Innovators

Reimagining Equity in the Hospitality Industry

Activist Ashtin Berry promotes conversations about race, gender, and other politically charged topics to help the industry identify its biases and create more inclusive spaces

Ashtin Berry
Ashtin Berry. Photo courtesy of Radical Xchange.

Awarded for: Activist Ashtin Berry engages in discussions about race, gender, and sexual harassment to help motivate the hospitality community to find solutions and realize a more equitable future. 

In the past few years, the activist Ashtin Berry has emerged as one of the leading voices in hospitality to focus on social equity—she envisions a future where diversity thrives and everyone has a seat at the table, not just the most visible chefs, sommeliers, and owners. The industry veteran has inspired and challenged colleagues with her thought-provoking speaking engagements and workshops and, most recently, with the launch of her content collective Radical Xchange, which programs symposiums, pop-up activations, and hospitality experiences that examine race, gender, and other politically charged topics. 

Berry’s hospitality career has spanned a decade and ranged over several cities, from Chicago to Seattle, where she’s worked as a beverage manager, a sommelier, and most recently, as the beverage director for Air’s Champagne Parlor and the sake-focused Tokyo Record Bar, both in New York City. In her various roles, Berry was a natural conflict mediator, and she found that she wanted to use her voice and skills to help others in the industry. In 2012, she began hosting online forums to help colleagues and others learn how to negotiate conflict in their workplaces—often bars and restaurants. 

Those early efforts snowballed, and Berry became a sought-after speaker on social equity topics, including gender visibility and racial disparities in hospitality, at a number of conferences, from Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans to the cocktail conference Chicago Style. According to Simon Ford, the managing director of Fords Gin, Berry’s message came at the right time. “Most of the energy in the industry has gone into the growth of the cocktail movement and business,” Ford says, “and there was a lack of dedication and effort to make our industry a more equitable and socially responsible space. What the industry needed—even if we didn’t know it at the time—was someone to make us really think about the impact we could have on our community, to challenge us to take action and make change. That person was Ashtin Berry.”

Eric King
Eric King. Photo couresy of Radical Xchange.

Building on the momentum from her speaking engagements, Berry launched the hospitality collective Radical Xchange in 2018, along with Eric King and Kisira Hill. King, a beverage director-turned-government affairs consultant based in Washington, D.C., felt a call to return to the hospitality space. His education and advocacy experience, aligned with Berry’s vision, led him to an executive role in spearheading program operations. Kisira Hill, who hails from Berry’s hometown of Chicago, is a cultural anthropologist and has worked as an event coordinator, bartender, and manager at notable Chicago cocktail concepts like The Violet Hour and Lost Lake. Hill’s industry knowledge, blended with her studies in cultural anthropology, suited her to lead Radical Xchange’s content creation. The organization launched its inaugural event, Resistance Served in New Orleans, in March, whose goal was to bring together chefs, bartenders, distillers, and others to celebrate and contextualize the contributions of black and African American people to the hospitality world.

The two-day symposium took a deeply intentional approach to the curation of partners, speakers, locales, and activities—and took into account those who are marginalized. “Many organizers build off of their intentions or desires for a group, and I think that’s why we keep finding a lot of the same programming over and over,” Berry says. “We take the impact we want to have and build backward, creating a storyline and rooting it in historical and sociocultural theories.” Berry, King, and Hill blend the many disciplines of hospitality in one space, tapping educators, historians, nonprofit executives, farmers, chefs, spirits directors, and even scientists from a range of communities rather than a recycled roster. 

Kisira Hill
Kisira Hill. Photo courtesy of Radical Xchange.

At Resistance Served 2019, seminars such as Our Roots: Skill and Adaptation Through Food and Cultural Cuisine, delved into African descendants’ contributions to the food culture of the American South and beyond. Evenings featured a dinner series, meant to serve as a more intimate forum, that were hosted by leading chefs, like Carla Hall and the late Leah Chase, at Dooky Chase’s. Ahead of the inaugural event,” Hill says, “I thought critically about the privileged access I had to cultural histories through academic channels and the lack of similar resources available to learn more about the industry I have become invested in.” 

To reinforce historical context through the lens of hospitality, the symposium included a visit to Whitney Plantation in nearby Wallace, Louisiana—the first and only plantation museum in the United States with an exclusive focus on the narratives of enslaved people—to bring the stories of some of the first American hospitality workers to the forefront. There, attendees engaged in a conversation about the transition from domestic and agricultural labor to the industry’s larger beverage and foodway system we know today.


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Reinforcing intersectionality and equity, Resistance Served 2019 awarded 62 full and partial scholarships to attendees from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Next year, the organization aims to provide 70 full and 40 partial scholarship opportunities, meaning that one-third of the conference would comprise scholarship recipients. Additional awards will be available to up-and-coming wine, beer, and spirits professionals, line cooks, and non-black people of color. 

King says that an additional day of programming will be included at Resistance Served 2020, allowing more time for all involved to be fully immersed in the seminars, dinners, and gatherings being planned for the new year. “While the conference is partially subsidized by sponsorship, it’s not a runaway train of events that rob people of the time to reflect, to make friends, and to build community,” King emphasizes. “Time may be the new idea for 2020, but it’s a key component for our organization to be known for its impact, and that’s what is going to keep us sustainable in the long term.”

“Hospitality isn’t just a list of service steps at its foundation,” Berry concludes. “It should be about serving people with compassion and intersectionality always at the forefront.”

Shanika Hillocks is a freelance food and beverage writer and PR professional based in New York City. Her work can be found at outlets like Supercall, Edible Manhattan, and Tasting Table. She can often be found exploring the NYC culinary scene, at a bar enjoying a Rye Manhattan served up, and on Instagram at @shanikahillocks.

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