Ashtin Berry has worked in hospitality from Chicago to Seattle, and from New Orleans to New York. After finding that the restaurant industry often doesn’t foster positive work environments or spaces in which to communicate concerns, she decided to pivot into the role of a consultant, making a more equitable ecosystem for hospitality.
In 2016, she began creating curriculums for businesses and organizations that struggled to solve sensitive issues related to workers and the workplace. She founded Radical Xchange—a company that provides services for clients looking to create events or messaging for marginalized identities. Her work as a hospitality activist and educator is dedicated to safety and honesty, helping to create operational models where employees can thrive. Whitewall spoke with Berry about her approach, and why collaboration is all about negotiation.
WHITEWALL: How does your background in sociology inform your
ASHTIN BERRY: My background in sociology informed the variance of my work—creating operational models and consulting. Sociology is about socialization of humans and social theory, so I use that in relation to break down hospitality the way that it has been historically harmful, why those systems are the way they are, and how we can reframe.
WW: What issues do you often see?
AB: While there are systemic issues, just like there will always be in society, all hospitality spaces are not created equal. They all have different things that they are facing, and the way that they show up are unique. This is why I believe corporate DEI work—diversity, equity, and inclusion work—hasn’t been successful.
Some of the major issues are financial transparency and manipulation. But all of the issues within society in general, too—like gender violence, racial violence, lack of place for people of color, Black people in positions of leadership, how the industry disproportionally affects women of color. Sexism and misogyny, which leads to sexual violence. Immigration. We rely on immigration labor—specifically undocumented immigration laborers—and there are very few protections for those people, which puts them in a very insecure place where they can be taken advantage of.
WW: You also host Resistance Served—a symposium-style food, beverage, and hospitality conference—each February in New Orleans. How did this come about?
AB: Resistance Served is a place for us to have these conversations, to educate people, and to have programming that isn’t centered on value systems of what other people think are valuable.
So many in this industry say they love this industry, and while it may be true, most are talking about the white industry. The problem is that the American hospitality industry is literally built off of the labor of Black and Brown bodies, but that’s so rarely acknowledged. Our job was to make a place where Black people within hospitality could feel like they were heard, supported, and could have nuanced conversations. Not a conversation where five people of color were put on one stage to talk about diversity, but a conversation about business and land ownership. How Black landowners were pushed out of not only owning their land, but out of business—like the sugar business and the effects of farming on booze systems.
I don’t think the conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable, are high-risk. Whenever anything is not exceptional or meets that criteria of greatness, people become willfully uncomfortable with the idea that America may not be what they think it is or they may be more ignorant than they thought about why systems in our country operate the way that they do.
Resistance Served is about making a statement that not every stake has to look like what stakeholders say it has to be.
WW: You also created America’s Table—a movement that aims to make the hospitality industry and its issues visible—and mentioned its latest push was to initiate the first-ever hospitality census in October?
AB: Yes. It’s about figuring out ways that we can collectively advance and assist people within the hospitality industry. One of those things is looking at the lack of data on the industry. We’re in the process of campaigning for the hospitality census, which is about making people aware of the lack of data. And that is what keeps us from being able to pass policy.
So we created the hospitality census, and this will be the first time it happens. The idea is to combat the narrative that has been presented by organizations—like the National Restaurant Organization—about the industry, which mostly represents and supports chain restaurants. We are finding small businesses in the industry.
WW: What would be an ideal hospitality experience?
AB: Where people would make a livable wage, where health insurance is not tied to their job, where there are services that can support them— like childcare. The ideal industry would also allow people to operate in it however best works for them without judgment.
WW: What does collaboration mean to you?
AB: Collaboration is really about the openness to negotiate needs of both parties. It’s about being transparent. Collaboration is also not sponsorship— someone assisting you even though it has no benefit to them. Collaboration is about negotiating social capital. We are saying to the public that we see each other as people that align in values, even if we are not the same size company.