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Mo Lotif and Moving On

in Campus Journal by

Yesterday afternoon, Parrish Parlors felt whole with heartfelt good luck’s, goodbye’s, and recounting of memories, all as a part of the farewell celebration for Mohammed “Mo” Lotif — (now former? wow) Assistant Director of the Intercultural Center. A Detroit native and Williams graduate, Lotif joined the College in Fall 2014, where he embraced the liberal arts community and larger world of Philadelphia. His influence over the past few years was evident in the sheer mass of students, faculty, and staff from all corners of campus who made their way to the hour-long festivities. We enjoyed dining services’s gracious catering and passed out copies of VISIBILITY Issue 02, the arts publication Mo and I created to highlight marginalized voices on campus.

As a dear friend and mentor, Lotif has played an important role in my time here as a student intern working at the IC, along with countless other community members. Now he is travelling back out West, where he’s accepted a position at the University of Denver working in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. He’s also got a pretty badass apartment lined up, with views of colorful mountains and an endearing city skyline. He might even get a dog. He has no complaints.

Former IC intern, Vivek Ramanan ’18, is currently abroad, but chimed in from seas away to talk about Lotif’s impact.

“Since I met him, Mo has been beyond inspiring in his dedication to his work and the students that work with him,” Vivek explained.

“[He] has supported events that have ranged from seeming simple to completely impossible, allowing students to make their thoughts and plans a reality through the IC.”

Lotif did what many other staff members of the college instinctively hesitate to do: trust students. He established student team structures that emphasized individualized skills and passions, while focusing on our productivity as a collective.

He could be heard reassuring his team “I got y’all” and encouraging each and every member to be creative in their visions and shoot high with ambition. Student workers were allowed agency in decision-making, and his thoughtful leadership style meant that he served as a supporter rather than an assigner.

“Mo really knows how to bring out the best in people he interacts with,” added Zain Talukdar ’19, a current IC intern.

“He’s lifted me up when I was down just through the way he talks to you. He really makes you dig deep into the philosophies behind your motives and actions, and he empowers you through his love for the arts and his love for beautiful existence,” Talukdar said.“Mo has made my Swarthmore experience as formative and introspective as it’s been for me.”

If you’ve ever walked into Lotif’s office, you’ve seen his manic whiteboard walls covered in ideas, his desktop computer open to tabs of Trello event plans, and books of revolutionaries, like his mentor Grace Lee Boggs, stacked up high and proud. There would also often be students hanging out on his welcoming couches, doing work or making big plans for their student groups.

When you ask students about their favorite moments with him, you get a range of answers.
“It’s hard to pick out one moment with Mo that really sticks out,” Ramanan admitted. “I’ll never forget the stressful moments, where several hours would pass with the team working and his Spotify playlists would play in the background.”

“Every time I would go into his office and he would just play whatever music spoke to him at the moment,” Talukdar agreed. “Among the many memories I will have of Mo, I’ll always remember the magic he’s pulled on my Apple Music playlists for real. He really knows how to connect music with the spirit and I’ll always remember his energy whenever I would sit in his office and just absorb whatever new music he added to his playlist.”

Migos, and A Tribe Called Red, and Bangladeshi Baul folk rhythms are just a few of the space-filling sounds that can be identified on said Spotify playlists.

There were also lazy moments of genuine time spent.

“…none of us would move from the couch and keep chatting about random things,” Ramanan continued. “But I think the moment with Mo that I never forget is walking into his office, stressed about planning an event, and hearing him say ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.’ I’ll always appreciate that I’ve gotten to know Mo as both a leader and a friend, as someone who can be inspiring, reliable, and relatable at the same time.”

Hana Lehmann, Civic Engagement & Education Fellow from the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, added from a fellow staff perspective.

“I love working with Mo! He brought unbelievable energy and creativity to the table whenever we would collaborate on events and workshops.” Lehmann said.

Lehman’s favorite (and my favorite!) cross-community project was the recent theatre and social action workshop with “artivist” Kayhan Irani that Mo, Hana, and I planned together. I had the dream of bringing Irani, an Emmy-award winning artist and White House Champion of Change Recipient, to Swarthmore. Not only did Lotif make it happen, but it happened flawlessly and surpassed our expectations of a powerful community-run event.

“The planning leading up to the workshop day was great, but the day of was a blast! We were able to co-create a space for empathy, imagination, and powerful storytelling,” explained Lehmann.

As the Intercultural Center, we’ll undoubtedly be going through a lot of change with Lotif’s leave.

“I will forever be appreciative of Mo for helping me to acclimate to Swarthmore College and for the valuable contributions he made to and through the Intercultural Center,”  Director Jason Rivera explained in a message to the community. “It is no surprise that many students, faculty, and staff hold Mo in high regard and speak of him with gratitude, admiration, and respect”

There are big shoes to fill. But replacement doesn’t feel like the right word when you are working with someone as unique as Lotif.  However, students and community members have a clear idea of the non-negotiables resulting from Lotif setting the Assistant Director bar.

“In terms of the new IC Assistant Director, I believe that the aspect of Mo that made him so effective was that he was incredibly in touch with the students of the IC,” Ramanan explained. “He made an effort to connect with us constantly, and I hope that the next IC assistant director will do this as well.”

“My hopes for the next IC director are that they can maintain the level of energy that Mo channeled through all of his interactions with the IC collective,” added Talukdar.

“Mo also respected each person’s struggles and stresses when talking to them, and knew how to successfully balance his roles as a stellar boss and a trustworthy friend, and I hope the next assistant director can do the same.”

Lehman summed up Lotif’s determination to thrive and inspire others to live into their deepest possibility: “simply ‘existing’ is not in his vocabulary.”

Inspiring and unfaulting co-workers are hard to come by, and it particularly sucks to see a good boss leave. But there’s also something invigorating in witnessing someone you look up to start the next chapter of their journey and advance in their career.

Lotif had never imagined he would end up in Denver prior to the opportunity appearing. As we as students plan our futures, we must come to terms with the fact that we don’t know what the future holds for each of us.

However, one thing we all know — and probably have known — is for sure.

The University of Denver is one lucky bastard.

Evaluating the safety of our staff in a snowstorm

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

The snow piles up on the ground outside, finally beginning to slow, yet its remnants promise to keep the conditions for the day dangerous and uncertain. Branches and fallen trees block pathways in the borough, and some residential areas darken as a result of damaged power lines.

Meanwhile, on campus, students roam the college and desperately hope their classes will be cancelled. Some students walk up the path of Parrish Beach, trudging the path that the essential employees from the grounds crew worked to clear. As these Swatties entered Parrish, however, they may have been surprised to notice that, despite many essential staff members reporting to work, the administrative office hall was practically a ghost town. Many administrative members deemed the snowy conditions too severe to come to work, despite the fact that required staff, including many EVS workers, dining staff, and grounds workers, were required to report to work in spite of the storm.

We at the Phoenix find this unfair as it places an unequal burden on essential staff relative to the administration. While we recognize that many people could not make it to work due to the conditions and while we respect the need to practice safety precautions, it is absolutely unfair that many higher administrators did not have to report to work while many staff members were not given the same options to practice such precautions. These staff members were not allowed to follow these precautions despite the fact that they are not paid as high a salary as the deans, and many do not have as reliable winter transportation considering some depend on public transportation. We believe that it sends the wrong message to staff members in our community that that their safety is not as important as the safety of other employees. This is especially a problem in that it demonstrates a hierarchy of importance in the college that respects the decisions and safety of higher administration without equally respecting this integrity of other staff members.

Of course, we at the Phoenix recognize that some staff truly are essential to the maintenance of the college, and that it would have been nearly impossible to maintain the college without these employees. For example, some members of grounds crew were absolutely essential in ensuring that paths remained clear and, thanks tremendously to them, students were still able to roam the paths of campus and make it to their scheduled classes without trudging through inches of snow. Dining staff in Sharples, Essie’s, Kohlberg, and Science Center were needed so that students could still eat properly in spite of the storm. And to be fair, we at the Phoenix recognize that the college did not necessarily make all EVS staff report to work, but left it up to “relevant departments” to decide if all staff members were absolutely necessary.

However, we at the Phoenix believe this becomes an issue when all of these essential staff members are expected to report to work, yet many members of the administration and higher staff do not need to follow the same expectations. While some of the administration may work from home, it still does not change the fact that they are not standing in solidarity with the essential staff who have no choice but to report to work. Clearly, changes in college policy need to be made to ensure that these staff members are still respected and treated fairly amongst other members of the college community. As a result, we at the Phoenix call for Swarthmore to either increase their expectations of the administration and higher staff to report to work or that the required staff members who do report to work receive extra compensation and respect for their time.

 

College Raises Some Staff Wages Because of Federal Law

in Around Campus/News by

New provisions to the Fair Labor Standards Act qualify some college staff members for overtime pay. Announced by the U.S. Department of Labor in May, the new provision increases the threshold salary above which one is exempt from receiving overtime pay from $23,660 per year ($455 per week) to $47,476 per year ($913 per week). Now people will receive overtime pay if they make less than 47,476 instead of 23,660. This is to help more people get to a living wage. From December 16th, any staff member currently earning between $455 to $913 per week will qualify. The college expects to raise the wages of some employees to account for the new regulations.

“We have identified approximately 15 positions throughout student services, research, admissions, and advancement that are affected by the FLSA changes,” said Pamela Prescod-Caesar.

First passed in 1938, the FLSA introduced “time and a half” overtime pay, as well the forty hour work week and prohibitions of “oppressive child labor.” However, the threshold for who is eligible for overtime pay had not kept pace with inflation. The new provision not only raises this threshold, increasing salaries for an estimated 4.2 million workers, but also will automatically increase it every three years to keep pace with inflation.

As an institution that currently pays workers between $23,660 and $47,476 per year, Swarthmore College is required to adjust its current practices. In response to the new provision, the Human Resources Department has spearheaded the effort to make the appropriate adjustments. Vice President for Human Resources Pamela Prescod-Caesar notes that there are multiple ways for the college to come into accordance with the law.

“In consultation with senior staff and the relevant division supervisors, we will be making the appropriate adjustments to comply with the new [Department of Labor] requirements. We have until December First to make the required adjustments and are currently exploring all options,” she noted.

The college has two options: it can either choose to raise to the salaries of employees earning between $23,660 and $47,476 to the salary for which they would be exempt from overtime— $47,476 —or can maintain salaries and pay qualifying employees overtime when due. This may be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s likely that for some exempt employees, salaries will be adjusted (i.e, increased) in order to meet the new threshold requirement. We are also considering implementing the tracking of hours as an option to ensure that employees are fully compensated for the hours they work,” said Prescod-Caesar.

These “adjustments” regard whether the college will choose to increase workers’ salaries or continue to pay them overtime. Vice President for Finance and Administration Gregory Brown says that this depends on the workers

“The change in the status is about whether their work is actually exempt … If they clearly are doing hourly functions that are classified as such, then we would continue to pay overtime. If you’re a dining services worker serving students, you’re paid by the hour.”

Regardless of the adjustments made, Brown does not foresee the FLSA placing a significant financial burden on the college. 

“I am working closely with Human Resources to review the budgetary impact of the proposed changes … [The office is] evaluating how any changes might affect our overall operations and budget.  At this time, we do not anticipate financial challenges implementing the changes.” “Relative to the college’s budget, it’s not a lot, and we did set aside money in preparation.”

Both administrators suggested the college had a strong commitment to fair working standards.

“The College has a long history of providing competitive and equitable salaries for staff,” added Brown.

Note that despite having the second-highest endowment per students among peer institutions, the college still does not provide childcare to staff members. Furthermore, it was only this July that the college introduced a shift differential for night staff, offering slightly higher wages for staff working evening shifts, far later than peer institutions like Bryn Mawr College, University of Pennsylvania, and Williams College.

Though it took a national provision from the Department of Labor for the college to increase salaries for its workers, the result is nevertheless in place. For around 15 employees, come December, they will be better compensated for their labor.

Editorial: Keeping college open unsafe, unfair

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Swarthmore, whether for reasons of maintaining course schedules, instilling toughness in students or simply keeping tradition essentially never cancels classes in the face of storms. This is, at best, inconvenient for students. At worst, it is downright dangerous, especially when the school neglects to salt pathways, as was the case twice last week. However, as bad as it is for students, the situation is even worse for faculty and staff. Although the college often allows all “nonessential staff” to stay home, the policy of not canceling class pressures professors to teach and forces much of the campus to remain open.

Think about it. What if rather than a student, you were a faculty or staff member? Perhaps even one with children? Given that the public school system operates on a saner cancellation policy than the college, it is very likely that in the above scenario, school would be cancelled. And so you’re faced with a dilemma: miss a day of work — in the case of some staff members, perhaps a day critical to keeping your job — or leave your kids at home alone.

We at the Phoenix believe that the college must offer a solution to this problem. Many of our peer institutions offer some form of childcare, and a staff-wide poll conducted last year revealed strong support for either on-campus facilities or subsidies.

If the college refuses to make changes to support families within its community during the regular year, then it must at least consider an emergency option for situations like the hypothetical blizzard. During a storm like the one we evaded this week, no sitters are available to come in at the last minute, and conditions are especially dangerous for young children at home alone. In a winter storm, power is likely to go out, help is hard to reach and the risk of mischief is heightened. How can parents be expected to leave their children home alone in these conditions?

The college might devise a program by which, in situations like these, essential staff members with young children may be excused from their obligations in order to care for their families. Reduced dining hall hours could allow the college to function with a smaller staff, bereft of those members who must stay at home. And as for faculty with young children at home, we advocate our favorite solution of all: cancel class.

The college’s draconian cancellation policy does not serve its students well. When evaluating weather-related cancellations in the future, however, Swarthmore must consider not only students, but the obligations and pressures that holding classes places on faculty and staff.

Drumming and dancing bring unique form of unity

in Arts by

This semester, Sedinam Worlanyo ’17 and Eileen Hou ’16 worked as interns for Intergenerational Drum and Dance Project, which involves about 28 participants, mostly from the Greater Philadelphia community. Every Saturday morning for  four weeks, the participants attended a class at the Lang Performing Arts Center to learn mainly West African dance and drumming techniques.

Ten years ago, Dance Department Head, Professor Sharon Friedler initiated the program.

Since the project began, community has been its central idea. The ultimate goal of the organizers of the project was to create a community with no barriers of age, race or background through dance and drumming. R. Jeannine Osayande, an associate in performance of African dance, explained, “We have brought together folks on a regular day who might not have that type of interactions in terms of race or age normally. We could have someone in their sixties next to someone five years old, and the five year old could also be teaching the sixty year old.” Such an environment is critical for all the participants, so that they can feel comfortable regardless of their age, race or previous experience.

Osayande said that they wanted to use culture through drumming and dance to foster a dialogue inside the community and get people thinking about the idea of community and related issues. “We just present what would you like to have a discussion on and then from that we incorporate the ideas into just the natural drumming and dancing,” explained Osayande.

Hailing from Ghana, Worlanyo enjoyed dancing in high school and performed cultural dances at her school. In the project at Swarthmore, however, she teaches primarily Azonto, a dance popular among mostly young people in Ghana. The dance involves a lot of energy and she incorporates  various daily actions and expressions in the dance, such as answering phone calls, and even dance expressions that involve picking up an imaginary school bag. “It is very exciting to be able to interact with the various community participants and I really have fun dancing with them” said Worlanyo.

Osayande taught neo-traditional African dance technique that dealt with girls’ rights of passage into adulthood. “We always have a coming of age moment, no matter what phase you are going through, there is something in your life where you are crossing over a threshold, or you are afraid about what you are afraid of, coming to something new. So in that spirit of community, in that collective energy, that we make it happen,” explained Osayande.

The drum part of the project is taught by Ira Bond from Dunya Dance and Drum Company, based in Swarthmore. Each Saturday morning, the drummer would drive almost an hour to the school and teach the participants how to drum.

Both of the students, Sedinam and Eileen, became the interns of the community project as part of their Arts and Social Change course. “With the class, we have the privilege of doing an internship. In my class we read about how people use arts to create social change. Instead of talking about it in class, I can actually see it happening through the intergenerational drum and dance,” said Worlanyo.

For Eileen, this project was a chance for her to apply what she learned in class to reality. “In class, we often discuss about setting up theater workshops in prison to bring a community together with arts. In this case, people from different areas come to Swarthmore to have a shared experience. We use arts as a way to bring people together,” she says. Eileen also expressed her wish that more Swarthmore students could be part of this project in the future.

Near the end of the interview, Osayande told me that this Saturday, Intergenerational Drum and Dance Project is going to participate in Kurema, a collaborative advocacy movement for peace in memory of the victims of the 1994 Tutsi Rwandan Genocide.

SLAP Lobbys for Employee Rights

in Around Campus/News by

The Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) has hosted a myriad of events on campus during the past two semesters, with the ultimate aim of working establishing justice and dignity in the workplace.  According to the college’s website, SLAP has been working for “with mushroom workers from Kennett Square, supporting their campaign to fundraise for a new community center in which their union can meet.”  During the past two semesters, the organization held two staff appreciation events, as well as invited various notable activists to campus to speak to students about SLAP’s current campaign.

According to the mission statement, SLAP “envision[s] a society in which all people have empowering, fulfilling work and dignified material conditions.”  One of the upperclassmen in the organization, Ben Wolcott ’14 decided to become involved with the Swarthmore Labor Action Project when he realized that “its campaigns would be a great way to concretely work towards economic justice.”

A previous member of SLAP, Raisa Reyes ‘15, decided to get involved with the organization because she feels that “workers’ rights, at all levels, affect the entire work force.”  Reyes asserts that “joining in the effort to improve working conditions helps improve the conditions of individuals’ lives and the ethic and standard of how people should be treated as individuals and workers in the United States.”

According to Wolcott, the organization held a Staff Appreciation Pancake Breakfast in Shane Lounge in early March, as well as a Queer Homeless Transition into the Queer Workforce, which was held in the Scheuer Room towards the end of last month.  This lecture included talks by Jay Toole and Juliet Johnson on “the challenges that homeless people who identify as queer face while searching for jobs,” according to the event’s flyers.

Linda McDougall, director of dining services at the college, said that she, along with an extensive group of dining hall workers, attended the pancake breakfast.  McDougall said that the dining hall workers appreciated the gesture, as well as the greater cause of SLAP. At the start of the semester, SLAP also held a POWER petition (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild) in Sharples Dining Hall.

In addition to these various organized events on campus, Wolcott explained that SLAP have had students dress up as notable activists, including Upton Sinclair and Alice Paul, and pretend to give speeches from these characters’ points of views. These characters will visit campus again to talk to students during study breaks about SLAP’s most recent campaign: working with staff and faculty to try to get childcare benefits. SLAP will also be hosting a Chow & Chat About Childcare on Campus event in Science Center 105 on April 9th at 2:00 pm.

Wolcott is confident that the organization has “succeeded in making the college define which labor practices the operator should follow in the [proposed Swarthmore Inn] and will continue to advocate for workers’ rights if there are not adequate protections.”  Wolcott is optimistic about the future of the organization and the most recent campaign for childcare, expressing his confidence in SLAP’s ability to “win tangible benefits for [both] staff and faculty.”

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