One of the things I love about living here is being surrounded by people who are working tirelessly and creatively toward social justice – and toward lunch.
If you’re alive, you know we’re blessed with good food in these parts. If you’re part of a religious congregation or you work on one of our university campuses, you’ve maybe heard of the Racial Equity Institute out of Greensboro. Over the past five years, REI has led more than 50 anti-racism workshops in the Triangle, training more than 2,000 people to understand white privilege and structural racism – the barriers to equality based not on individual prejudice but on the ways institutions and systems work.
The thing is, all these people need to eat. REI has been doing so many workshops in the Triangle, it has spawned it own catering company, a cottage industry to feed the fight against racism.
Proprietor Stephanie Perry was uniquely suited to open Sweetie’s Southern and Vegan Catering to serve the cause. Her mother had been a dietician and had figured out how to make Southern cooking healthy – skip the pork, skin the chicken, cut the dairy, for example. Leveraging the lessons from her childhood kitchen, Perry had been a baker for businesses like Whole Foods and Foster’s Market.
But, beyond her culinary skills, Perry had served for four years as the lead organizer with Orange County Justice United, a coalition of churches and other groups working on issues of social justice around Chapel Hill. OCJU, like Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), is associated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the same community-organizing group that employed President Obama decades ago.
In the early part of this decade, UNC faculty and staff were going to REI trainings over in Greensboro. One of them, Wanda Hunter, was a member of United Voices of Praise, a mixed-race Gospel choir comprising members of United Church of Chapel Hill and Fisher Memorial United Holy Church in Durham.
Hunter, a retiring social-medicine researcher at Carolina, knew the studies showing how race correlated with health, wealth and other measures of human well-being. After her REI training, she wanted to talk more about race and racism with her choir friends, black and white.
United Voices decided to sponsor its own REI workshop, and from there a new group, Organizing Against Racism, was born. OAR gathers caucuses of white folk and black folk in communities across the Triangle to discuss their own experiences of institutional privilege and prejudice, with the goal of dismantling unjust systems.
Because Hunter’s congregation, United Church of Chapel Hill, was a member of OCJU, she invited Perry to one of the REI workshops hosted at the church.
“I didn’t want to go,” Perry said. “I was like, ‘What is this white woman going to tell me about racism?’ But it changed my life forever in so many different and powerful and good ways.”
Hunter was just the messenger. The training was built on historical analysis by other African-Americans. Perry began to see how current inequalities were layered upon past inequalities, and it changed the way she saw her community-organizing work.
“There was no racial analysis, or a racial lens that we were applying to the work that we were doing,” she says. “There were some reasons that I didn’t understand at the time for why we were continuing to produce the outcomes that I was seeing in communities. It was like that missing piece to the puzzle.”
REI managing director Deena Hayes-Greene, also an African-American, says it’s not only white people who need to understand how racism is built into social structures.
“Some people think racism is just about ‘those people’s’ attitudes,” she says. “You can send those people to the moon, and you’ll still have an achievement gap, you’ll still have health disparities, you’ll still have injustice in our judicial system.”
Perry is trying to address those health disparities, not only by supporting REI’s education efforts but also with healthy food. She hopes Sweetie’s will become a breakfast and lunch spot in Orange or Alamance county. Meantime, she doesn’t mind going to the same workshops over and over again.
“When you attend one, if this touches you, you come back,” she says. “Even if I’m catering and I’m busy, I always try to get back in the room at some point and just sit and listen.”
Jesse James DeConto is an author, journalist, musician in Durham. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org