Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship in the Workplace: My Experience Working at the Cat in the Cream (FINAL PAPER)

From the Fall Semester of 2017 until Spring Semester of 2019 I worked at the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse at Oberlin College. I had previously been to many shows at the Cat and enjoyed them all immensely, not only for the artists that performed but for the warm and welcoming environment that was created by the people working there. Being able to see artists like Jamila Woods, Moses Sumney, and Safia Elhillo perform live along with the guarantee of being able to get a delicious freshly baked cookie immediately made it one of my favorite places to go on campus. Friendship was what introduced me to the idea of working at the Cat, since I would almost always strike up conversation with the people working. I was told to apply in the Spring semester of 2017, and ultimately took the leap and submitted an application online.

The interview process was unlike any other job interview experience I have had, and solidified the Cat as a safe harbor of sorts that prioritizes friendship. As soon as I walked in I could see that the whole staff was there, along with Sean Lehlbach the head manager. I was initially struck with fear, as I had never been in a group interview of such a size. But I was immediately greeted with enthusiasm, and the interview commenced with each person volunteering to ask me a question from a list. They were all very conversational, with questions mostly pertaining to my own interests in contributing to the Cat as a music venue and maintaining it as a safe space. The concept of a group interview can seem fairly daunting, but this interview was automatically established as very casual, and therefore put my mind at ease quite a bit.

After the interview, I heard back from Sean about a week later offering me a position starting in the Fall semester of 2017. I excitedly accepted, and was elated to be able to be a part of a community that promotes a constant musical presence at Oberlin College and that has such a welcoming group of people working there. Something that immediately distinguished the Cat from other jobs I have had was the weekly meetings, which happened every Tuesday from 4:30 to 6:00 PM. At the start of every meeting we would check in and update people as much (or as little) as we wanted to about how we were doing in general. This gave people the space to discuss all aspects of their lives, both the good and the bad. We would then we would go over requests for shows and plan out our own shows based on booking ideas from the booking committee, which I was a part of during my entire time working there.  

            Todd May’s Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism[i] provides some essential contributions to the discussion of promoting friendship in the workplace. While neoliberalism can seem like a fairly nebulous term, May clearly defines it as the “demand for more individualism, for less government intervention in to the economic lives of people.”[ii] This emphasis of individualism is something that is constantly enforced in previous jobs of mine, where people would often bring only a part of themselves forward as a method of protection. This is not to say that friendliness should be automatically expected out of all coworkers, but I do believe that having a workforce that functions as a group of friends ultimately results in a better dynamic of teamwork and creativity.

            I wholeheartedly believe that the Cat in the Cream is an example of how friendship in the workplace can undermine neoliberal ideals of labor and individualism. Under neoliberal ideologies, the workplace is a place of individualism and competition, whereas the Cat fosters an environment of community and acceptance. Rather than seeing human relationships as a market through which to promote one’s own reputation, the Cat staff find a balance of booking their own shows while working just as hard to promote the shows of other students as well. Whenever posters are printed for a concert a staff member booked, everyone would make sure to pick some up and post them around campus. People would also make sure to share each other’s events they booked, and would sub for each other’s shifts whenever somebody had a scheduling conflict. The food service jobs I have worked both inside and outside of Oberlin have not been nearly as lenient in allowing staff members to take breaks and get subs for shifts that are not scheduled far in advance.

            Using the words of Milton Friedman, May elaborates on the relationship between economy and personal freedom: “’Economic arrangements play a dual role in the promotion of a free society. One the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable mans toward the achievement of political freedom.’”[iii] Although there is still a great deal of progress that needs to be made in terms of the wages for student workers, I am still eternally grateful to be able to get paid to make cookies with my friends and organize shows with artists I never dreamed of meeting. I feel so lucky to be able to have a work experience in that environment that was not defined by stress and competition, but rather compassion and creativity.

            The Respectful Language Policy is one of the critical rules at the Cat in the Cream, and it goes as follows:

            “The Cat staff supports language that respects all aspects of people. Degrading remarks based on race, class, gender expression, sexuality, age, ability and religion are not welcome here. All patrons that enter the Cat, including performers, must follow our respect policy. The Cat in the Cream has all-inclusive rights to deny entry to patrons or performers into our space if the respect policy is not upheld.”[iv] 

            This policy is posted in the venue in large text, and it often announced at the beginning of concerts. This establishes the Cat as one of the few venues on campus that is intentional about how people conduct themselves to promote a friendly environment, as well as one that prioritizes and gives space for those who have been historically oppressed. There have been many shows at the Cat where admission prioritizes people of color (generally for performers who are also people of color) and the expected turnout is suspected to exceed the venue capacity of 325 people. This prioritization is for the sake of ensuring that students of color have the ability to have as much access to musical shows on campus as possible. Also, we do not often reach capacity so we rarely have to turn people away due to the venue being too full, and we do our best to maintain a safe and accurate count of how many people are in the building at a time for the sake of fire safety.

 Consumerism and entrepreneurship highlight the majority of what defines neoliberalism in May’s book, and the isolation that is caused by neoliberal ideologies is addressed at length, stating, “This aloneness breeds a sense of insecurity. In a society in which people were more deeply tied to one another, this insecurity might lead to social solidarity. But in a neoliberal society, where trust is not encouraged. It leads to further distrust of others.”[v] I have worked for companies that intentionally attempt to isolate workers to promote “productivity” and discourage casual social interaction while on the clock.  May drives this point home, arguing “Because of the individualizing tendency of neoliberalism, we often find it difficult to think in terms of solidarity. I suspect that this is one of the reasons people often feel alone and disconnected in the neoliberal context.”[vi]

Working for a chain sandwich shop in high-school made me realize what kind of hostility can truly be fostered in a work environment, with the manager texting me off the clock about errors my coworkers and I were making. This turned out to be because the manager had hired too many people in too short of a period of time, so she was trying her best to find the smallest mistakes from people who were hardly trained so she could fire them and cover up her mistake. This, in turn, led to me being fired from the job after working there for several months, and gave me a pretty sour introduction into the food service industry. This would be the first of many jobs that would blatantly disrespect worker’s rights, and attempt to silence workers for the purpose of maintaining an entrepreneurial agenda.

While I have always tried my best to defy these notions of neoliberalism in the workplace, I must also be holding a job on a regular basis to support myself financially, and I know that many others have to do the same. In order to do this, many people have to subject themselves to a less than ideal work environment for the sake of pure survival. To be able to work a job where I am not constantly worried about getting fired, reprimanded, or otherwise punished is truly a blessing, and I feel so incredibly grateful that I was able to have this work experience during my college career.

 One of the things I had the most fun doing during my job at the Cat in the Cream was book shows. I booked a total of four shows: Blac Rabbit, Pinkcaravan! with Ruby Ibarra, Ari Lennox, and Anna Burch. The shows ranged greatly in genre and attendance but each ended up turning very successfully overall.  I was so grateful to work with Sean and my coworkers contacting booking agents, negotiating prices, and reviewing contracts. Since the Cat is considered one of the integral centers of student activity on campus, a great deal of funding goes into ensuring musical artists are brought to perform, and we are always trying to get more funding to bring even bigger artists each year. Being able to be a part of the musical legacy at Oberlin College is an invaluable experience that has left me wanting to continue pursuing a job in music venue management. Also, being able to talk to musical artists that I have listened to for long periods of time and have immense respect for is an extremely moving experience that is immeasurable in value to me. It is one thing to listen to an artist digitally, but to be able to meet them and have a conversation with them is completely unlike any other experience I have had in any other job I have worked.

The most fun we had organizing an event as an entire group of staff was the Hales Late Nighter on February 16th, 2019. While it was my second time working the event, it was my first time booking a band to play at the event and taking initiative on some of the responsibilities in food and supplies ordering, as we always offer lots of free food at this event. All of the hard work that my coworkers and I put into the event resulted in it going exceptionally well, with hundreds of people coming through to get food, have fun on the bouncy house, and listen to live music from Oberlin bands. None of this would have been possible without generous funding from Student Union, as well as a great deal of teamwork from the Cat staff.

Being able to escape at least some of the consumerism that infringes itself upon so many employment opportunities on campus, working for the Cat in the Cream gave me a great example for future reference of how people should be treated with respect in the workplace. I know many of the jobs I will work in the future will not match up to the leniency of working for the Cat, and I am willing to make certain compromises for the sake of survival as discussed earlier. But having a reference point to remind myself how healthy a work environment can be will certainly be helpful in the future when I am working and continuing to search for jobs post-graduation.

This employment experience has given me hope in the potential of friendship being a method to subvert neoliberal ideologies in the workforce. Forming close friendship with all of my coworkers made the work environment welcoming, fun, and inspiring. Friendship in a capitalist and neoliberal economic system can be difficult, as viewing the friendship as a market has become more and more prevalent in modern society. The Cat in the Cream has been an incredibly rewarding experience that I believe is a great example of how neoliberalism can be resisted through community care and accountability. I am eternally grateful to have been able to have this experience during my time at Oberlin, and I hope to revisit the to see my friends and coworkers in the near future.

[i] May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014.

[ii] May, 18.

[iii] May, 11.

[iv] “Respect Policy of The Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse.” The Cat in the Cream,

[v] May, 108.

[vi] May, 126.

Leave a Reply