Wilton High School Class of 2019 alumna Ava Kaplan is leading efforts at the University of Florida (UF) to fight for racial and food justice on campus. She’s become a visible organizer of a group that advocates for social justice reform at the school and has helped end the use of prison labor on campus. Kaplan says the foundation for her interest in activism evolved out of her experiences growing up in Wilton.

Organizing On Campus

Kaplan is a member of Dream Defenders, a Florida-based, Black and Brown youth-led grassroots organization that works to empower local communities with a “vision of safety and security — away from prisons, deportation, and war — and towards healthcare, housing, jobs, and movement for all.” 

The group was part of the effort that pushed the university to end the use of prison laborers for on-campus agricultural work in September 2020. Members continue to work to hold UF accountable for its affiliation with a company they say promotes inhumane practices.

Dream Defenders has been campaigning for the school to sever ties with its food service provider, Aramark, ahead of the June 2021 contract renewal. Aramark has been criticized for its use of prison labor and faced accusations ranging from sexual and physical abuse and assault to unsanitary food conditions. Prisoners have accused Aramark of forcing them to perform labor without pay. Similar protests against Aramark have happened on college campuses elsewhere.

“Even though it’s not happening on campus anymore, University of Florida is still invested in prison labor, and benefits from it, and exploits it in a myriad of different ways that they still haven’t attempted to change,” said Kaplan. “Prisoners are being exploited for their labor and not being paid.”

She has led a series of actions since February that has attracted attention from the media as well as university officials. One major effort was a boycott of the Reitz Union, the student union building named for former UF President J. Wayne Reitz. Organizers chose to boycott this building in particular because of its namesake’s homophobic and racist legacy. Reitz fought to maintain UF’s racial segregation and punish LGBTQ+ students during his term in the 1950s.

Kaplan played a leading role in connecting a coalition of student and community organizations that drafted demands for the school administration. The coalition urged school officials to cut ties with Aramark and “human rights abusers, including but not limited to prisons and those who partner with them.”

Among the ways Kaplan and her fellow organizers spread the word about food justice was through a virtual initiative enabling students to send automatic emails to the school administration in opposition to the Aramark contract. They also hosted virtual phonebanks and teach-ins, and shared educational social media graphics.

Told by a school official that Aramark was aware of the protesters’ work, Kaplan said knowing their actions were making an impact strengthened their resolve.

“They said that Aramark had called UF about us not being allowed to table out[side the student union building] and they were like ‘You guys can’t be out here.’ But of course, we just moved slightly and kept going,” she said.

School administration officials eventually agreed to meet with Kaplan and other student organizers to discuss their demands. But finding the meetings “frustrating,” the students also wanted to do something more impactful to further pressure the university ahead of a June 1 contract deadline. So Kaplan planned a three-day occupation of the Reitz Union.

“We were going to refuse to leave, we were going to sleep over until our demands were met,” she said

The occupation started Wednesday afternoon, April 21 with a peaceful march past the food court in the Reitz Union and to the Business Services Office. Speakers announced the occupation and everyone sat down, planning to stay for days. But by 10:30 p.m. that night the university threatened to sanction anyone who participated in the occupation, pushing the protesters to leave.

As a result of the occupation, Kaplan has scheduled meetings with administrators that include necessary non-student community members from organizations in the coalition.

“This is huge because before they were ignoring anyone who wasn’t a student and now we have the actual people who wrote the demands meeting with [administration]. We’ve also established a line of contact with higher-ups at the University of Florida so we’re pressuring them from those sides.”

Kaplan’s group has also received attention from local and national media.

“I think all in all it was a success. But the work isn’t done, we still have another month or so of work to do,” Kaplan said in early May.

Kaplan is excited that there are parallel movements happening at other universities and has been share organizing advice with students from these schools.

“Of course one school making a difference is a great thing, but if students all around the country start rising up and refuse to be complicit in the injustices that Aramark perpetuates I think that could really make a huge difference,” she said.

Kaplan adds that reforming foodservice norms is a conversation that needs to happen on the national level.

“Not a lot of people really think about where their food comes from and the people along the supply chain. These are the people we called heroes during the pandemic, like service workers and farmworkers. These are the people who literally feed us and are putting their bodies and lives on the line every day for us. They’re always forgotten about and ignored and it’s time for us to take responsibility for the injustices that they face on a daily basis,” she said.

Impact of Growing Up in Wilton 

Kaplan’s time growing up in Wilton greatly inspired her passion for social issues.

“A lot of the reason I’m interested in activism and these issues is because growing up in Wilton we’re told over and over again how privileged we are and how lucky we are and how we live in a bubble but we don’t really talk about why that’s the case or how to change that. That’s something I was really interested in my whole life. Moving to Gainesville and becoming a student at UF exposed me to a lot of these ideas. It also exposed me to organizations and individuals who did know the answers to my questions and were actively doing work to create the change that I wanted to see,” she said.

Kaplan explained how her work requires challenging self-reflection.

“It’s been a really interesting and difficult learning experience. I deeply care about these issues and solving them and that requires understanding my personal responsibility and how I am complicit in these systems, how I contribute to them, and how growing up in such a privileged community we do have a responsibility to give our time and money energy towards equity and racial justice,” she said.

“It’s definitely been hard but I think that it’s necessary.”

Kaplan spoke about how her work at UF connects to the Wilton community.

Compass Group, a foodservice corporation similar to Aramark is the parent company of Chartwells, the food service provider at Wilton Public Schools. Compass Group has faced its own protests and controversies including investment in military operations, a corruption scandal with the UN, and unknowingly serving horse meat.

She also connected the broader conversation on racial justice to Wilton current events that are increasingly becoming more polarized, including school regionalization and zoning reform — calling them ways she believes Wilton maintains its bubble of privilege.

“People are so afraid of talking about these issues in a real way and making these changes in a real way because of their privilege and racism. It’s frustrating to know that so many people have good hearts and do care about this but when it comes to making sacrifices in building a more equitable world people are so afraid.”

Kaplan acknowledged that not everyone interested in making meaningful contributions to social justice has to lead and plan protests.

She knows many adult organizers who spend countless hours organizing for their cause, with no pay. She said donating to these organizations so they can pay their organizers would be greatly beneficial in helping to lift them out of poverty.

“There are different ways of contributing to the fight. For me, it looks like leading campaigns but for a lot of people in Wilton, it could be taking a stand on rezoning and school regionalization, or donating their time and money to organizations that are doing the work like I’m doing.”