By Noah Parks
The healthiest way to deal with this pandemic is to connect with your sense of community. Whether it’s reaching out to family, friends, or neighbors, or it’s supporting your local food banks, religious organization, or mutual aid group, all of it helps. Community is something I’ve learned at HMG+, and I know is one of their core principles. This is a principle that is shared in our industry by many but in particular there is one group changing the lives of people in need. The Okra Project has been doing the essential work of supporting their vulnerable community since before the pandemic.
The Okra Project was founded in 2018 by Ianne Fields Stewart to serve healthy meals and fight hunger in the Black Trans Community. “For Black people, in particular, the kitchen is such a place of family lineage. It’s a place of community. It’s a place of love. Daily life occurs in the kitchen. And so to have that kitchen be filled with someone who looks, loves, and lives like you, is a luxury and a joy”, says Ianne. I am not part of this demographic so it can be easy for me to forget what a luxury it is to be able to assume certain aspects of my daily life such as meals. Ms. Stewart is making sure there’s equality and equity in Black Trans people’s diets. It is a foundation on which many other parts of people’s lives and identities are built.
This is not a soup kitchen or a bread line. The Okra Project hires Black Trans chefs to prepare take away meals for those without housing, and to visit homes of those in need to cook meals. According to their website, “34% of Black trans people report living in extreme poverty. Serving people in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York, The Okra Project’s mission is to hire Black trans staff to visit the homes of Black trans people in need to cook healthy, home-cooked, and culturally specific meals.” Another goal of the project: to make the luxurious normal for marginalized communities.
Indeed the culinary component was only the beginning. Ianne Fields Stewart is dedicated to shaking up the exclusivity of luxury by providing community events that are curated to the black trans people which provide wellness and pleasure that they wouldn’t normally have access to. They now offer events that cater specifically to the black trans community. Some might say this exclusivity is problematic, but Ms Stewart says they’re hoping the Okra Project is just the beginning, “What we have always hoped … watching how it has grown, how it speaks to the community and to people as a whole, that other people will say, “I will start something like this as well.”
It’s important that we remember that the solutions that Ianne is offering don’t have to be unique. Her goal is that the Black Trans community fully integrates with the rest of society. Currently, we are still fighting to achieve that goal. According to Human Rights Campaign, “While the details of… cases differ, it is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color — particularly Black transgender women — and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, bi-phobia, transphobia and unchecked access to guns conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities.” During Black History month it’s important that people like me (white, male, cisgendered) admit my privilege and listen without pretense to goals and aims of people like Ianne. This pandemic has given us all time to reflect on our place in our communities. We’ve been faced with a shared trauma that we cannot deny, however it has also presented us with a remarkable opportunity. The opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. That means challenging and changing how we think about Black Identity and specifically the Black Trans community. Ianne says it well, “Rather than attempting to address how we are seen, we need to address how we are seeing.” If you’re able then I suggest going to https://www.theokraproject.com/, and donating or getting involved.