I have a long history with rural soul food. I grew up eating from the Kentucky table of my grandmother Nellie Sullivan, a professional cook who grew vast gardens filled with corn, tomatoes, greens, peppers, potatoes and a multitude of other vegetables.

My grandfather Big Jim Sullivan, raised hogs and steers for slaughter so there was always plenty meat on the family table as well. The Sullivan family farm has been producing food for our family for over a hundred years in the Cumberland Highlands region of Eastern Kentucky.

My interest was piqued when I read about a symposium called Food For Black Thought held at the Carver Museum in East Austin last week. The weekend-long affair featured films, guest lecturers and of course plenty soul food with the added bonus being that it was from the kitchen of Hoover Alexander. This is where I met Naya Jones. Ms. Jones is a doctoral student at the University of Texas and produced the event along with UT’s Dr. Kevin Thomas. She greeted me at the door of the Carver Museum and I knew immediately that I had a dynamo on my hands. She’s radiant.

The symposium culminated with the screening of East Side Food Stories, a short documentary from youth directors Charles Easley, Kayla Holman, and Isaiah Stewart. I found the film to be a compelling look at the current state of food in East Austin as well as a glimpse at what the future potentially holds. No dilettantes, the three teenagers had clearly rolled their sleeves up during the course of their project and got some serious work done.

This is part one of an email interview I conducted with Naya Jones.

Good afternoon Naya Jones. Please tell us a little about your background/history and what inspired “East Side Food Stories”

Since my research and community work are about food, I’ll share my background and history through that delicious lens. My father is African-American and my mother is Mexican-American/White; I grew up with a family where food held many different meanings over time. Throughout my childhood and into high school, we struggled with buying groceries. My mom was the cook. She cooked what I now understand were variations on soul food – particularly pork chops (not fried), macaroni and cheese (without those bread crumbles on-top, and Velveeta style), and canned vegetables. I did not grow up with Mexican/Mexican-American cuisines. And though my father was a landscaper by trade, we did not have a garden of our own.

For me the focus on food started gradually, in college and then graduate school. Going to school on the West Coast, it was hard NOT to become concerned about the environment. Not only was I surrounded by tall pines and mountains, but I was also surrounded by folks who were hard core environmental activists. This was about 2000-2003. Food discussions and gardening movements had not yet reached the popularity they have now across the nation – or on a global scale. I became more interested in environmental issues and in food production processes. At the same time, I noticed how the processed food on which I grew up affected me personally. My food habits were making a difference in how I felt, dramatically affecting my energy levels in ways that made it challenging for me to function. Years later I would finally become a vegetarian with the strong belief that people should eat what feels best for them.

Around this same time period, I started learning about social justice and my collective histories, involving both African-American and Mexican in particular. Both of these histories are tied to food production in painful (and empowering) ways. My African-American family were enslaved, as I learned in cursory lessons throughout my public education. Upon further reading I learned how enslaved Africans brought with them knowledge of food plants and growing to the Americas. Judith Carney’s work comes to mind here. They were not brute force laborers. They were not blank slates. And European planters did not magically learn how to work in tropical or other environments completely different from their home climates. Our bodies and our knowledge mattered.

I now know that among my ancestors are enslaved Africans who produced crops and home gardens. They include Black farmers and sharecroppers from East Texas. I gather stories about my great grandmother who tended an herb garden. My father and his brothers and sisters still remember how her herbal medicines smelled and tasted.

On my mom’s side, my abuelito was a migrant laborer as a teenager and young man. He left school in West Texas in part because of the discrimination he experienced there. This was during the time period when, like many Latin@s throughout the country, he was not allowed to speak Spanish at school. Segregation was alive and legal. When schools “integrated”, he attended a predominantly white school where he was expected to forget the language of his birth, his culture, his history. What that must have been like, I can only imagine. He traveled working on major agricultural fields throughout Texas, the Midwest, and finally California. Poor Irish farmers and business owners are also part of my mom’s family, from Kentucky.

My personal stories here shed light on collective experiences and shared histories. Racialized histories. Consider, for example, of stereotypes about African-Americans and chicken. Or watermelon. Consider the embattled discussions around soul food: is it healthy – or not healthy? Is it “slave” food – or “soul” food? Recent health statistics in both Black and Latin@ communities link poor health and high mortality to dietary issues in those communities. How does the BMI “read” bodies of color? What about the environmental toxins in the food system – such as pesticides and hormones that can affect human bodies – and how those affect people of color. Here Julie Guthman’s work, among others, inspires my questions. Furthermore, how does the everyday stress of simply living as a Black or Brown person impact how we literally digest, grow, share, buy food? Add in class issues, and you have other pressures at hand.

This is where my current work begins: with questions. “East Side Food Stories” is part of my dissertation research, which has grown to become a broader, community-based project. I launched the East Austin Food Project to research with young people their food experiences in a rapidly gentrifying area of the city. The emphasis is on with here because young people of color in particular, especially Black and Latin@ youth, are more often the objects of food research. They are monitored, measured, followed. My research is not an intervention I have created with other adults. Rather, at this time, the work focuses on how self-identified Black youth live food in their everyday lives. Youth may indeed want to build an intervention or action from the work we do together. In fact, that is what interests me. What changes they want to see, and why. What they want to stay the same, and why.

Critical pedagogy and participatory action research traditions inspire the East Austin Food Project. As an AmeriCorps VISTA, and with non-profits throughout Austin, I have worked with youth as a teacher and case manager. In those positions, I became concerned with 1) how adults address youth of color, 2) how youth voices are (not) heard, and 3) how youth of color are often the “targets” or objects of interventions.

With these concerns in mind, the first cycle of the East Austin Food Project involved making the film you witnessed. In the short film “East Side Food Stories”, three Black youth from East Austin ask the questions they want to ask their neighbors and other residents. Before we filmed, we did some deep work. The youth, other adults, and I conducted a “freedom school” where the youth (and adults present) learned about the history of Austin, including about policies that explicitly created segregation in the city. We talked about our own identities, as well as power and privilege. We explores Black histories with food and farming. We considered the meanings of soul food for us. We went to historical archives. The youth interviewed the adult facilitators.
Together we went to a newly-opened grocer in gentrifying East Austin.

Throughout, the youth shared their knowledge based on their experiences in the city, from what they learned about in school or on their own, on their perspectives on youth and food today, and drawn from their family traditions. Through this freedom school, we all – youth and adults – asked questions as co-researchers.

By the time the youth decided the structure of the film, the settings, and the questions they wanted to ask, they were always asking us questions. They asked follow up questions of each other. That’s when I knew the work was “working”: they considered themselves co-researchers who were producing knowledge. At the film screening you attended, the youth again became the question-bearers.

The East Austin Food Project is on-going. While I design certain aspects, such as focus groups, future mapping activities, collaborative surveys, and film projects, youth guide the process as well. I hold of space for what might happen. Where do the youth want to show the short film or their products they co-create? Do they want to share with policy makers? Classrooms? Conferences? Together we’ll discuss the possible outcomes and consequences, as well as future steps. This is an exciting dialogue to hold with the next generation.

Part 2 coming soon and you don’t want to miss it.

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