Melissa Etheridge, who broke onto the charts with her 1988 single “Bring Me Some Water,” carried an armload of Fiji bottles onto Beinecke Plaza on Tuesday afternoon.
The famous singer-songwriter was on campus to support the Yale eight teaching fellows who declared they aren’t eating until the university agrees to negotiate a union contract. They’re just drinking water.
After handing out the drinks and hugging the seated fasters, Etheridge shared a few words of advice.
“You are being an example to people,” Etheridge told a crowd of grad students, adding that the fast will “carry on to the very heart of America.”
Etheridge was in town to play an evening show at the College Street Music Hall.
Around 2:30 p.m., word spread that Etheridge would be making a visit to “33 Wall St.,” an encampment that’s now been occupying Beinecke Plaza for seven days. Under the plastic shelter, the fasters played “Come to My Window” and other early hits to jog their memory of the Gen-X rockstar.
Etheridge’s early work might have predated some of the graduate students, but they were still enthused a Grammy-winning celebrity cared enough to stop by.
And for those familiar with Etheridge’s raspy vocals and unabashed political views, the experience was enlivening. Julia Powers, a graduate student in comparative literature, said discovering Etheridge’s “angsty sound” as a middle-schooler helped shape her worldview. “Now she’s coming to tells us that we’re cool?” Powers reacted, smiling in disbelief.
Powers added that Etheridge had genuinely connected with the fasters — something that’s not always the case with the stream of politicians, professors, students and clergy that have passed through.
“A lot of visitors come to express support and they’re really kind. But maybe there’s a part of them that still is baffled by what we’re doing,” Powers explained. “She gets it. She’s spoken up about a lot of different causes, so I felt a certain respect and understanding from her.”
Etheridge knows what it’s like to miss food (from her days on chemo) and to be outspoken. Having lived under the spotlight, as an out-of-the-closet lesbian, breast cancer survivor and vocal left-wing activist, Etheridge shared a few lessons with the fasters about how to convey their message.
She suggested that they remember (and communicate to the media) they are not the story; their efforts to unionize their fellow student-teachers is what must be centered. “All of a sudden, you are part of a whole global discussion” — about higher education, labor organizing, racial divides — “everything in America that’s being squished up on the wall of change, you are there,” she noted.
That scrutiny is akin to how Etheridge said she felt just before going onstage — bald from chemotherapy — at the 2005 Grammy Awards. “It spoke without me saying anything,” she commented. Likewise, for the teaching fellows, “In those moments, you’ve gotta go totally inside yourself. You’ve gotta stand on your beliefs. That’s it, that’s all you have,” she added.
Etheridge asked the students what their message was. To sit at the table and negotiate, one of the fasters, Charles Decker, said.
“Do they need a table?” Linda Etheridge, the singer’s wife, said. “Because we can bring a table.”
The fasters pointed out they had plenty at 33 Wall St. Instead, Etheridge vouched to hype Local 33 — UNITE HERE’s cause at her College Street Music Hall show later in the evening. She planned to dedicate “Bring Me Some Water” to them.
‘Just the Beginning’
Later on, just after dusk, union members and their sympathizers gathered in front of the university president’s house to commemorate their first week of fasting with a candlelight vigil. Throughout, the fasters sat in wheelchairs — except for one dramatic moment when they walked up the steps of a darkened 43 Hillhouse Ave. and knocked on Peter Salovey’s door.
No one answered.
As a flame made its way around the circle of supporters, Powers told the assembled that Salovey couldn’t ignore their push much longer. “We have only just begun. All the attention we have received, the power we have exerted — this is all the beginning, and I know I am excited to see where we go next,” she said.
Hazel Carby, a professor of African-American and American studies, also announced that a petition demanding Salovey immediately begin negotiations had been circulating among the faculty. Already, 50 professors representing 21 different academic departments and professional schools had signed, Carby said.
The evening ended with a somber march to Woodbridge Hall. Silently, in pairs of two, the crowd lined up in a flickering orange tail behind the eight wheelchairs. Once they arrived on Beinecke Plaza, they loudly burst into chanting: “Salovey! Negotiate!” one call-and-answer went.