Sekou Siby was supposed to work that Tuesday, September 11. He was a prep cook at Windows on the World—the famed restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower—where he peeled potatoes and cleaned onions eight hours a day.
Four days before the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Siby was playing soccer with his coworkers. They had become a family from all corners of the globe. Like Siby, many of them were Muslims who prayed together in a stairwell using flattened cardboard boxes as prayer mats. After playing soccer that day, his friend and colleague, Moises Rivas, asked him to trade shifts, with Moises taking Siby’s Tuesday shift. Siby agreed. It was a fateful decision. Rivas, along with 72 others of his colleagues, never made it home after the WTC towers fell.
It would take years before Siby, a former French teacher who came to America from the Ivory Coast in 1996, could cook or play soccer or felt comfortable making friends at work. What was the point if he could lose them so easily? He found jobs that allowed him to keep to himself; he worked security, drove a taxi. He struggled with survivor’s guilt, having lost not only his friends but also his cousin, a fellow cook and Ivorian. And through it all, he and his wife were trying to raise a daughter born three weeks after the attacks.
But then he began to volunteer for a relief center formed by UNITE HERE Local 100, the union of Windows on the World, to support restaurant workers and their families affected by 9/11. At last, Siby had found a restaurant worker family again. From that sprang the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC NY), which today is part of a nationwide organization that activates thousands of restaurant workers, employers, consumers, and allies to make the restaurant industry work for everyone. As a community organizer, Siby won more than $10 million in back wages from national chains for workers. In 2012, he moved into the role of deputy director at ROC United and, in 2017, became its executive director.
Today, the nonprofit counts 11 local chapters across the country, from California to Mississippi, fighting to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce. Under Siby’s steady hand, ROC has helped pass higher minimum wages and the full minimum wage for tipped workers in more than 10 states, fought the epidemic of wage theft, and helped secure paid sick leave for thousands of restaurant workers. ROC has also trained nearly 10,000 low-paid workers in its CHOW program, helping graduates advance to higher-paying jobs as fine dining wait staff, bartenders, and managers. And since COVID-19, ROC has given more than $1 million in relief assistance to over 3,000 out-of-work restaurant staffers. The organization has also demanded that restaurant owners provide PPE, hazard pay, paid sick leave, and a “Right to Return” policy to ensure laid-off workers are the first back when normal operations resume.
When the World Trade Center collapsed, Siby lost his job, and had little help in his time of need. Undocumented workers make up a significant portion of the restaurant industry ranks. As an immigrant in the industry, Siby understood what it was like to feel invisible, to feel voiceless. Although the undocumented power the industry, he knew first hand what it was like to fear a knock on the door. A fear that kept workers from speaking up for what’s right or fair. So, Siby became the person he wished he had then, a voice for the voiceless, restoring dignity and hope where there is none. He turned grief into action, guilt into economic empowerment, pain into social justice.
Siby started as a cook in the kitchen and emerged a leader ready to serve.