Equashia Mumeen switches her Black Lives Matter mask to a plain blue surgical one before she arrives to work at Campus Dining & Shops’ C3.
On Oct. 3, she says she was left speechless when her manager told her she couldn’t wear her BLM mask to work.
“I don’t know how to even describe the feeling, that’s why when he said, ‘No you can’t,’ I couldn’t speak!,” Mumeen said. “Only thing I thought of was my ancestors being lynched.”
Feeling there was nothing left to say, Mumeen left work in protest.
Two days later, she was fired. Officially, she said, they fired her for leaving work without permission. Unofficially, she felt it was because of the mask.
“If you go all across this campus, it says face coverings–– that’s a broad statement,” Mumeen said. “Before BLM, we were wearing masks supporting LGBTQ,” Mumeen said. “They were wearing rainbows, other people were wearing skulls and bones. It wasn’t until BLM they decided to go across the board and say plain masks only.”
On Oct. 5 Mumeen emailed her Civil Service Employees Association union representative Chad Stephenson asking to help her file a grievance against UB for “systematic racism” and asked to see the regulations that say she has to wear a plain mask. The next day, she got her job back.
“For me, it was a win to go back and let the others know you can make a statement, and keep your job,” Mumeen said. “When I got back, all of my co-workers were happy, and even some of the staff members. Now, they really just think I’m crazy as hell.”
Stephenson said he couldn’t comment on the situation in an email to Mumeen.
She received a 22-day suspension, which she says will cost her “about $2,000.”
The painful experience, she says, is a sign that UB is not fully ready to stand with its black and brown students and staff.
She’s disappointed because when UB announced in August it would remove the names of controversial figures like Millard Filmore, Peter Porter and James Putnam from its buildings, she felt UB was supportive of BLM goals. In his October State of the University address, UB President Satish Tripathi said the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and Ahmaud Arbery “amplified our university’s call to address injustice, racism, and violence.”
She took that as a sign of respect for BLM.
“I don’t understand how [UB] cannot represent Black Lives Matter when the majority of your athletes are African American or people of color who won [UB its] first Bowl,” Mumeen said.
On Nov. 2, Mumeen stepped out of the Student Union into BSU’s Black Solidarity March and claimed she was fired by CDS for wearing a BLM mask. BSU posted a video of her telling demonstrators of the incident to its Instagram and the video circulated, gaining over 13,000 views.
Mumeen said she’s glad her story is gaining traction and she hopes it will inspire CDS to rethink and rewrite its mask policy. If not, she said she will organize a “huge” protest.
“I’m giving CDS an opportunity to peacefully revise the mask policy,” Mumeen said. “I’m not an expert but I know there has to be a way to do a virtual protest of some sorts. I’m going to try to take full advantage of all the technology including social media.”
Come February, Mumeen says she would like to band together with co-workers, students and UB football star Jaret Patterson and form a demonstration in which they all wear BLM masks and or apparel on the “same day and same time.”
“I’m pretty much thinking about when we go back in February, so I’m going to try to do as much as I can with social media,” Mumeen said. “Since everybody’s home and students have exams and everything, I’m going to try to build it up now while I’m here at home. So by the time February comes, I can give everybody a date.”
She has also filed a complaint affidavit with SUNY Chancellor James Malatras and City of Buffalo Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo, whom she said she’s collaborating with to address issues of the face mask policy at UB.
Mumeen says Wingo has encouraged her to “forge forward” and continue to wear her BLM mask as well as a BLM head scarf.
“He wants me to continue to wear it despite what they’re talking about, but I really can’t. So what I’m doing now is I’m banking up all my money for my next firing,” Mumeen said.
She says she has yet to receive a response from Malatras and is “confused” as to why.
“I don’t know, do they think this is just gonna go away?” Mumeen said. “I’m trying to think–– what’s the reason that they wouldn’t respond.”
Mumeen says she is still in disbelief of the day she was fired. When she arrived at work, a manager asked to speak to her.
Mumeen said she didn’t want to talk without a witness and asked if they could wait for Stephenson to arrive. The manager said no. She says she then shouted her request for a witness and another union worker came and stood beside her to listen.
Mumeen says what was supposed to be a conversation, wasn’t a conversation at all. The manager fired her and asked her to leave. The next day, Mumeen says she received termination papers explaining she was fired for abandoning her position and leaving early without permission.
But backlash for wearing BLM masks is a national issue. Workers across the nation have taken to social media to post about being fired for wearing their masks during shifts. In September, a Texas teacher was fired from Great Hearts Western Hills, a charter school, for wearing her BLM mask after school officials told her not to. In June, a Taco Bell employee went viral after posting a video explaining he was fired for refusing to take off his BLM mask.
Raymond Kohl, director of marketing and communications for the Faculty Student Association, confirmed in a statement to The Spectrum that Mumeen filed a grievance, but said it was unrelated to mask coverings. He said Mumeen remains a “valued employee.” He added that FSA cannot comment on “specific confidential personnel matters” of any former or current employee.
“The employee featured in the video made factually incorrect statements as she was not terminated for a violation of the face covering policy,” Kohl wrote. “In fact, Campus Dining and Shops has never terminated nor disciplined an employee for violating our uniform policy regarding the types of face coverings that are permissible.”
Mumeen says she has asked HR repeatedly to show her the specific company policy stating employees can’t wear BLM masks and if working for CDS means giving up one’s constitutional right to freedom of speech.
She says she hasn’t received a response and does not expect to.
“I already know they’re not calling me back because I had become problematic for them at this point, [but] I’m not letting this go,” Mumeen said. “[CDS] told me in the agreement to come back, I have to follow proper protocol in order to wear my Black Lives Matter mask.”
But since HR hasn’t responded to her requests, Mumeen doesn’t wear her BLM mask to work anymore to avoid being reprimanded for not following protocol.
“What I do is I wear [the BLM mask] when I’m not in uniform,” Mumeen said. “There’s nothing they can do about it when I’m not in uniform, that’s my way around.”
Although she found her way around it, she says it still feels like “oppression.”
Kohl says CDS implemented its face mask policy in March 2020 and updated it in October. CDS employees were provided two, non-reusable surgical face masks upon returning to work in August and signed a letter acknowledging the receipt of the policy.
The previous CDS face mask policy required employees to wear face coverings when on campus. CDS defined face coverings as “generally a cloth material that covers an employee’s mouth and nose.”
“If an employee chooses to wear their own cloth face mask, it must be cleaned after each use and is not permitted to have any written languages or messages or inappropriate prints on them,” CDS said. “The face covering must comply with all employee handbook policies including non-discrimination, harassment, and code of ethics.”
CDS updated the policy in October, clarifying the requirements as to what kind of facial coverings an employee is permitted to wear. CDS says if employees choose to wear their own masks, it cannot display “prints, writing, pictures” and or “images.”
“This includes polka dots, prints, designs. It must be completely one solid color,” CDS said. “If an employee has a medical or religious reason for being unable to wear the face covering, Human Resources will appropriately respond to those requests and grant appropriate accommodations to the employee.”
If an employee is unable to wear a face covering they are required to discuss their concerns with Human Resources before working.
“Our policy on face coverings, including the kind of face coverings that are permissible, is in place to protect both our employees and our guests, to adhere to the New York State Executive Order and to ensure that our employees and our guests are solely focused on the food services we provide,” Kohl wrote.
But regardless of clarifications, Mumeen says the fight isn’t over. She has bigger goals in mind: modifying the policy.
“I don’t care about being fired, because it’s not the only job in America, but I do care about that policy,” Mumeen said. “I want it modified, I want to just take it out of there and modify it, and again, I’m arguing a point that it says ‘face coverings’ and until BLM, it wasn’t a problem.”
Alexandra Moyen is the editor-in-chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AlexandraMoyen
Alexandra Moyen is the senior features editor of The Spectrum.