Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation


Some Thoughts on Progress and Power: The Origin Story of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation

It was November 2016 and I was freaking the fuck out. A lifetime of undiagnosed mental illness, and a few traumatic events culminated on election night, and I was broken. After a few listless weeks I emerged, realizing that I didn’t know as much about the way the world works as a I thought I did. My naïve faith in the inevitability of ‘progress’—fostered by my rather sheltered existence—was gone. In its place was a deep despair, coupled with a recognition that those with privilege have a moral imperative to support marginalized people in efforts to overcome oppressive and violent power structures that form the foundation of our society.


During our overlapping years at Momofuku, Alex Pemoulié and I maybe said 15 words to one another. Following her move to Seattle, we grew closer through social media and text messages. We spent the weeks following the 2016 election comforting one another and brainstorming ways for the restaurant community to brace for the next four years. The day before that Thanksgiving, I spent the better part of the three hour train ride to visit my in-laws texting with Alex, and that’s where the idea for Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation began to take shape. 

We were tossing around the idea that we could start a nonprofit that would act as a hedge fund that would raise money, invest it, and use the returns fund progressive social change. I ran the idea by my husband Michael—who has spent his entire career in the philanthropic sector—and he said that our goals had much in common with the mission of many population-focused community foundations like Stonewall Community Foundation and New York Women’s Foundation. 


A community foundation is a grant-making public charity that raises funds from within the community it works to support. This is contrasted with a typical private foundation that is endowed by an extraordinarily wealthy individual that makes grants based on that the founders’ often idiosyncratic beliefs about what would make the world a better place. With the community foundation model, we could make the case that we are indeed a distinct population with specific needs and raise funds on behalf of low-wage workers in the restaurant industry and deploy those funds in the most strategic and impactful way. Our food system is the nexus of almost all of the social justice issues we face. By working to address these concerns from within the restaurant worker community, we can, in turn, help to dismantle oppressive power structures and make the world at large a more just place. 


In the first six months of 2017, we began developing a mission statement and recruiting people in the restaurant industry and nonprofit community to serve as advisors and board members, eventually  growing the board to its current count of twelve. In those early meetings with other restaurant workers that we expanded the mission beyond wage and equity issues to also concern ourselves with substance abuse and mental health in our community. We’ve been very deliberate, working with the Lawyers Alliance and pro bono legal counsel from Skadden Arps, applying for and obtaining our 501c3 status and our legal ability to solicit funds in New York State, refining and crafting our goals and messaging, and mapping out our short-term tactics. And we haven’t even begun the real work yet. 


One of the things that I worry about is that this is might be perceived as a vanity project instead of a volunteer-driven organization with essential, realistic and achievable goals. I don’t know how to make sure this doesn’t happen, except to commit that every day I will at least do one thing that advances the mission of RWCF, no matter how small. But it is also why our 2019 strategies focus heavily on growing the community of committed restaurant workers and providing opportunities for them to join us in action and community-building. 


To those who have been suffering under the oppressive power structures of our society for generations, I can see how it can feel like a lot of privileged people are acting like they just discovered inequality after the 2016 election returns came in. We acknowledge that things have been this way for a long time, and that there is a lot of power and influence behind efforts to maintain the status quo. I’m hoping that, with RWCF, we can strategically provide more opportunities for many voices in the restaurant community to be heard, and help restructure our society towards justice and equality, and I hope you’ll join us.

John deBary

President, Co-Founder, and Chair of the Board

John deBary