FERN event preview: For Ashtin Berry, activism is key to hospitality

Ashtin Berry wears many hats: food and beverage activist, consultant, writer, speaker, teacher. From her home base of New Orleans, she encourages conversations about inclusion, equity, and how the restaurant and beverage industry can improve its treatment of marginalized customers and workers.

We caught up with Berry in preparation for her appearance at the FERN Talks & Eats event in Brooklyn on Oct. 1. She will be appearing on our all-star panel to discuss #MeToo and other equity issues in the restaurant world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get started doing this work?

I’ve been an activist for a while. My hospitality self and my activist self just didn’t cross over very often. About three and a half years ago, I started to become super vocal about how people of color and women, and specifically women of color, are treated in the industry.

It started with conversations about my hair. When I would wear my hair natural, [I’d hear from managers], “Well, the customers just think you’re aggressive.” Or, “They thought you had an attitude.” So I became really vocal about it, because it pissed me off.

That was the jumping-off point. And then it was the sexism when I started trying to find ways to talk about how uniquely women of color feel isolated in spaces in hospitality. Because there always seems to be so few of us, or maybe you’re the only one — like me. I was the token. I ended up in these spaces where I predominantly worked with white males. Or I would work in spaces with white women where I would have their back on issues that had to do with women, but they would never have my back on issues that had to do with race.

I had to advocate for myself. And not only did I have to advocate for myself, on top of that, I’m the type of person that when I’m feeling low, I go and educate myself. So I went and educated myself. We’re so used to being gaslighted that you have to prepare yourself to be ready to advocate.

What were some of your early workplace experiences when you were educating yourself and growing your vocabulary for how to discuss your experiences of marginalization?

Nine times out of 10 my supervisors were white, male, and cis. They were always like, “You’re emotional.” And sometimes I was. When I was using terms like “white fragility,” no one knew what those words were. I didn’t realize [that] it makes people [uncomfortable] sometimes when, especially young people of color who are women, may seem smarter than them. Once I was able to advocate for myself, the next thing that came was, “You think you’re better than me.” And then it was like, I can’t win.

The first experience that was heartbreaking for me was when I first had a woman manager in the industry, and I assumed that meant she was going to be an advocate. I made an assumption that she wouldn’t be as abusive. But what we don’t talk about is how people internalize patriarchy, sexism, racism — and how they then weaponize it, because by aligning with things that can be oppressive, they’ve learned how to survive. That was probably the hardest thing to learn.

When are women in our own cohort going to start holding other women accountable for their silence? As all of these men come out and are being charged with assault and being abusive in general, we’re watching the women who were complicit say that they had no idea. Or just be silent.

Is there an active conversation in your peer group about raising awareness of that dynamic?

Yes! But when it comes to [it], the only people calling this out is us.

A lot of people are just talking about the Me Too movement, and they’re not doing anything to make spaces safer. Someone who has been accused of physical assault does not deserve the benefit of the doubt of being welcomed into a space where they could possibly exhibit predatory behavior. And maybe that’s crazy to people, but I don’t think it’s crazy.

Look at how many people still follow Mario Batali online. You don’t think that has power? You don’t think that those analytics have power? Little things like that matter. Ken Friedman is still getting invited to events.

I’m considered radical. I know that people say my ideas are utopian and unrealistic, like they say of many millennials. But that’s a logical fallacy. And the biggest logical fallacy we have in our world right now is that if you have not seen a model for it, it can’t be built. That’s where we are in this industry right now.

I’m even concerned about the constant use of Me Too as a way to talk about sexual assault, because people see it as a movement. And here’s the thing about movements: They end. We live in a society that inherently devalues women — and why is that? Me Too can be the starting point, but it cannot be the foundation. Or we’ll watch the conversation become cyclical and happen over and over and over again.

What would signal to you that the industry is on the right path toward achieving the world you advocate for? What would help us to not repeat the same questions over and over?

One of the reasons the hospitality industry is in the situation it’s in is because of a lack of transparency. There can be no growth until everyone knows where they’re sitting. If there’s no transparency, there’s no way for larger businesses to say, hey, mom-and-pop group, let me show you what we did that worked. Right now, people are hoarding information, and it’s stunting our community’s growth. If we really want to see changes, we’ll start to see people being much more transparent about how they conduct their businesses.

There are very simple ways that you can tell people how you are inclusive and what you allow in your space. The easiest thing is having non-binary restrooms. Having a non-binary bathroom tells every customer in there who you are inclusive to. And it tells them what kind of behavior you will not accept.

There’s a bar in Oakland that says in the back, “Consent is sexy.” That’s so empowering. It’s not saying, “Don’t do something wrong.” It’s asking you, without even saying anything, that you ask for people’s consent.

Everybody’s not going to be able to do everything. But those are very small indicators. Those are opportunities for conversation.