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Workers and the Heart of Stanford

Memories of a home lost.


This is for the three women who staffed the kitchen in the house I called home for the past two years at Stanford, to thank them for feeding me, as well as for loving me. For the plates of lemon-butter salmon, hummus and falafel, samosas, fajitas, and ropa vieja. For the steaming tamales bought on the drive to work and shared on rain-filled mornings. For the ginger and garlic shots mixed against colds. For that jostling, laughing, crowded afternoon of making pupusas, slapping masa from hand to hand.

Stanford has given much to me. I recognize the luck I have had in coming to know this institution and the people who fill it. But it has also been a sad place for me, at times cold and distant. I struggled to put down roots, to find a place amidst this large and disperse scattering of people and programs. The fall before last saw me move into that house more insecure and alone than I had ever been.

But over the months, with each meal filled with laughter and each night spent camping out in the kitchen past midnight, I began to bond to this house that bookended classes and meetings. The sense of belonging was as much a product of the women who cooked and cared for us as of the others who lived in the house. The women told us about their families and treated us as their children. They gossiped with us about dates, classes, and parties. They checked in on how we were. I came to accept that I had found a place where comfort and love were woven into the fabric, where I might at last be at home at Stanford.

These women mothered me through loss as well as life. My grandmother had a stroke the winter before last, and it was they who packed me a sandwich as I rushed to the airport, sending me off in an exchange of embraces and promised prayers. Then she passed away, on a Monday morning, five months ago. The phone call reached me in California, bringing with it a fog of grief. I hung up and went to lecture, although the lesson struck me as strange and distant, and I wondered what I was doing there, knowing that I could not answer the polite small talk of these rooms with the truth of a death that was no more than hours in the past. It was not until I returned to the house for dinner that night that I spoke of what had happened, and then I began to cry in the middle of the kitchen, and the women asked me what was wrong, and I told them that it was my grandmother, and they held me, their arms wrapped tight, while the tears flowed.

As we packed up and made our farewells at the end of March, unmoored and still unsure of what it was that we had lost and were to mourn, the women who staffed our kitchen were there alongside us. When friends wondered when to leave and where to go, one of the women promised that her apartment would be open for us if we ever needed it. They had told us before that we were their daughters, and they remained true to their word. We thanked and hugged them. Before I left, I told them that I would see them soon.

None of these women will have a job at Stanford in the coming school year. I will graduate before their return to campus, if these women ever do come back. The same one who offered her apartment to us might not be able to afford the rent to keep it. Another woman is due to give birth in August.

I do not doubt that the conditions of the pandemic and its consequences for the budget are unprecedented and severe, but I also do not accept that there was no alternative. The state of the world, the closing of campus, the strange year that lies ahead, these are challenges. But the question was never one of if Stanford would survive. The question was of how much and what it would choose to sacrifice in the process. I urge Stanford to remember that the actions it takes will have consequences well after the present moment. Stanford has chosen to save for a distant future. When that time comes, one must wonder what it will mean to those who matriculate here – that the institution once faced a test of its commitment to those who made up its foundation, and that it failed to rise to the occasion.

It is no surprise that Stanford laid off workers, but it is telling for what the institution is and will be. Such triage accepts as its cost the last fragile threads which stitched together the heart of this place, which strained to make a home out of a college. The pandemic unraveled much of what Stanford once was and pretended to be, blowing open the chasms of race and class between students. Thousands of us scattered to make out as best we could in an unvarnished and broken world, the disconnects in our realities a reminder of the distance between us that Stanford could not close. The decisions of the past few months have come as an open concession to the further gap between students and workers, a fracture that never narrowed and which Stanford will make no more claim of tending. The resistance to wage continuance through the spring, the reluctance with which support has trickled out from the administration, this final cut of ties with so many workers, these are the actions of a place that does not value those who have made it whole.

The fantasies of a campus where one might still be safe from the harshest realities of outside life, where the notion of togetherness might still have meaning, are no more. These were romance, foolishness. I confess that I wished for them to be true, and I must accept that this is not so. To hold on to them now is to ignore the pain of those whose livelihoods are gone. Still, it is a loss that I believe should leave us sad, that Stanford moves on without such narratives, becoming a place that cares little if such a world exists, even in dreams. 

Find information on how to donate to a fund for all laid-off Stanford workers here.

Contact Carolyn Chun at cgchun ‘at’

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