Federal Donuts, Hunger, and Loving Philly Well

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See, doesn’t that look good? (This picture was shamelessly stolen from the Kickstarter page).

It’s no secret that I love Philly, and every once in a while I come across something that makes me really proud of this city and excited to live here. This week, that happened to me while I was grabbing my Saturday morning coffee and donut at my friendly neighborhood Federal Donuts. Federal Donuts – in collaboration with several other Philadelphia businesses and non-profits – is endeavoring to open up Philly’s first non-profit restaurant. They’re calling this project Rooster Soup Company. I read over their Kickstarter page a couple of times, and decided that this is something that I want to get behind. And I think you should too.

The idea behind this project is simple: they want to take the hundreds of pounds of chicken scraps that FedNuts produces each day (yeah, they sell chicken alongside donuts. It’s not as weird as it sounds, and both are delicious) and use them to make soup. That soup would then be sold in a restaurant, and the profits from that restaurant would go straight to Broad Street Ministry.

Here’s what I love about this plan:

1. The food options in Philly are nearly endless, but the hundreds of restaurants in this city produce (very literally) tons of food waste. At the same time, hunger is an everyday reality for many Philadelphians. This project cuts back on some of that food waste, and will not only eliminate it, but use it to feed some of those hungry people.

2. The folks behind Rooster Soup Company could have just decided to start their own non-profit, but instead, they’re choosing to empower an existing organization. I think that’s a very wise move. Starting a non-profit is no easy task; in addition to additional capital and a specialized skill set, something like that requires time to build trust and develop relationships with clients. Instead, they’re entrusting Broad Street Ministry – which is a solid organization that serves people as Jesus would – to carry out the tangible hunger-eliminating work.

3. On their way to and from work each day, middle and upper class Philadelphians walk past dozens of homeless people. I’m sure most of them are decent people who wish there was something that they could do to help this marginalized population. Rooster Soup Company will make it easy for them to do this, without asking them to go very far out of their way (both literally and metaphorically).

4. This is a project that connects so many groups in this city: a hip business, a radical church, Center City’s homeless population, anyone who will eat at Rooster Soup Co, and anyone who backs this campaign. This is a diverse bunch, and it’s neat to see them all coming together here.

5. This is an extremely creative endeavor. I have no idea how the minds behind this idea came up with it, but I’d really like to see it play out. If it does, I don’t think we’ll be disappointed, and I suspect that there will be even more interesting collaborations like this in the years to come.

6. Soup is delicious, and this menu looks amazing.

With just a little over a week left in their Kickstarter campaign, Rooster Soup Company still needs about $20,000. If you’re interested, and if you can, I invite you to join me in supporting this creative project.

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Petty Justice

As much as I love living in a city, I still can’t shake that heightened awareness of vulnerability that accompanies city-dwelling. Philly is my home, but I still feel safer when I’m in the suburbs or at the shore.

In the year since I moved here, I’ve had no less than three encounters with petty thievery: my car has been broken into twice, and my bike was stolen. These are not heinous crimes; I do not consider myself a victim. In these instances, I was hardly violated, and the only loss I suffered was a few hundred dollars and some hours of my time. Nothing lasting, nothing irreplaceable.

But still, I can’t quite get over my annoyance with petty crime like this, and the fact that in this place where I’m so comfortable, I still need to be much more careful with my belongings and person than I am elsewhere. I also wonder why, in middle class, relatively safe neighborhoods, useless crimes like these happen so regularly (people who’ve lived here long enough come to expect them). Perhaps it’s because in cities, unlike anywhere else, everyone’s stuff is out there in the open, all the time, for all to see, not tucked away in backyards and garages. And in cities, there is a much higher volume of people – broken, fundamentally skewed, people. The same kinds of people who live in suburbs (and everywhere else), but more of them.

And people hold incorrect attitudes. More serious crimes – murder, rape, etc. – are inspired by attitudes that we’re all capable of, but to a degree that most people never experience (thank God). The attitude behind petty theft, however, is much more simple, sneaky, and prevalent. I don’t know much about the people that have taken my various belongings over this past year, except this: they all believed that they had a right to something that simply was not theirs, that they did not work for, that they did not earn. I fundamentally disagree with this. But I fear (no, I know) that I also succumb to this temptation.

Justice – in its most basic, brutal form – is rendering each his due, and getting what you deserve. Stealing someone else’s bike, or helping yourself to the contents of their parked car is unjust. But so is squandering someone else’s resources, cutting off the car behind you, and being rude to strangers. In many ways, I hold and act upon the unjust attitudes that led to my things being taken, and I hate that. I am not a petty thief, but I’m not perfectly just either.

There is nothing I can do to undo the injustices that have been done to me – I realize and accept that. But I can try to change how I feel about the things I have, the things I don’t have yet, and the work I do to earn them. Hopefully this is one minuscule step toward making this city better for everyone.

Nine Things I Learned from Working in a Restaurant

During college, many of my classmates spent their summers doing internships, research, and other resume-building things. I spent mine waitressing – on purpose. This was in part because the restaurant I worked at was a block from the beach, however, a few weeks into my time there I realized that that experience could potentially be just as vital to my formation as all of the classes I took, books I read, papers I wrote, and sermons I listened to. Here are just a handful of the things I learned from working in a restaurant:

How to use a restaurant. There are plenty of ranty articles and blog posts out there about this topic, so I needn’t add much more. But: restaurant staff are people too – and they have normal lives, needs, desires, etc. Restaurant customers should treat them that way. Banter with your waiter, thank the hostess on your way out, and if something goes wrong, give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. And don’t be condescending. The world would be a better place if we always treated strangers this way.

How to have normal human interactions. The environment of the place I worked at is pretty far removed from the ivory towers of cushy academia. While I could have really stuck out, but I don’t think I did. I came to really respect my co-workers, boss, and the other members of the community. Furthermore, I was able to laugh with them, rant with them, celebrate with them, and work my butt off with them. This was extremely helpful in helping me transition from my small conservative college to the rest of the world.

Work ethic. I try to live with the philosophy that everything worth doing is worth doing well, and it’s definitely easier when the people I’m working alongside are also super hardworking. During one of my first shifts at the restaurant, it was really slow, and the girl I was working with kept finding things to clean, because instead of standing around, she wanted to actually earn her wage. With that precedent, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to slack off at this job. Restaurant work can be grimy and mundane, and sometimes the hours are a little insane, but all work is worth doing well.

Team work. In academia, your work is largely your own. While you might be learning in a community, your papers and your grades belong exclusively to you (unless you’ve plagiarized, but that’s different). But workplaces almost never function like this. This is especially noticeable in a restaurant. During a rush, everyone has the same goal: to seat as many people as possible and turn over tables quickly, as to increase revenue for everyone. In our most hectic moments, anyone with even a few seconds to spare would ask everyone else if they needed help, and pitch in where needed. We all ended up doing stuff outside of our job descriptions, including many things that wouldn’t directly benefit us. Why? Because it sucks to see your colleagues fail, and when we succeed, we succeed together. It might be easy to forget this in a classroom or office, but when there are people waiting to be seated at your restaurant, you don’t think twice about it.

Work and life are not mutually exclusive. In my experience, restaurant staff don’t care too much about stiff professionalism. This meant that the line between one’s personal life and work life was often blurred. I now know that that’s how a lot of workplaces (even offices) are, and I’ve come to appreciate it. A lot of people stress out about finding a “work-life balance,” and I think that one of the reasons that this is so stressful is that this line is never distinct, and maybe not even necessary.

Loyalty and stability. A lot of families who vacation at the Jersey shore have been doing so for generations. On more than one occasion, I served customers who had been coming to the restaurant and ordering the same meal since before I was born. Likewise, most of the people I worked with had been working there for years, some of them following in the footsteps of older siblings or cousins (or in my case, parents). In our flighty and transient culture, this kind of loyalty to a place and a routine is refreshing.

Justice. My freshman year, I took a class called “Justice and the Common Good,” where we studied what the term “justice” has meant to philosophers throughout the ages, and what it should mean for us now. The definition of justice that I walked away with was this: justice is doing your work well and giving people what they deserve. (That’s adapted from Plato and Aquinas, who phrase it more eloquently). It wasn’t until I started working at the restaurant that I really began to understand what this notion justice means, practically. The basic economic transactions that happen in restaurants (and stores, bars, etc.) is justice in its simplest form, and it’s vital to our society and the common good.

Piety. One of the first things that we read in my Great Books education was the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro. This is when I learned the phrase “filial piety,” which is the practice of being dutiful toward those whom we owe our duty. This generally means parents, but also elders, superiors, etc. In its most basic and practical form, filial piety is respecting your boss, even when what he tells you to do doesn’t make sense. It’s understanding that the most experienced waitress is going to be assigned the best section. It’s fulfilling the ridiculous requests of your most loyal customers (even if they don’t tip very well). It’s doing your duties without question, and I think people in service jobs are some of the best examples of it.

The Good Life. One of my college professors once said (jokingly, I think) that the Good Life is “beer and fireworks.” In the program that I graduated from, we spent a lot of time talking about the “Good Life,” and speculating what it entailed as to go forth and live it. We developed a fairly specific notion of what it means to live a “Good Life,” so during the summers, it was a little confusing for me to spend time with people who were hard working, good, and happy, but not asking big questions or reading old books. Over the course of several years, I came to the conclusion that sometimes, for some people, the good life might just be hard work followed by beer and fireworks – and that’s okay.

Viral Justice

STJfvaeEIf you’ve been pretty much anywhere on the internet in the past week or two, then you’ve probably seen something about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, or the similarly significant #RealMenDontBuyGirls. Maybe you’ve read about how Ann Coulter tried to troll the former hashtag but failed, or how the latter was really a campaign started by Ashton Kutcher years ago. Maybe you’ve even read a little bit about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, or learned something new about human trafficking.

What I haven’t seen out there is anything questioning whether or not this is the best way to go about bringing back these girls or preventing men from buying them. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong to use these hashtags or that people shouldn’t do it – I’m just kind of amazed how everyone seems to be using them, without question (except Ann Coulter, but that’s different). And yeah, I’m a little skeptical. If you visit my Twitter page, you’ll see that I haven’t used either of these hashtags, even though I fully support everything they stand for.

I guess I’m processing this a little bit – that is, the role that social media plays in solving deeply nuanced problems of justice. I like to call what’s taken place over the past couple over the past couple of weeks “viral justice.” Here, a significant social problem has gone viral the same way that a meme or a video of a funny cat might. This isn’t the first time that this has happened, and I think the assumption is that taking to social media to write about (or, hashtag about – is hashtag even a verb? Did I just make it one?) social justice will raise awareness of issues and ultimately help in solving them. Last year I attended The Justice Conference here in Philly, and there were multiple seminars about how nonprofits and activists can use Twitter in their efforts. So this is serious business, and now is as good a time as any for me to think through this a little bit, and what it means for us as individuals and a society. For the sake of organization, I’ve made a pro-con list (classic).

Things that are great about this kind of viral justice:

It’s raising awareness of huge social problems. Through this crisis in Nigeria and the resurfacing of the #RealMenDontBuyGirls campaign, I hope that tens of thousands of people now know a little more about human trafficking – namely, that it exists, and it exists everywhere. I don’t think I knew about this issue until I got to college, and even then it was only because I attended a school that cares a ton about justice issues. For those that aren’t in the loop about such problems, I hope Twitter and all this media hype is shedding some light on one of the world’s darkest secrets.

It’s bringing people together in an unprecedented way. Leave it to social media to shrink our big, diverse world. It seems like every decent person with access to a smartphone is demanding that Boko Haram #BringBackOurGirls, regardless of where they’re from, who they pray to, and how much power they have. I can’t think of another time – a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a global crisis – where this many people have united so smoothly, with hardly any controversy or debate. I love that celebrities, politicians, and normal people all over the world have a way to come together during this sad and scary time. It demonstrates that at the end of the day, we’re all ontologically good and want good things for our world.

Things that make me second guess this kind of viral justice:

Is it really activism? Maybe this is what justice-work looks like in 2014, but I’m not convinced that using a particular hashtag will convince terrorists to release their victims, or world leaders to go after those terrorists (but if it does – wonderful!). And – here’s a predictable critique – it’s really easy to press “send” on a tweet when the people who are really suffering here are on the other side of the world. I don’t know what better or more tangible activism would look like here – I’m not about to go after Boko Haram myself, so maybe tweeting is better than nothing.

What about all those other justice issues that don’t go viral? To be sure, 276 kidnapped children is a really big deal, and this justice issue should probably get a little bit more media attention than others, at least for now. But aside from this, it seems like certain issues of justice have a fad-like appeal to them – they become trendy, or in season. When they’re no longer trendy, it’s rarely because the issue just went away. And in the meantime, what about all of the other problems that are happening in this broken world?

Is social media distracting us from empathy? 276 kidnaped children are in the hands of terrorists – some, if not all of them (God forbid), have probably been sold as sex slaves. How should one react to this chilling fact, and the kind of evil underlying it? It’s really easy to post a (public) tweet or status rallying folks to #BringBackOurGirls and then move on with our days, without much thought or empathy. But 276 children are missing, and we should be mourning, praying, and feebly trying to imagine what they and their families are going through. We can’t fight terrorists, but we can empathize with victims and try to recognize evil for what it really is. And we should let this – the brokenness of our world – affect us deeply, in a way that a hashtag doesn’t satisfy.

So, I’m leaning towards thinking that tweeting about social justice issues might not be the best way to solve them. But if everyone’s going to do it anyway, then I sincerely hope that something good becomes of it. Maybe I’ll even join them. Whatever it takes to #BringBackOurGirls.