Exploring the Intersection of Food, Justice, and Ecology

February 08, 2023 | By Shi Woo Ji

hands covered in dirt holding pile of seedsImage courtesy of Abhilash Raji Parayakavil.

The following is Part 1 of a 3-part interview on the topic of food, justice, and ecology with Jocelyn Jackson. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.

Jocelyn is the founder of JUSTUS Kitchen and co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective, two California Bay Area organizations that center the lived experiences of Black and Brown communities while bringing healing experiences around food for the purpose of collective liberation. She also serves as the new Chief-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. 

In Part 1 of the interview, Jocelyn describes the many ways in which culture, history, and social justice issues—particularly racial justice issues—are inextricably tied to the food we eat. She illuminates the ways in which White supremacy has shaped people’s relationship with food, and how BIPOC communities have resisted in order to stay connected to their cultural traditions and identities. 


Shi woo Ji: What inspired you personally to center your work around food?

Jocelyn Jackson: It really is an important question for me to answer because for me, my path is long and intentional. And what I mean by that is, I had the opportunity to start out my life in Kansas, in the Midwest, with a really big family that sang and ate together. It's just such a big focus of our life and of our values as a family. My instinct was to go to art school, or study art I should say. I got a fine arts degree and I immediately went to law school after that. It is interesting to me that creativity and justice were my first instincts based on my lived experience.

Jocelyn Jackson: And that was an experience of seeing how creativity and innovation was such a space of solace and truth-telling, especially within a Black family. And that justice is so much more than the legal system that we have, and how I could learn what [justice] was beyond so many of the laws that actually betrayed my people over the years. And so those two paired well for me together, but I had an instinct that more was still needed. Interestingly, I also spent two years in Mali, West Africa, because [of] the instinct to have a home-going moment. I've always felt a real strong fracture from the Middle Passage, and I've always wanted to heal it. And returning to homeland was a big, big part of that for me. I'm so grateful I got to go to West Africa and spend substantial time there.

Jocelyn Jackson: And of course I got cultural immersion that was just so beautiful, and just felt like such a reckoning for my own cultural and spiritual awareness. And also a reckoning of how do I hold joy and sorrow simultaneously. Because that's such a witnessing and necessity when I was there. I got back to the States and I, again, still had more to go. And so I did environmental education. I did a master's [in] science and environmental education with the traveling program. And by traveling I mean that we basically camped out every night and we traveled to different bioregions for each semester. I went to four different bioregions including the Cascadia bioregion of the Pacific Northwest. It was the Eastern seaboard, from Canada down to Georgia. It was the big island of Hawaii. And also I ended [up] in Southern India for part of it at an eco village there. 

Jocelyn Jackson: It was really dynamic and so much information and so much lived experience. One building on the other. I knew I had one little piece of education that I wanted, and I came to get my doctorate in the Bay Area based on a program that was here and I found my community here. And finding community was actually more provocative to me than the doctorate. I rested in a community that saw the way that I cooked and saw the way that my cooking really was a common thread to all the other things that I had an instinct to learn. And so food became the through point of the pieces of the environment, of justice, of creativity that I was studying.

Jocelyn Jackson: I really am grateful for a non-circuitous or very circuitous nonlinear route. I feel like it's really important that everybody embraces more of an anti-disciplinary approach to life. Because it really is paying attention to a flow of what you're curious about in order to get to the first of many answers when it comes to how to be of service in the world and how to feel authentic and true to yourself in the world. 

Shi woo Ji: That was beautiful. Thank you for sharing. You touched on your background in environmental work, in advocacy, your passion and drive and work around justice. Back to the basics, what is the connection between food, justice, and ecology? How would you explain how all three are interconnected? 

Jocelyn Jackson: Thank you for that. And again this goes to that disciplinary piece that I was mentioning, so often they're siloed. And so when we choose to combine them and interrogate them and complicate them, it can be a little bit challenging to find those places of overlap and of interconnectedness. For me, I envision Venn diagrams when you say “three things.” [For the People’s Kitchen Collective,] our “Venn diagram” [of intersecting parts] is food, art, and social justice. We really work at making those intersections very clear and very powerful. When you say food, ecology, and justice, I think the same thing. I think that there is no way that one exists without the other.

Jocelyn Jackson: One example of that is when people use the phrase “food deserts.” Hate that phrase, can't stand it. For me, food desert indicates something passively happening as a matter of course. For me, the phrase that I prefer to use is food apartheid, because it is an intentional oppression and marginalization of people. And quite frankly, so many of the things that I work on are based in growing up in a society that was built centering Whiteness. White supremacy and the ideals of that death cult are pervasive within all three of the areas that you mentioned: food, ecology, and justice. So what is it to decolonize all three of those spaces in service to folks that have been in this collection of systems bent on destroying and killing us?

Jocelyn Jackson: I don't want to mince words in this at all. I don't want to be precious about it. This has been intentional work to destroy Black and Brown folks for millennia. And so when we bring these three paths together in service of our liberation, [it] is super relevant that we see those intersections and that we really take time to weave them together so that it's so much more powerful. For me, those three things are mycelium networks, right? We have the opportunity to listen to that learning, that when we are entangled we're stronger. When we're communicating, we're stronger. When we are taking ancient awareness, we're stronger. When we are remembering our history, we're stronger.

Jocelyn Jackson: And when all three of those areas do it together—wow. The idea of survival and living well becomes even more possible and true, as opposed to the fictions and the stories and the lies that are told by the systems that presently exist.

Shi woo Ji: Wow. First I just want to say thank you for the candor, because I feel like the more we mince our words, the more—as you say—we stay precious with them, the more we dilute the truth and what's really happening around us.

Jocelyn Jackson: Absolutely.

Shi woo Ji: Thank you. The work of People's Kitchen Collective, as the website says, centers the lived experiences of Black and Brown folks. Why is it important to do that? Why is it important for us, both as individuals and collectively, to center the lived experiences Black and Brown folks when we're engaging with the most critical issues of our time, whether it's actually directly related to race or not?

Jocelyn Jackson: I am so grateful for this question. It matters because if I was not talking to another person of color, this conversation would not be the same. If I'm choosing to, for the rest of my life, decenter whiteness as the norm of society, I'm getting freer from the shackles of that being the way this country was built.

Jocelyn Jackson: I want to do that on purpose because I have years of unlearning to do when literature canons are built on this standard of whiteness; when food is built on a standard of whiteness; when all the parts of my society that I grew up in centered whiteness when I was in my formative years. Once I had awakening to that fact and I could make a choice, I chose my freedom from that. Because fundamentally, harm is done to Black and Brown folks when we are forced to be in those norms, when our survival depends on code switching to those norms. I will not rest in that reality. I will build the world I want to live in as opposed to resting in the one that exists. And that will be my perspective for the rest of my life, because it is essential for us as the global majority of Black and Brown folks to really live into that purposeful saving of everyone.

Jocelyn Jackson: When I say that Black women specifically, if we caretake the liberation of Black women, we are caretaking the liberation of every single person, every single human and non-human relative on this planet. That's true for me. We can't accomplish that if we continue to center whiteness, because that historically has led to so much destruction and so much oppression. We know it doesn't work, let's change our perspective and let's speak more truth to what it means for us all collectively to get free.

Shi woo Ji: As I hear you speaking, I'm brought back to the memories of my childhood. So my family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when I was a little over a year old. And so speaking Korean at home and eating Korean food were really the only connections I had to a culture and a heritage that is on the other side of the world. I'm sure you can understand, assimilation is the language of survival for people of color and particularly immigrants. And so [during] my childhood, I would ask my mom [to not] pack me Korean food in my lunch. And as an adult, I think back and part of me feels shame that I treated my mother that way because her love language was cooking food for us. Now I call my mom once a week to learn new Korean recipes from her and now I cook Korean food. 

Jocelyn Jackson: That's amazing. You know what, I need to make a specific request. I want you to put that in the article. I really need you to, because there's something about— again, it's the interplay. The interplay of our conversation is about the fact that you had your truth coming into it and I have mine, and so much resonance in the fact that we both had this unlearning that we had to do and a reclaiming of the respect that we have for our cultures, the survival instinct of our cultures. That for me is so powerful to hear, and I'm so glad you were moved to share it. It's something that is [a] story I hear so often, and it breaks my heart.

Jocelyn Jackson: We have to do so much efforting to undo assimilation and to undo code switching and to undo this work of invisibilizing our very existence, right? The heart of our existence, our cultural food waves, our language, our physical appearance. That is terrible. It's not small. So many people want to say, it's a micro-this or whatever. I'm like, no, it gets to the very heart of our existence. It really means so much when we share those stories with one another, because then we see each other, we hear each other, we become even more present in the world and that's so important. 

Shi woo Ji: Thank you. I think conversations like this help us expose just how insidious White supremacy is.

Jocelyn Jackson: Truly.

Shi woo Ji: Actually this is a great segue into the next question. Why is it important to look at food through the lens of culture and history? I think another thing that White supremacy, the impact it has on us is we become disconnected from that. We think of food as just something we eat three or four times a day and that's it. But why is it important for us to really examine food through the lens of culture and history?

Jocelyn Jackson: Oh my God. It really is. One of the things that I turn to when I think about this is the Farm Meal that we did with People's Kitchen Collective. We did a four part series called From the Farm, to the Kitchen, to the Table, to the Streets. We aren't often responsive to things, but in this case we were responding to the farm-to-table movement, and how if we don't have the kitchen and the streets in that dynamic, we are making invisible so much of the work, the labor, the contribution of Black and Brown folks in the kitchen [and] on the streets. We say that because for example, in the Farm Meal, one of the themes that we really brought forward was this idea of how immigrants, how people that are leaving their home places choose to or are forced to smuggle the flavors of home with them.

Jocelyn Jackson: And the way that we showed that is folks were quite frankly bringing seeds from Mexico, from India, from Korea and hiding them in candy packages or ramen bags, hiding those heirloom varietals of seeds, in order to get them to the United States. Because without the flavors of home, our lights aren't as bright, our lives aren't as really fortified by our history and our culture. And so what is it that you'll do for those flavors? Would you become a smuggler? Because the laws, again, of this particular justice system—what we call a justice system, but I'll say is a legal system—is bent on bleaching.

Jocelyn Jackson: The example in the Middle Passage is braiding rice or Okra seeds into your braids. Not having any idea what's going to happen next, but knowing that you're being stolen from your homeland. What is the instinct? One of the instincts was to braid these seeds from home into your hair so that wherever you go, wherever you arrive, it can't be taken away from you. Your captor will not see it or know it, but you know that your home is with you. And whenever you arrive to Earth or soil again, you'll plant your home there. That's not just because you want to eat a meal three times a day. That's because you know that the seeds of home are what make you you.

Jocelyn Jackson: And the mystery of arrival in whatever circumstance, you never know what you'll find when you arrive. But if you bring your seeds with, you bring your stories, you bring your flavor, you bring your family. Because in my belief system, in my idea of the cosmos and of the sacred, plants are non-human relations. And if you're going to go somewhere, bring them with you, caretake them—even in the unknown, make sure to caretake them. It's really beautiful and powerful for me that so many of our ancestors’ instinct said, “bring your whole family.”

Learn more about the connection between social justice and ecology through our  free course, Climate Action Now. 

From our Blog

Read more articles from our blog.

Read More