An inspirational living memorial (and a path to good jobs)

An inspirational living memorial (and a path to good jobs)

Last night – as the memorial beams of light began blazing from the World Trade Center site, and President Obama pushed for much-needed new investments to create jobs – I was honored to attend a moving tribute that truly honors the victims of the tragedy, and helps point a way forward.

The Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC-NY here, and now ROC-United around the country) was founded by survivors of Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the WTC, where 73 workers lost their lives on September 11th.  ROC-NY embodies the best of our city after that terrible day – New Yorkers working together to build a stronger and more equal community.

In the weeks and months following 9-11, the survivors and their allies decided to create a new organization that would serve as a living memorial to their fallen co-workers.  Together, they would not only create a new restaurant where they could work, but they would fight for better working conditions for all restaurant workers, and uphold the spirit of equality, resilience, and community that we felt in New York City at that time.

If you were in NYC then, I’m guessing you’ve been remembering the feeling that was on the streets and in our hearts.  We were scared and angry.  But we also found a spirit of community that I had not seen before.  We came together across lines of race, class, and religion. The ghastly, inhuman, evil attack laid bare the fundamentally equal suffering of the families — from investment bankers from Cantor Fitzgerald to dishwashers from Windows on the World.  For a few weeks, we saw that we truly have a shared fate.  

Unfortunately, I have been feeling that too little of what we’ve done together – in the name and memory of 9-11 – truly honors that spirit of shared fate.  We have rightly worked to make sure that we are safe, and we most of course continue to do so.  But we’ve often attempted to do so at the cost of our civil liberties and by targeting Muslim communities with discriminatory policing. And we have done too little to build a more compassionate and more equal world … the kind of world that we should work hard for every day if really believed that stockbrokers and dishwashers are truly equal, and that our fates are entwined.

But ROC-NY is a shining example of exactly that.  And as I was listening to the President’s speech (and hoping-against-hope that Congress will pass the plan, including the investments in our infrastructure and the funding for teachers and first responders), I also realized that ROC-NY is not only an extraordinary tribute to the memory of those killed on 9-11 … but also a great model for the kind of jobs programs that we need so badly at this moment.

In the decade since, they’ve launched Colors Restaurant, which provides good jobs to displaced Windows workers and many others, and serves delicious, diverse, and sustainably-sourced food.  ROC-NY has won 10 workplace justice campaigns on behalf of workers at restaurants in New York, obtaining close to $5 million in back-wages for hundreds of low-wage, mostly immigrant workers.  They’ve pushed for improved working conditions, and for legislation that would grant paid sick days to all workers in New York City (something most restaurant workers still lack).  They’ve grown to 5,000 members, and now expanded around the country.  And all of this great work came out of the ashes of 9-11 and the collective spirit that united us on that day.

Just this summer, together with the NYC Restaurant Industry Roundtable, they launched “If You Care, Eat Here,” a guide for NYC residents who want to eat in restaurants that respect their workers, promote staff from within, offer health care and paid time off.  I was pleased to see that Comida, a restaurant in my neighborhood (230 Fifth Avenue, in Park Slope), is on the list, and to be able to feature them on my new “Shop Local” website.

So, in the days after the 10th anniversary this Sunday, if you are looking for a way to honor the spirit of equality and community that we felt in the days after 9-11 ten years ago, you might think about taking your family or friends to Colors, or to one of the restaurants on the If You Care, Eat Here guide, and learn a little more about ROC. 

A meal, a restaurant, a workers organization – they don’t replace lost loved ones, they can’t explain what happened, they’ll never erase the tragedy.  But the spirit they reflect, and the struggle they are enacting, is nonetheless one powerful way that we can keep standing up to terror and build a stronger city.