Hospitality Activism with Ashtin Berry


In partnership with Undiscovered Worth, we are publishing a series of interviews over the next few weeks with radical women about universally relatable topics like failure, self-care, identity, and more. We are psyched to be collaborating with Kashara Johnson of Undiscovered Worth—make sure to visit her space and follow along with her special work.

* * *

With powerful insight, hospitality activist Ashtin Berry discusses making the hospitality industry a more equitable space through education and activism, her self-care routine, radical transparency, and more.

Credit: Anjali Pinto

Credit: Anjali Pinto

On Her Work

Community service is a part of life in terms of how I grew up. Activism has always been a part of my life. I started by working in marketing and fundraising in conjunction with not-for-profit, specifically arts funding while I was in college. I started a program that allowed University of Chicago students to visit artistic institutions all over the city at a discount or for free. Things like access and things that are community-based is how I’ve been groomed because my mom was in social work.

In the industry, I’ve worked on everything from being a cocktail waitress to high-end fine dining. A lot of that was really difficult and while I was still active in the community in ways that were very separate from what I do in the service industry, they never really overlapped. After working in so many spaces that were predominantly White, because if you work in a space that is valued in terms of economically valued, socially valued, in the service industry then generally that is going to mean that it’s a White space. Honestly, I was just having a really rough time reaching the next level in my career and a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was being asked to assimilate at a degree that was mentally and emotionally stressful. On a regular basis, I was being micro aggressed by guests and the people that I worked with. It didn’t matter where I worked, I just kept hitting this fucking wall. I thought about leaving the industry, but I love this industry! I love helping people find that thing, that food item, that drink item.

So I started going back to my sociology roots because I was looking to possibly go back to school for Neuroscience. I started researching and reading a lot of things. I just figured out that there was no amount of assimilation that was going to make people say that I was okay being Black, poor, raised by a single mom, all of these things. There was no amount of assimilation that was going to give me a gold star in White people’s minds. Assimilating would leave me emotionally broken.

So I started speaking up about it. What I realized is that respectability politics just works against you. You’re damned if you do. You’re damned if you don’t. So if I’m going to be damned, I’m at least going to say what I need to say. It just sort of snowballed from there. When I started it, this was not without consequences. This was not done without being blackballed and shut out of certain communities. I just knew that if I was going to have to deal with this shit, I wasn’t going to also be silent too.

I made the decision to do everything in my power, regardless of whether people said that they didn’t like me or whether it was controversial, to make more space for marginalized people. That doesn’t just mean Black people. That means queer people, people who are disabled, people who are struggling with mental health. I am interested in a more equitable space where people can be themselves and getting to that point where this industry stops catering to what it is comfortable with which is cis, heterosexual, White, and male. I’m not cool with that especially since this industry is built off of women, people of color, and queer identities.

I am interested in a more equitable space where people can be themselves and getting to that point where this industry stops catering to what it is comfortable with which is cis, heterosexual, White, and male.

On Making the Decision to Take the Leap

At first, I was just doing it. It wasn’t this conscious agenda. Then there was a point where I had to make a conscious decision. It was really difficult because I didn’t know if making that decision was going to shut me out from the thing that I loved doing. This is why it’s important to do the work of mentally and emotionally checking in in an introspective way. Something that I realized and that I also teach in a lot of my classes is not to come from a place logical fallacy. One of the biggest logical fallacies that people believe is “either/or”. You can either do this or you can do this. When you come from a binary place of “either/or”, you limit your capabilities to grow. What you’ve told your brain is that because you’ve never seen another model, another model must not exist. But that’s not true. Just because you’ve not seen another model for what your success could look like doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It just means that you’re going to have to do the work to research and find bits and fragments to build it. That’s what I had to do.

So I started looking outside of the industry, and I found that there’s a whole world of people who are breaking barriers outside of hospitality. I started looking for those people to see how they aligned things, figuring out the words and resources that they were using. Then honestly I started looking at sociological models to see how I could build an identity that cross-referenced multiple things. The only way that I could do that was to educated people. If I didn’t want to be boxed in, it was going to be my job to educate people on what that model looks like.

Credit: Jackie Rivas

Credit: Jackie Rivas

On Self-Care and Self-Reflection

  1. Silence. When I get back from traveling and doing a bunch of classes the first thing that I have to do is sit in a room in silence by myself. You don’t realize how drained you are until you sit with yourself.

  2. Set an intention. Every morning I wake up and set my intention for the day. It’s not a goal. It’s an intention for how I walk through space. An example is that some days I’ll wake up and feel this energy that I have and I’ll say, “Today you need to walk through space with abundance. Abundance rather than scarcity.” At the end of the night, if I feel as if I struggled with my intention for the day, I ask myself why. If I can’t answer why then I write down what happened through the day, and what were the areas that I feel like weren’t successful. From there, I ask myself if that was tied to an action or a thought process. If it’s tied to a thought process I see what about that logical thought-process is not connecting with the results that I want and I figure out how to reframe it. After that I let it go. The day is done.

  3. A regular workout plan. I just moved back to NOLA so I’m still working on stuff but I am working on getting a regular workout plan. I have a friend who’s a trainer, and he just created a home workout plan for me that I can do for just 10-minutes a day. I’m really appreciative of that. I also looked at a dance class that I love that starts back up soon, so I’m going to sign up for that.

  4. Read for fun. I love to read, and so I always make sure to start my day with 30-minutes of reading even if I’m running late. 30-minutes.

On the First Step to Self-Awareness

Self-care takes an immense amount of self-awareness and self-discipline. For one thing, when the alarm rings, people immediately get up and start their day. When you don’t give your brain two seconds to rest to get into the day, it’s almost like you’re shocking your nervous system with stimuli. So don’t grab your phone. Don’t grab everything. Wake up and ask yourself how you feel.

The first step is acknowledging that even when we wake up, even outside of stimuli and being reactionary, we wake up with a specific energy. We need to check-in and see how we feel. If you wake up and realize that you still feel tired, maybe the answer isn’t to go and immediately look at your Facebook at the beginning of the day. Maybe you need to put on a podcast and make yourself a cup of tea. It’s little things that people think is silly but it’s so important. Take five minutes when you wake up. The world can wait for five minutes.

On Radical Transparency and Platonic Intimacy

I cannot be best friends with everybody. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to give everyone that kind of emotional intimacy. To me, building community is about building intimacy on different levels. Creating a personal community is really about creating platonic intimacy. It’s about accountability measures that are reciprocal. It’s about how we treat each other and hold space for each other, and to do that requires radical transparency. That means that you have to be aware of where you are at because you can’t give radical transparency about how somebody else can hold space for you or how you can hold space for them if you are not aware of where you are at.

Building community is about boundaries. I have a friend, and we do not discuss work together because that would make our relationship fall out. And when we do need to talk about work because sometimes her sphere and my sphere are going to overlap, we have a discussion about how we’re going to have that conversation and how that conversation looks respectful to both of us. That’s a lot of work! Talking to people about how we’re going to argue when things don’t go right is a part of radical transparency. It involves acknowledging that things won’t always be happy go lucky and that we will have things that we’ll have to deal with.

I personally live in the deep end. I can only truly have close friendships, close romantic relationships with people who are aware of where they are at and aware of what they can and can't give. I totally have casual friendships, but we have boundaries, and that's why those relationships work. At the end of the day, I'm clear that when I'm low, there's a community of people to support me. And I'm clear that when I'm high, there's still a community of people that support me. That community expands and constricts based on my needs and my ability to communicate those needs.