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“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

I spend almost all my time attempting to figure out how I can braid storytelling and organizing. I’ve been attempting to not just organize communities around ideas, but also organize ideas, making sense of the din around us, the tunnel vision that too often exists in the justice world, the lack of recognition of the ties that bind injustice together, and the ways and whys we too often ignore who we are for what we do.

I’ve often used this quote, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” but it’s never seemed more apt to me than it has in the last few weeks.

Because I have never considered myself an artist, and because the food justice world is the one I intentionally live in, reporting on CREATE: the Community Meal became more than just a story assignment I asked for. It really became one I needed to write and one, for lack of a better phrase, I felt called to write. So too did a story I recently wrote about a rally held by Somali women for a community-based food shelf.

Here’s the deal. I believe that storytelling is the single most important thing we can do, not just as a tool in our arsenal, but in our declaration of of self. Too often I am told, stories don’t matter if nobody hears that, but I disagree. As someone who has been told to “tone it down” or “get out of the way,” as someone in communities always told the same things, we begin to hold that silence around us like some sort of safety blanket. Maybe, if we don’t make noise, we’ll be safe and we can live our life and no one needs to know we’re here. I know differently and I disagree.

Sometimes, the act of saying anything, even if just to ourselves, instead of shutting down is the most powerful act any person could do. Sometimes the act of announcing who we are to our own self is all we need to declare a space at the proverbial table.

I spoke with a young man and his children at CREATE: the Community Meal. They lived near the neighborhood. He was out of a job and struggling not just to make ends meet, but to make sure his kids were eating healthily. His story didn’t have to reach everyone to change him, for him to feel more powerful for speaking up, for his voice to not hold me accountable to my own promises, he just had to say it, even just to himself. That’s what mattered.

CREATE mattered, because 2000 people gathered for a meal, on a windy day in St. Paul, just west of the Capitol and its opulence, east of the University of Minnesota and its massive-ness. 2000 people, too many of whom would not have had a healthy meal that day, gathered to have a meal together, in a neighborhood too often only recognized by its crime rate and a lack of so-called community investment. 2000 people gathered, and they didn’t have to say anything, to change the frame used to talk about Frogtown. CREATE was important, because it is so easy to deny, despite every fact, that marginalized communities face food injustice.

CREATE made those stories and those faces obvious, binding those people and their stories together eternally. CREATE also made the solution obvious in its food, in its art, and in all that it was.

2000 people sat a 1/2-mile long table and they set the new agenda for what food justice will look like in Frogtown.

The day after CREATE: the Community Meal, I reported on a rally held by Isuroon, a Somali women’s organization, who have been organizing for a healthy, halal, community-based food shelf. They also met with Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. Now, I don’t know how to explain this, but to say about 40-50 Somali women, mostly elderly, gathered  at the Hennepin County Government Center, absolutely terrified and completely nervous, but with one intent: being able to feed themselves, their family, and their communities.

Now, really, this isn’t much to ask for. Though with the hate that has been aimed at the women from so many different communities, you would think they had asked for keys to the United Nations. Fartun Weli is the Executive Director of Isuroon; I interviewed her the Saturday before the protest, as I headed up to St. Cloud to do the communications work and rally with my Asamblea co-workers. Weli said, and I quote, “They didn’t realize people who weren’t white could protest white people.”

Can you imagine the strength it took for those women to stand up and claim their right to eat, even just to themselves? 50 Somali women sat at the table in Commission McLaughlin’s office, at their kitchen table, at their desk and they decided they would fight for a new way of looking at food and food justice in their community.

I know that writing both the articles about CREATE and about Isuroon were two of the greatest writing struggles I have ever had, I also know other food justice stories I will write will mean the same struggle. Writing these sorts of stories, developing new ways to talk about the world we live in, and doing so as a storyteller in a variety of capacities, this is a struggle, but it should be something we struggle with. We’re dealing with some incredible injustice, and we’re dealing with some incredible work for justice, and these shouldn’t be easy to talk about, nor should they be easy to write about. These things shouldn’t be easy to write about, because the stories said aren’t easy to say. We should struggle with our words, because the mere act of speaking, layers another brick in the foundation of a better world.

I wrote both these articles for the TC Daily Planet (where I serve as both a Board Member and volunteer Community Engagement Editor). I really struggled with writing both articles, because they mattered to me. I’m hope you have the opportunity to struggle with your art.

A note: my blog was recently syndicated at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. I’ll be blogging on a weekly basis for them through this platform. I’m super excited to be moving forward with them on this. You can also find both articles linked here: A Frogtown feast: Thousands gather to discuss food access in St. Paul and South Minneapolis Somali community asks for ethnic, healthy food shelf.

nothing-about-us-ricardo-levins-morales

Credit to Ricardo Levins Morales on the art piece above. I heard him speak at a convening this week and I found what he said to be incredibly moving and transformative.

A Spoon Can Start A Revolution

Our work as organizers is many things. It is the sum of our experiences, personal, professional, communal, reflecting, analytical. More than anything though, our organizing is stories. Food justice organizing is no different. It is many stories, it’s why we came to care about food, our earliest memories, maybe it was dinner last night or a lack thereof. When you think about food or food justice or food justice organizing, what do you think about? What’s your food justice revolution look like?

I would begin by telling a story I’ve tentatively called “Ketchup Sandwich.” When I was little, we would make ketchup sandwiches for my father, because too often it was all we had or could afford. We made the sandwiches with the double-thick white bread, because that made it just a tiny bit more filling. 

I would also tell a story about power and becoming an organizer, claiming my right to organize and act. The first time someone told me I was powerful was during my first day of my first weekend of a year-long community organizing training. I went home that night with this whole new understanding of who I was and who I could be, though I didn’t actually understand power at the time or what my journey would look like. I remember my mother angry that I was claiming to be powerful, angrier that I was telling her she was powerful. And, she was right, I didn’t yet understand what power was…that power is a broth of relationships and lives lived, vegetables made up of experiences had and mistakes made and lessons learned, the spices are the work we do, the fancy or not-so-fancy plate setting are the theories and trainings behind our work. The silverware is our cold anger, ready to destroy, dismantle, de-bridge.

A spoon (or a shovel) can start a revolution.  

There are more stories. When I think about making ketchup sandwiches for my father, I have to remember he owned his own business, but he still had to work 18-20 hour days. The small, Catholic elementary school I went to would hold my report card until he made a large enough donation to the attached Church. We had government-sponsored lunch and would be forced to stand in a separate line from the rest of our classmates to get that lunch. Our snacks (and sometimes our dinner) was Suzy Q treats and Country Time lemonade from his work, a gas station. We would pierce the thin aluminum cans and then guzzle them down when we were young. And we went home to ketchup sandwiches. 

When I first started organizing, these were not the stories on my mind. I started doing food justice organizing, because I was angry at my alma mater for intentionally and knowingly acting disingenuously and hurting its community through food. Of course, that wasn’t the only injustice. Queer students were essentially forced to hide their identities. At-risk students were shuffled away to the smaller, hidden campus a city away.  

My hope was to use food justice organizing to get people talking. If people were talking about food, maybe they would talk about the Sodexo workers who were banned from talking to students and made to work in the back of the kitchen or fired. Maybe if we were talking about food, students would talk about who wasn’t talking about food, which students were hidden from or unable to join the conversation. Maybe if we were talking about food, we were talking about our food stories and beginning to understand that food is everything. 

I first realized I was powerful and that my story and voice mattered two years after I became an organizer, the Friday of the first annual Food Week at St. Kate’s, a week of food justice-related events organized around Food Day that I had helped to co-organize. After a week of presenting questions to students at events and through surveys, we took the time to mold their responses into a “Recipe for Food Justice.” We presented to Dining Services administration in the cafeteria, with our mentor, leaders, and allies behind us. It was terrifying. Not 15 feet from where we stood, the Vice President grabbed his lunch. A leader grabbed him, “you have to hear this.” As he walked up to us, my co-organizer and I turned around and began re-reading our speech and our recipe to him.

We believed in that recipe (and I still hold it dear to my heart) because it was the result of the stories of St. Kate’s students (including ourselves, to be honest), students that had never been authentically, genuinely, and intentionally asked what their food story was before. I knew that Friday of Food Week (a day I often refer to as Good Food Friday) that our voices would be heard and, even in the darkest of times, we would get through. 

These stories I’ve shared about food have helped me take leadership in the movement. Claiming food justice as a value and my stories of food injustice as experiences have helped me clarify why I do the work I do and why it matters. Food is a story and thus the stories we tell about food, the hows and whys, are the stories of food justice. How do we talk about food in a way that matters? How do we talk about food in a way that shifts the paradigm, deconstructs the false reality forced upon us? How do we talk about food in a way that shifts the world around us? Why should we talk about food this way?

My revolution is stories made up of soup and ketchup sandwiches and recipes and spoons. What does your food justice revolution look like?