearly as often
as we should to think of the workers who staff our on-campus eateries. As one student uncovered, these employees are working under unfavorable conditions and have not even been paid fair wages.

Najifa Tanjeem, activist filmmaker and senior Global Studies major, started a grassroots effort to shine a light on these unfair on-campus labor practices with her documentary, “From The Dining Halls.” I interviewed Tanjeem to get a sense of her motivation behind making this
film and what she was able to uncover.

Lesley Public Post: Could you provide a brief summary of your documentary for those who haven’t seen it?

Najifa Tanjeem: “My documentary “From the Dining Halls” critiques the neoliberal policies that create unfavorable working [conditions] for dining hall workers and explores the pathway to resistance. Under the neoliberal capitalist system, most universities started operating like big businesses. Because of the neoliberal policies practiced by universities, workers struggle to get a fair living wage and favorable work benefits to [make ends] meet. Many workers have to work more than one job, even three or four jobs, to afford housing, food, and other basic needs. It is a social justice issue because most of the workers come from marginalized communities. My documentary explores the politics of this complex social justice issue, how it affects dining hall workers, and how we all, as a community, can build solidarity to resist against unjust neoliberal policies.”

LPP:  What made you want to tell the story of these dining hall workers? Did your major, Global Studies, make you take more of an interest in this issue?

Tanjeem: “My Global Studies major definitely ignited my interest in global social justice issues. From my major, I learned how neoliberal policies create an environment where wealthy people get wealthier, and [marginalized] communities become more [marginalized]. The topic of my documentary is just a microcosm of a larger issue in the global food chain system. Because of the neoliberal policies like consolidation of corporate control, free market economy, sub-contracting, and profit-making [tendencies] in every step of the food chain system, there [are] labor rights [violations]. In the global food chain system, from the crop fields to our plates, farm workers, food-processing workers, grocery store workers, restaurant workers, [and] dining hall workers go through labor rights [violations] and struggle for fair [wages], healthcare, and work benefits.  My Global Studies major and Communication and Media Studies minor gave me [the ability] to advocate for social justice issues with visual storytelling. When I saw what I was learning in my Global Studies major was happening at my own university, I thought I had to utilize my privilege to raise awareness about labor rights issues and unionizing in campus. That is why I made the documentary.”

LPP:  What was the most shocking thing you discovered while doing your research? What is something that most people would be surprised to learn about labor campaigns?

Tanjeem: “Harvard dining hall workers had to go on a historic twenty-two day strike for a fair contract in 2016. Harvard University has one of the largest endowments in the world, even as large as one country’s GDP. Yet, Harvard dining hall workers had to go on a twenty-two day
strike to get a fair contract for fair [wages], healthcare, and work benefits! It is very shocking to know that a university has billions of dollars of endowment, and yet, dining hall workers of that university had to strike for twenty-two days to get a fair contract!  At Lesley, during labor campaigns, flyers were taken down [because] we did not have “permission.” It is shocking and contradictory to freedom of speech when someone needs “permission” to speak up for their rights.”

LPP:  How do the dining hall politics at Lesley compare with those at nearby universities?

Tanjeem: “Whereas some universities directly employ their workers, some others get workers through a third party contractor like Bon Appétit. In this subcontracting system, a university gets indemnity. For example, if a worker gets injured, the university is not liable for it. This way, the university gets rid of the liability to protect the workers. Sometimes, workers who work at the university and work for the university don’t have access to university resources. They don’t have access to [the] university library, university gym, or tuition remission.”

LPP:  Do you think college students should be more aware of the dining hall politics at their own universities? Why or why not?

Tanjeem: “Definitely, college students should be more aware of the labor rights issues [on campus].  Because, first, it is a social justice issue. Second, students pay tuition to the university, so they have the power. So, it is our responsibility as [members] of a community to utilize our
power to stand up for what is just and right.”

LPP:  Would you say that dining hall politics is one of the biggest problems a university faces?

Tanjeem: “All workers, even [faculty members], struggle for fair contracts. As I said, this is a microcosm of what is happening around the world because of the adverse effects of neoliberal policies. As universities are the institutions of knowledge and education, they should consider labor rights issues very seriously and do their best to ensure labor rights. Being educational institutions, it is their moral and social [responsibility] to not only teach about social justice, but also ensure social justice [on] campus.”

LPP:  You’re a senior now. After your graduation, what kind of impact would you like this film to leave on the students and faculty at Lesley?

Tanjeem: “Even though I will graduate, I will continue screening my documentary film [to] raise awareness about labor rights and campus activism not only at Lesley University, but also at other nearby college campuses.”

LPP:  What are some steps that Lesley students can take to support labor rights?

Tanjeem: “This is a never-ending struggle. [Costs] of housing, health care, and other basic needs keep going up and wages or salaries do not go up compared to the prices. The struggle for a fair contract comes up whenever it is time for a new contract. My request to the students would be:  Please be informed and get involved. Students have a lot of power [at] universities. Please be aware of what injustices are happening [on] campus, get involved in campus activism, and join a labor campaign when you see one.  I feel hopeful when I see students getting together and [inspiring] changes [on a] college campus. This is what we need more [of]! One of the root causes of labor struggles is university corporatization. So, we need a change in the system. Students should get together to work towards bringing a system where the university administration will be [held] more responsible, transparent, and accountable when it comes to labor rights issues.”

For more information on Tanjeem’s work and film, feel free to contact her directly at ntanjee2@lesley.edu.

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