Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Food is a necessary part of all our lives.
We need it to survive. It passes on traditions. It creates economies.
But, what does food 'feel like' to your mind and heart?
Where does it 'place' you? How does it connect you? When does it inspire you?
Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, answers these questions in her interview posted below.
Washington Post story by Elazar Sontag, March 26, 2018
To this Black Lives Matter co-founder, activism begins in the kitchen
"There is an important story to tell around the way food helps us reconnect with ourselves" says Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Gus Aronson)
Years before co-founding Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza sat in a cramped kitchen sipping a sweet gin drink from a red Solo cup, waiting for a pan of turkey legs to finish cooking.
The kitchen belonged to Betty Higgins, a retired bus driver in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. Higgins — or Ms. Betty as everyone called her — was a fixture of the community, and as a neighborhood organizer at the time, Garza wanted to pick her brain. But when Garza would knock on her door, Higgins would brush her off. Something wasn’t clicking. Then Garza realized: If she wanted to have a real conversation with Higgins, she had to put down her clipboard, go inside and talk while Higgins cooked and took care of her kids.
“I had to learn it’s not about getting through your list of things,” she says. “If you’re going to visit Ms. Betty, you’re going to sit there for a couple hours. At the end, you’re going to eat good food, and she’s going to be, like, ‘This person cares about me.’ ”
The lesson was about more than that one connection: Garza was also starting to learn that food and cooking can be as crucial to her work as they had always been to her personal life.
Black Lives Matter was born in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Garza took to Facebook from her Oakland, Calif., home, and penned a now-famous letter. She concluded it by saying, “Black people. I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter, Black lives matter.”
Over the next year, those last three words grew into a national movement. “I stopped being how I’m used to being,” Garza recalls, “which is relatively anonymous.” At her favorite restaurants, she would be approached by strangers, all of them weighing in on how the movement could change, be better, do more. The lack of privacy, the monumental expectations — they have made for a high-intensity life. So, to relax, Garza, 37, does what she has always done. She cooks.
When she was in New York recently for a week of meetings and events, Garza agreed to make dinner with me in my Brooklyn apartment, and to talk about her work. Although the kitchen wasn’t her own, Garza moved with relaxed ease, making sure her cutting board was always clean and her counter organized. She sliced strips of bacon in half and cooked them down for the collard greens before generously seasoning a pile of flour for dredging her fish fillets.
Even while chopping, stirring, peeling and tasting, Garza speaks slowly and thoughtfully.
As she empties a bowl of fresh corn kernels into a large cast-iron skillet, Garza is careful to turn the pan’s handle so it doesn’t jut out past the stove top. It’s something she learned from her mother, “so you don’t brush it and get scalded from what’s on the stove.” In the kitchen, Garza often draws on tips her grandmother gave her, and things she saw her mother do. This creamed corn, rich and comforting, was passed down from Garza’s grandmother to her mother, and then on to Garza. Tonight, the corn and collard greens are complements to the main dish, her fried fish. It’s a trifecta from her childhood. She cuts the onions her own way, and uses more of the collard stems than her grandmother would, but Garza doesn’t stray too far from the family recipes.
“My mom made this food for us because it was what she knew how to cook, but also because she had to figure out how to sustain a family on the cheap,” Garza says. “This is what we had access to, because we were locked out of the economy.”
During her childhood, Garza and her family lived in the North San Francisco Bay area. Her mother worked a number of jobs — for the U.S. Postal Service, in a Macy’s stockroom, and as a housekeeper. Her days were long, and by the time she got home from work, it was usually too late to cook. On the dinner table many nights were takeout containers and microwave meals. Garza woke early on the weekends and made breakfast while her mother slept: eggs, cinnamon toast, bacon.
“She started to trust me in the kitchen, that I wasn’t going to burn it down,” Garza says, laughing. When her mother did have time off, she cooked all day, piling the table high with creamed corn, collard greens and Garza’s favorite: fried chicken. Each of those meals was a special occasion.
On quiet nights, when Garza is craving the flavors of her family, she makes these dishes or others from her mother’s table. Often, she cooks for Malachi, her husband and fellow activist. She says Malachi is a good cook, but when he stirs a pot that’s meant to be left alone, dips his finger in her sauce or turns a pan’s handle the wrong way, Garza sends him to wait in the dining room while she finishes the meal. Then, the kitchen is all hers. “It’s just me by myself, which I really like,” she says.
Since Black Lives Matter grew into a national movement, Garza has rarely been home for a stretch of more than three days. But when she is home, she cooks all the time. Sitting at her dinner table might be a handful of old friends, and one or two new ones, but they must be “folks who I trust immensely.” Although Garza is so often surrounded by crowds, her work sometimes feels shockingly lonely. “Some people only interact with you because they think you’re close to something that they want. Do you want to have a security system in your house? Do you want to get death threats by email?” It’s this side of Garza’s life that even her close friends rarely see.
When Garza is cooking, she has an “open-door policy.” Friends and colleagues whom she loves and trusts are welcome to come and share their ideas and hopes for the movement. But they’ll have to do so in her kitchen, while she tends to a pot of beans or makes her grandmother’s smothered pork chops. “There is something about being nourished that I think must change your biochemistry in a kind of way,” she says. “If I need to have a hard conversation with someone, I’d way rather do it over food.”
In her work before Black Lives Matter, Garza craved the kind of relationship she had formed in Higgins’s kitchen. Conversation had been relaxed and, over a shared meal, she had become familiar with Higgins’s hopes and dreams. “All good organizing is based on a foundation of relationships,” she says, as she dips a tilapia fillet into seasoned flour. She found that sometimes her fellow organizers, too wrapped up in the business of their daily lives, were not making time to enjoy the long meals and conversation that had informed so much of her work. “I needed thought partners. People that I could talk to, that I could trust.” In her work now, Garza is creating space and time for that trust to build.
Last year, she hatched the idea for a new organization. “This new project is all about transforming black communities into constituencies,” she says, reaching into the fridge for a bottle of hot sauce. Her goal for this work, part of what she calls the Black Futures Lab, is to build progressive political movements in small towns, major cities and, ultimately, nationwide. To better understand what communities need across the country, Garza and her team have launched a massive survey. To reach people who are often overlooked by online surveys — namely LGBTQ, immigrant and incarcerated communities — Garza has sent out organizers to collect responses in person. “It will be the largest survey of black people done since Reconstruction,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Her work has already helped elevate Black Lives Matter to a national platform. But even to Garza, creating another organization, with such large goals, seems overwhelming at times. How is she coping? Over lunch, of course. Before she and her team start their work, there is always a meal. “We don’t sit in a room and talk at each other. We break bread together. It’s a time for us to get present.” When the fish she’s been watching turns a golden brown, Garza removes it from the pot and brings her dishes to the table. Years ago, she stood at Higgins’s front door with a clipboard, trying to talk politics and hash out logistics. Now, she’s taking her time, letting conversations unfurl, enjoying the process.
“There’s an important story to tell around the way food helps us reconnect with ourselves,” she muses, as she helps herself to a crisp piece of fish, a portion of greens and a big spoonful of corn. At Garza’s table, a home-cooked meal is always the first order of business.
Thank you Elazar Sontag for writing this story, and the Washington Post for printing it, it deserves many re-publications.
And Thank You, Alicia Garza, for your strength, courage, brilliance, and a deep-rooted sense of justice, and humanity. You give the voiceless voice. You serve the underserved. You make food with love, and you have shown us how 'breaking bread' sustains us, makes us present, willing, and able to do the hard work that needs to be done.