Index

1500 Words with Danielle Elizabeth Stevens
As told to Andrea Gyorody (assisted by Bianca Morán and Anna Cho-Son)

Los Angeles–based artist, chef, social justice educator, and health & wellness consultant Danielle Elizabeth Stevens speaks here about her initiative #WeStillGottaEat, operated as part of Danielle's Soul Kitchen with help from her partner Mel Aliya and a team of volunteers. The project welcomes requests for free meals for Black folx across LA, and is crowd-funded through donations and supported by partnerships with like-minded organizations. #WeStillGottaEat has received more than 1000 requests for meals since launching in June, and continues to receive more as they search for a permanent commercial kitchen that will allow them to expand their outreach and impact.

My art, like all art, challenges, inspires, and calls into question the mundane, that which we take for granted. We live in a society that shoves us into boxes, and doesn't allow us to embrace our wholeness and breadth. I'm unapologetic about spanning a range of different disciplines as an artist. I've been inspired by the bravery in my community, the Black women who dare to cultivate the courage to embody their/our totality and warmly welcome all the dimensions of themselves into their lives and their work.

Food is a special modality to me. It's curious and intriguing. Political. Universal. A deeply personal medium. A portal and pathway to freedom. In a world that is working vehemently to render marginalized people extinct through state-sanctioned violence, systemic oppression, and psychological terror, my work is in uplifting and honoring the everyday artistry and sacred divinity of Blackness, of the "Other," of those who exist at the margins.

With the #WeStillGottaEat Initiative, we are utilizing the modality of food to create stunning works of art to offer as a beautiful gift to Black folks who have existed at the margins for far too long. We are providing high-quality, chef-made, farm fresh, mostly organic, locally sourced meal care packages for free to Black folks specifically, as a site for nourishment and healing in the midst of both a racial pandemic and a public health emergency.

I see the preparation of food and the praxis of caretaking as historically feminized forms of labor. Black folks have often been violently exploited to fill these roles; our caretaking has been exported to benefit a system that has relied wholly upon our subjugation for centuries. Let's consider the historical patterning: the legacy of Black women nursing white women's children, cleaning their homes, while white women took care of themselves. This energy has never been reciprocated. When we think about that context, it is a deliberate and revolutionary practice for me to choose to care-take for Black folks and develop models of care, protection, and safety for our sacred community. To me, this is alchemic, transformative. The #WeStillGottaEat initiative is lovingly imbued with carefulness and intention every step of the way, which exists in direct opposition to the structural oppression and complete disregard to which Black people are subject. We hope these meals serve as a soothing balm, a reminder that our community is DEEPLY loved, and that another world is possible and well on Her way. These meal care packages are both a protest and an act of love that we hope will inspire our folks to continue conjuring a new world of our most vivid imaginings.

To break bread with our family and community is a deeply treasured and revered ritual in Black communities; it is how so many of us wage love and care with one another. As a child, I recall instances when I was targeted by anti-Black racism, discrimination, and microaggressions, and I could look forward to arriving home to a warm and delicious meal from my grandmother. Through these home-cooked meals she said to me: With all that you went through today, please know that I will always love and protect you, I got you, I see you, and I care for you. Food has always been a honey sweet elixir in this way, a conduit to provide and engender the type of radical love of which the rest of the world deems us unworthy. Food told me at an early age that my healing and my joy matter.

I have a special relationship with my grandmother. She is memoir for us; a dynamic historical presence for our family. My grandmother puts such profound care and intention into the meals she creates for us. Her history with food has a painful foundation yet her audacity to provide nourishment and enrichment to her family sets the tone for the sacred work that we're doing with #WeStillGottaEat.

My living grandmother was born in the 1940s segregated U.S., in the deep south of North Carolina. She, as well as her mother and father (my great grandmother and great grandfather), were born into forced sharecropping (read: glorified slavery). As a chef and believer in the revolutionary power of food, I often ask, "Grandma, what food did you eat growing up? I want to celebrate the magic of what has kept you, us, alive." She replies, "We could only eat what the white man gave us, the scraps leftover, sometimes pig feet, pig ears, the innards of cows, we had a small garden, but that's about it." My family, and Black people collectively, have been robbed of so much abundance, opportunity, nourishment, wealth, and resources—and it's transgenerational. I will never ever EVER feed my people scraps. And I will never let a white or non-Black person tell me what I'm allowed to feed my people, or put a cap on what they feel we deserve. My people will never be an afterthought to me, and this is my resistance, the ancestral fire that ignites the #WeStillGottaEat initiative.

The heart of this Initiative is to abolish food apartheids and expand food access throughout Black communities in our city. Due to forces like gentrification, redlining, racism in urban design, green space being actively denied, restricted and refused municipal investment, and grocery stores being forcibly scarce, there are entire neighborhoods in LA County that are deemed unworthy of having access to healthy, sustainable food systems. I grew up in Long Beach, California, and have so many memories of being stripped of and denied vital resources within my community. I remember thinking, Why is there a liquor store right down the street? Why can I easily access chips and candy with my 25 cents allowance, but there's nowhere in my community within walking distance for my family to receive fresh groceries? I grew up eating a lot of boxed and canned goods and when we would go to the grocery store, my single mother and my 3 sisters and I struggled on the bus to lug heavy bags to and fro. When I was a child, I wondered why there were so few parks or farms or gardens in our neighborhood. I remember the city closed our only community park, right by my grandmother's home off of the PCH. My grandmother was told they closed it because of "too many homeless people and thugs congregating." At such a young age, I had no language for understanding how or why the criminalization of our existence was why I had nowhere to play and be as a young Black girl. During my childhood I didn't have access to the food that I prepare now. I lived the very experiences of the folks I am doing this work with and for. Food injustice was a mechanism of violence that my grandmother experienced when she was a child and structural oppression ensured this stratification was inherited through generations. So when I was a kid, two generations later, I, too, was denied control over the foods my family ate, our overall health, and ultimately our well-being.

Food should not be a luxury reserved exclusively for those who have enough disposable income, upward mobility, or the appropriate address and geographic location. There's no reason why in South LA there's 1.3 million residents but only 60 grocery stores. There are a range of long-standing, interconnected structural injustices that strategically create food inaccessibility and food violence within Black communities. Centuries of economic injustice and wage theft, including forced enslavement, Jim Crow, segregation, and even wage inequality today (where Black women like me are earning 61 cents to every dollar that a white man makes) are all related to how and why we are stripped of food sovereignty. There are entire neighborhoods that are intentionally designed for Black people to have worse health outcomes than the general population. I don't think any Black person—I don't think that anybody—should have to pay for a meal. These are resources we need to sustain ourselves. Food should always be free, period.

My people are magic makers, future conjurers. Our very existence is a miracle embodied. We are not even supposed to be alive. There are entire structures vehemently invested in our death, and anybody who turns on the news or reads the newspaper is a witness. That's why I'm intentional about creating spaces where Black people can imagine themselves/ourselves into the future. There are so many things that we see for #WeStillGottaEat and it is beautiful to dream up some of the things that we want to do for our community. We want to create programming that's unapologetically centered around Black people; spaces, archives, and dialogues that provide a blueprint for what a world of nourishment, safety, and care looks like for US. What food justice looks, feels, smells, and tastes like. To experience the contours of a new world that is free of food injustice, where food liberation for our community is eternal and can exist in praxis and fortitude.

Black people are the future, Black people are today, Black people are tomorrow. I trust that by the grace of our ancestors we will create a sustainable, long-term, well-funded, intersectional, collaborative hub for all things Black and food and social justice and healing. We warmly invite the people who are reading this to join our love revolution by learning more, donating, and volunteering. We hope to see y'all on the other side, a world where food freedom has finally arrived.



Image: Berbere-spiced plantain and chili-lime smashed black bean taco with sliced aguacate, a purple cabbage and carrot caribbean slaw, peppercorn + fennel pickled purple onion, vegan queso fresco, chermoula, and crispy jalapeños. Courtesy of Danielle Elizabeth Stevens.

"1500 Words with Danielle Elizabeth Stevens" was published in Active Cultures Digest, Issue 5, July 2020.

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Danielle Elizabeth Stevens is a culinary artist, social justice educator, and integrative health practitioner born and raised in Los Angeles. In her work, she connects social justice, public health, and activist education through audaciously imaginative pedagogical frameworks to demonstrate that life, health, and social change are fundamentally artistic endeavors. Danielle has curated and designed bold and inventive creative experiences at The New Museum, New York, The Museum of Impact and Newark Arts, New Jersey, Redline Contemporary Arts Center, Colorado, and her work is part of the permanent collection of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.. She is currently the Founder and Head Chef of Danielle' Soul Kitchen and the #WeStillGottaEat initiative, which provides FREE meal packages for Black communities in Los Angeles. You can learn more about her work here and DONATE to the initiative here.