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Look For The Helpers: Joanna Carpenter

Look For The Helpers: Joanna Carpenter

Joanna Carpenter | Photo credit: Mari Uchida

“We need activism everywhere,” says Joanna Carpenter. “From fights to close the wage gap and abolish exploitative practices, to racial and gender equity, to local and national organizing around elections. I get deeply frustrated with the lack of engagement in hospitality—we could be so powerful, and we choose not to use our voices.”

A 17-year veteran of the hospitality industry, Joanna Carpenter has worked in every facet of the industry. Hospitality runs in her family—one side owns restaurants, the other has operated a roller-skating rink for 66 years. Lately, however, it isn’t Joanna’s presence behind the stick that is making waves, it’s her passion and commitment for advocacy, inclusion, and education from the initiatives she has spearheaded. That’s right, not just one, multiple.

Decolonizing The Industry

This past year, galvanized by seeing just how disenfranchised non-English speakers have been during Covid-19, and the subsequent industry shutdowns, Joanna, along with fellow hospitality pro Cameron Shaw launched 86 The Barrier, “a grassroots language-learning organization that provides free peer-to-peer English learning for our Spanish-speaking coworkers (Spanish-to-English learning coming soon).” While language and communication skills are the focus of 86 The Barrier, “the larger soul of the organization is rooted in the fact that our industry is built on the backs of exploited immigrant labor. We want to decolonize language in hospitality, so everyone has a fair shake at advancement and financial security.” Joanna and Cameron are currently applying for 501c3 status.

The industry that 86 The Barrier aims to rethink is no small thing—nearly 14 million Americans were working in the hospitality industry at the beginning of 2020. In NYC alone, restaurants and bars employed 317,800 people at the start of the pandemic. Joanna’s frustration around engagement has a valid point—what would happen if the entire diverse workforce that makes up the industry raised their voices simultaneously? “I remember being so struck by a conversation I had with Senator Gillibrand’s team,” Joanna states. “Her economic director shook her head and said, ‘I wish the hospitality industry knew how powerful all of you could be. If you rallied around a candidate or a cause, you could change the face of politics.’ That stuck with me, hard.”

Do Politics & Bars Mix?

There’s that age-old-it’s-not-polite-to-ask question again. And Joanna thinks yes. “People who are ignorantly privileged enough to think that politics don’t belong or can’t happen in bars seem to be willing to bypass the fact that politics are inherently human—and bars are in the business of humanity. If you’re a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or a woman (or some intersection of these), you know damn well that bars are inherently political, even if some white folks don’t want to admit it. Also, you don’t have to agree with someone to learn something.”

Education and access to information fit in with so many of Joanna’s current endeavors: she’s “rolling out a city-wide voter education initiative to reach voters in the boroughs and extreme tips of Manhattan and get them informed about Ranked Choice Voting.” Ranked Choice is an entirely new voting system in NYC, and the first time the city will use it is for the upcoming primaries and mayoral race. Whoever is elected will be pivotal in helping the city come back to life. It is undoubtedly a crucial election, and yet there is little available information on the new system. “Nobody knows what Ranked Choice Voting is or how it works. That blows my mind,” says Joanna. “So I’m going to go ahead and do what the city doesn’t seem to be doing.”

Once again, illuminating that the power lies with the community and not the governing bodies, Joanna co-founded an initiative with Megan Rickerson called Save NYC Bars. The premise is that “the guests, not the government” will be the key to keeping bars and restaurants from sinking. The issue with the onus falling on the guests, however, is that “guests literally have no idea what it’s like to run a bar (how could they?) much less during a pandemic when the government has hung us all out to dry.” Save NYC Bars strives to give guests the tools and knowledge they need to support local bars truly. Joanna continues, “This includes mask behavior, understanding when to let a table turn, showing respect to staff, tipping well. It’s all of these humanizing things, and it became clear that people had trouble with these.” They also use their social media to “raise awareness, promote thoughtful guest behavior, and highlight local bars that send in photos.”  Brands like Mezcal El Silencio and Misguided Spirits have gotten involved in supporting the initiative.

Joanna Carpenter | Photo credit: Mari Uchida

Digging In

No stranger to using her position within the industry to advocate for others, it was a logical jump to move from speaking out behind the bar to using social platforms to engage. “I’ve always believed that words, language, and how we weaponize them matters deeply. And when it comes to my social media, I take the issues I speak about very seriously, but I don’t believe in taking MYSELF that seriously. But in all seriousness, I do put a lot of thought into what I say, especially about the tough subjects that I know people are interested in. I never speak on issues I haven’t researched or lived, and I always hope that if people see something that resonates with them, that it sparks a separate conversation in their own world, and hopefully for the better.” As a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, and emotional and verbal abuse, Joanna finds “few things difficult to talk about” and believes firmly in using her voice and having the difficult conversations to help others who perhaps aren’t ready to speak up saying, “we can’t heal if we can’t talk.”

Of her peers, Joanna states, “I have so much love and respect for the people I see leading and changing the conversation: Luis Hernandez, Claire Sprouse, Pam Wiznitzer, Natasha David, Toure Folkes, Jackie Summers, Celine Bossart, and Tara Fougner come right to mind, and of course, my business partner, Cameron Shaw. Everyone has a different skill set, a different passion, a different super power.”

The beauty of this industry lies in its diversity and its ability to welcome everyone from all walks of life, but it hasn’t always cared for those it employs. Rebuilding after the last year isn’t going to happen overnight. Important discussions need to be had to heal and everyone in the industry needs a seat and a voice at that table. Joanna wants to make sure that the table keeps evolving, which begs the question: “Can you imagine the changes we could make for the good of all of us if everyone else dug in too?”

What’s your super power?