Saving Miss O

Miss O, as she is affectionately called, has 193 children.

As she sits on a bench in the entryway to the Gilbert-Addoms dormitory one afternoon, college freshmen bustle around her-returning home from class, leaving for a trip to get lunch or to the gym.

As each teenage face passes, she offers a greeting, a "Hi Chloe!" or "Bye, Sunshine" or "Have a good day." Frequently these students address her first, with chipper "Hi, Miss O"s that seem to reverberate with each new entrant.

Students say that Olivia Vaughn, the beloved G.A. housekeeper, has not only made them feel more at home in their dorm but has brought them together. And nothing has brought them together more, they say, than their efforts to keep Vaughn in her job.

In mid-December, just a day before she was set to complete her 90-day probationary job period, Vaughn learned she was being fired. It was 4 p.m., and Vaughn went to clock out when a supervisor gave her the bad news.

She left confused. She says a manager told her she had been fired because of a reference who claimed she walked off the job. Vaughn claims she simply quit.

Students quickly learned of the firing, and it spread like wildfire. It was exam week, and several students from G.A. had already gone home. Those still at Duke started an online petition, circulated e-mails and were determined to get Vaughn her job back.

Popular sentiment was that she had been fired for forming relationships with her residents or for considering joining a union. And with that fueling the fire, plans soon developed. It was less than a week before Christmas.

"The best part about it was I didn't know I was that loved," Vaughn says. "They showed me that love. It was unbelievable. They called my cell phone, e-mailed me, telling me, 'We got your back, Miss O.'"

Fourth-year political science graduate student Laura Grattan heard about Vaughn's story and immediately got involved. It wasn't foreign territory for Grattan, who serves as co-chair of the jobs committee advocating for workers with Durham's Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods group, an interfaith community organizing coalition. She's also been a part of local pushes for a living wage and better working conditions.

"A lot of students and faculty don't know the stories or experiences of these workers," she says.

Two days after Vaughn was fired, Grattan and an estimated 40 people showed up that Friday in the office of the East Campus housekeeping supervisor. The crowd included Durham community members, graduate students, faculty members and, of course, residents from G.A.. Some students had exams that evening, but put down their books to come nonetheless, Grattan says.

"We had exams and everything but what everyone was talking about was getting Olivia her job back," explains freshman G.A. resident Packy McCormick. "She really connected with the community. I was pretty pissed about it."

For over an hour the group told stories about Vaughn's impact on their lives. They left with a promise for a meeting with higher-level administrators who could address the firing.

"It was phenomenal in that room," Grattan says. "I've never experienced anything like that before. Students told personal stories about their relationship with her. But there were also political concerns. Olivia's vocal about working at Duke and there was concern that she was fired just a few hours after talking with union representatives."

But by Monday the group had heard nothing. So that morning, about 40 people entered the Allen Building looking for answers. They waited outside President Richard Brodhead's office until they met with Brodhead and Executive Vice President Tallman Trask.

The administrators set up a meeting between labor officials and Vaughn; she emerged from the room with her job.

While Duke administrators won't comment on what they consider personnel matters, such as why Vaughn was originally fired, they do refute claims that Duke has a policy discouraging conversation between housekeeping staffers and dormitory residents.

Instead they say policies-such as housekeeping staffers should not accept gifts from students or form close personal friendships with them-exist to protect both the workers and the students alike from "uncomfortable" or "awkward" situations.

"We really try to help them understand that being too close can become an issue, that friendships might be misunderstood or misconstrued," says Eddie Hull, Dean of Residence Life and Executive Director of Housing Services. "But we would hope that all of our housekeepers know the students who live in the areas that they work. They can be some of the ones who can identify strangers who maybe shouldn't be there, for example."

Policy or not, Grattan says such communication is not found often at Duke.

"It's issues of race, class and hundreds of years of not talking," she says. "Olivia was able to break those barriers and have students feel comfortable. Why is there a culture in which workers are discouraged from that conversation?"

In the meantime, Vaughn is back to being "Mom" for the 190 residents of Gilbert-Addoms dorm. The New York-native has three children of her own, too.

"I came here [to Duke] for a reason," she says. "I wanted good health benefits and when it came time for college, for my 13-year-old, I wanted a place that would help me out with that. These kids are like my kids. They call me mom. I feel very much at home."

It's a sentiment that came primarily from students first, it seems.

"She's like our surrogate mother," says Edgar Mkrtchian, who lives on the second floor, "and we really appreciate that."

Dozens of students share such stories, of waking up to Vaughn's friendly face in the hall or her encouraging words when one was on crutches.

"I walked through these doors and these kids made me feel very welcome," Vaughn says. "I'm going to do right by them and they'll do right by me."

And students, it seems, spent the end of their first semester at Duke learning how to do just that.

"She was outgoing and fun to be around," McCormick says. "She just went above and beyond all the time, always positive. It was pretty much the dorm's mission to get Olivia back. Everyone was outraged. But I don't think [dorm organizing] would've happened for anybody or anything else."


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