The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To this Black Lives Matter co-founder, activism begins in the kitchen

“There’s 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.

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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.

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“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 my mother’s house, soul food reigned.

It’s with this same spirit that cookbook author Julia Turshen wrote her most recent book, “Feed the Resistance.” “Kitchens and dining room tables aren’t just places to make food,” says Tur­shen, who has written about recipes for The Washington Post and whose writing often centers on social causes and calls to action. “They’re also safe and familiar places to gather, connect, organize, plan and to recuperate. Food not only changes the feeling in a space, it also shifts behavior. When we feel safe and comfortable, we’re free to have uncomfortable-but-important conversations.”

Garza’s inclination to organize and plan over food is deeply personal. Yet she follows in the footsteps of many great activists and leaders before her. “Food sustains movements,” says Fred Opie, author of several books and a professor of history and foodways at Babson College. “Food also starts movements.”

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Over a plate of ribs at Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven in Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met with colleagues, strategized and planned his speeches. During the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s, Georgia Gilmore opened a makeshift restaurant in her Alabama home after being fired from her job for speaking out against the bus drivers. She sold poundcakes, pies and cookies at local businesses, and she started the Club From Nowhere, a group whose proceeds supported transportation for those boycotting the buses.

“There would not have been successful movements without the thousands of people who gave up their own, without any help financially . . . to buy food,” Opie says. “From fried chicken to cakes and pies made by members of the Club From Nowhere, there were literally thousands of people” baking and raising money.

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.

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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.

Sontag is the author of “Flavors of Oakland: A Cookbook in 20 Stories” and divides his time between California and New York.


Creamed Corn

4 servings

These are adapted from family recipes from Black Lives Matter movement co-founder Alicia Garza.

5 ears fresh corn

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

¾ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon garlic powder (granulated garlic)

2 cups whole milk

Use a sharp chef’s knife to cut the kernels from each ear of corn; the yield is 5 cups. Place the kernels in a large bowl.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the corn, along with the salt, pepper and garlic powder, stirring to incorporate.

Stir in the milk; increase the heat so the mixture is bubbling at the edges. Cook for 1½ to 2 hours, until the milk solids are visible and there is very little liquid left in the pan. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan often, to prevent sticking.

At this point, the corn kernels should be quite tender. Transfer to a serving bowl; serve warm.

Fried Tilapia

4 servings

4 cups vegetable oil, for frying

3 large eggs

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1½ pounds tilapia fillets

Hot sauce, for serving

Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat to 350 degrees. The oil should be about 2 inches deep.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk together the flour, salt, pepper, chili powder and garlic powder on a plate. Dip each fish fillet into the eggs, then into the flour mixture, shaking off any excess flour.

Working in batches, fry the fish for 3 to 5 minutes on each side, until crisp and golden brown. Transfer the fillets to the lined baking sheet and place in the warm oven until ready to serve.

The oil needs to return to 350 degrees before each subsequent batch of fish is fried.

When ready to serve, transfer the fish to a large serving plate. Serve right away, with the hot sauce and lemon wedges, if using.

Collard Greens

4 servings

4 slices thick-cut bacon (4 ounces total)

1 pound (about 1 bunch) collard greens

1 small white onion, cut in half and thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Line a plate with paper towels. Cut the bacon crosswise into 2-inch long pieces. Place in a large, cold skillet and cook over medium heat, until crisp. Transfer the bacon to the lined plate to drain; remove the pan (with rendered bacon fat) from the heat.

Rinse the collard greens. Working in batches, stack the leaves, roll them tightly and cut crosswise into ¼ -inch-wide strips, discarding only the thick base of the stem.

Return the skillet of bacon fat to medium heat. Add the onion and the garlic; cook for 5 or 6 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent and the garlic is fragrant. Stir in the salt and pepper.

Add the collard greens to the skillet; cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are wilted and have turned several shades darker.

Transfer the greens to a serving bowl. Chop the cooled bacon into ¼ -inch pieces. Top the greens with bacon; serve warm.

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