Published March 12, 2020
UB undergraduate Kay Kennedy — union organizer of Spot coffee workers, finalist for the ultra-competitive Truman Scholarship and measured version of her younger, more headstrong self — sits quietly in the Spot café on Hertel Avenue wearing her orange “Workers United” T-shirt.
For almost anyone else, wearing that shirt would be a combative move. But for Kennedy, it’s an affirmation, an acknowledgement of solidarity. After unionizing in August, about 120 workers at all corporate Spot cafés ratified their first union contract late last month. She insists that simple vote of approval changed the atmosphere for workers and management alike.
“Workers feel respected at work now — they understand this union contract offers them protections and unifies us,” says Kennedy, whose initial vibe belies her zeal for her union cause.
The wage increases are life-changing for many Spot workers, she explains.
Several people are looking into going back to school part time because they can now afford classes, she says, while others are making Spot their primary job and quitting the other jobs they had.
The contract includes meetings among workers and upper management to discuss café improvements. “Workers who are passionate about food and coffee can share their thoughts and ideas,” she says.
Perhaps most important, workers won a just cause clause: No one can be fired or disciplined without good reason.
Kennedy admits she can be intense. But she also scolds those who misrepresent that energy as radical, instead of a by-product of her deep compassion for others.
She does, however, admit to what she calls a martyr complex, more than willing to pay the price for her opinions and principles.
“I act the way I do so marginalized people know that they have someone who will stand in their corner and fight when they can't,” she says.
“These experiences are precious. I live to serve others in their pursuit of freedom and happiness. I, like other labor organizers, am willing to face whatever persecution and harm that the ‘bad guys’ wish to cause so others don't have to.”
So here she come, a 21-year-old junior accounting major, making a strong run for what UB officials call the most prestigious undergraduate fellowship of all. A Truman scholarship would provide up to $30,000 for graduate studies, along with a host of other advantages. Win or lose, Kennedy is another example of an exceptional UB student who could very well change the world, one whose accomplishments and compelling presence rival standout students at any university.
“Kay came to see me to ask how she could apply for the Truman scholarship,” says Elizabeth Colucci, director of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. “It’s rare that a student comes to our office knowing about these awards. A fellow union organizer she met is also a Truman and Marshall Scholar who encouraged her to apply.
“She has all of the leadership qualities that make her the perfect candidate for the Truman scholarship,” says Colucci. UB plans four mock interviews as dress rehearsals for the final Truman committee interview. Colucci is determined to send Kennedy to New York City as prepared as possible.
“Somehow, I think she would have been fine without us,” Colucci says. “She’s faced tougher audiences than the Truman panel during her union negotiations.”
Visit the Hertel Avenue Spot café. Chances are Kennedy will be working her shift as a cashier.
She’s already accomplished more than many union organizers of any age.
When three of her fellow Spot employees were fired last summer after taking part in a gathering discussing a union, Kennedy helped organize pickets. Then she helped coordinate a worker boycott that lasted months. In November, the boycott ended when the fired workers were rehired and received back pay. Kennedy was at the front lines, talking to co-workers, contacting union organizers, negotiating the new contract.
Now she leads Buffalo Project, a drive to organize all local coffee shop and restaurant workers, presently working with Perks.
“Poverty, homelessness and hunger are not necessary in our society, at least if we’re speaking on a scale of the U.S.,” says Kennedy. “There is enough food to eat, enough homes to live in and plenty of wealth to go around. The distribution of wealth and resources is skewed toward those who already have plenty.”
“Where does the passion come from?” Ann Bisantz, dean of undergraduate education, wrote in Kennedy’s recommendation to the Truman Scholarship Selection Committee.
“When you peel away the layers, you will find a woman raised in poverty with a family income of less than $20,000 … in a rural community with few resources. Growing up, Kay would come home to days without lights or running water. She did not have the same resources as her classmates.”
Kennedy can be protective about her background. She moved out at a young age to live with her older sisters, a path she says “saved” her. She describes her relationship with her father as an “estrangement.”
“Growing up poor — with uncertain access to food, clothing and heat — informed my worldview.” she says. “Unable to afford extracurricular sports or clubs, I spent weekends at the public library, imagining myself as a hero in the books I liked best — ones with principled and headstrong protagonists. I dreamt of pilfering books with Liesel of ‘The Book Thief’ and made it my mission to find all the ways I could be a hero in real life, largely as an escape from the helplessness I experienced at home.”
Time after time, she confronted what she saw as injustices, standing by others so they wouldn’t stand alone. She shared her high school paychecks with her mother, saving some for gas money to shuttle friends whose homes were not safe, “routinely” paying for the “necessity” of friends’ hormone replacement therapy. She got detention when she stood by a 14-year-old girl who fended off inappropriate advances from a teacher. She was threatened in government class when she stood between a transgender student and bigots.
“As I dedicated my personal time to supporting others while managing my own poverty, I noticed that students whose families were wealthy and well-established in the community were held to lower standards than those of us who were poor,” Kennedy wrote in her Truman application.
Kennedy watched as a classmate suspended for cocaine possession was allowed to take part in her high school graduation. Meanwhile, administrators told her she would not be allowed the same privilege. The vice principal chased her down the hallway as she was walking to rehearsal because she owed money for a missing tennis skirt.
“During the chaos of my sophomore year,” Kennedy wrote in her application, “I misplaced a tennis skirt loaned by the school, worth about $15. This experience gave me a newfound understanding of the classist divide I had experienced my whole life.
“I’ve let it go,” Kennedy says. “But part of what still drives me is knowing the economic situations that make kids live like that have not gone away.”
Congress established the Truman Scholarship Foundation in 1975 as a memorial to President Harry S. Truman. Scholars receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at premier graduate institutions, leadership training and internship opportunities within the federal government.
“In all of my years with students, I can think of no other that exemplifies what it means to be a Truman Scholar,” Bisantz wrote. “Kay is a leader, bound by conviction, passion and selflessness. I have no doubt that she will change the world through her work in economic and social justice.”