Stretched financially and emotionally by the pandemic, Smithie small-business owners summon their powers of resilience and vow to pull through, even in the face of limited government support, confusing rules and clumsy regulations.
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Feeding a Revolution
Gaiana Joseph ’17 isn’t much of a protester, she says, so when her younger brother, Roody, asked her a few weeks ago if she’d like to join him at a march against police brutality in New York, she politely declined. But her brother’s invitation made her wonder how she could contribute in another way that would make a difference. “I thought, What talents do I have that can help set people free?” she says. That question led her to realize, “I love to cook. I can make some food. People need to eat.”
So there at her parents’ house in Westchester, New York, Joseph began mapping out a plan for a new, grassroots initiative to get food to protesters, many of whom spend hours on the street without something substantial to eat. Joseph posted a message to her 1,000-plus Instagram followers, asking if anyone wanted to contribute or help out. Within hours, she had raised close to $1,000. Using those donations, as well as about $500 of her own money, she bought several shopping carts’ worth of ingredients and other supplies and, with help from her brother, mother and cousins, set to work putting together hundreds of packets of food. The next day she, along with some of her brother’s friends, handed out sandwiches, chips, granola bars and water to more than 700 protesters in Manhattan.
That was just the beginning. Just as Joseph was getting her effort off the ground in New York, her friend Allegra Massaro, a fellow Seven Sisters alum from Bryn Mawr, called to tell Joseph that she was doing something similar in Washington, D.C. After talking, the two agreed to join forces—and Fuel the People was born. They set up a website where people can contribute to the effort in each city, and in its first full week the organization distributed more than 4,000 meals in both cities. “I’ve been blown away,” Joseph says. “For a while, I was struggling to find my place in this movement, and now I have. There are so many different ways people can contribute. It doesn’t have to be flashy.”
Fuel the People is guided by a three-pronged mission: Feed the protestors on the front lines, support local Black-owned restaurants and businesses, and donate to organizations that support Black liberation. “Food is fuel for revolution. People have to be nourished to keep fighting,” Joseph says. “If you don’t have energy, how can you fight for your rights? And there’s so much left to fight for.”
Since launching Fuel the People, Joseph, who works as a project manager in the financial tech sector, has spent a good deal of her free time prepping and making food. But she doesn’t do it alone. Recently, several Black-owned restaurants have become integral partners in Joseph’s effort by contributing food and resources and helping prepare meals. “Black-owned restaurants are the heartbeat of a lot of these neighborhoods, especially those that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” Joseph says. “Black restaurant owners have stayed in the neighborhoods to feed nurses and doctors and other frontline workers. They are truly an inspiration for the work I’m doing. This is a great way to bring attention to them and bring them into the movement.”
To find out where marches will be taking place, Joseph and her cadre of volunteers, including several Smithies, rely on social media and contacts within the protest movement. With cars loaded, the group heads out to various locations and as demonstrators march by they hand out bags filled with homemade sandwiches (a recent offering: fresh roasted chicken salad), water, chips and other snacks. On a recent Saturday, Joseph, along with 20 volunteers, fed protesters in three different locations in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. At first, Joseph says, protesters aren’t quite sure what’s in the bag, but once they realize it’s food and drink their eyes light up. “Everyone is so grateful,” Joseph says.
For Joseph, making food seemed a natural way to do her part in the larger movement for justice. Her love of cooking took root while she was a junior at Smith, studying abroad in Geneva. Being a Black woman in a new country felt isolating. “I was finding it very difficult to fit in,” Joseph says. She eventually connected with a Black exchange student from Geneva who introduced her to a group of Black women from Switzerland. They’d regularly get together for a book group and cook “these amazing meals,” talk and laugh. “We were all just Black women in a space cooking for each other and supporting each other,” Joseph recalls.
Soon, Joseph began buying groceries and cooking for herself. “I realized that cooking was a way to give love back to myself and to heal myself,” she says. Returning to Smith for her senior year, she continued cooking, making meals for friends in Cromwell House and for events sponsored by the Black Students’ Alliance. Among her friends, she became known for her coconut ginger butternut squash bisque. “Cooking became my way of making people feel comforted,” Joseph says.
It was at Smith, she says, that she acquired the confidence to pursue ideas that she believed were important—especially if they hadn’t been done before. “Smith taught me that my voice is powerful and is to be used in any way I see fit,” says Joseph, who majored in Africana studies and French. “I felt supported and empowered to believe that my ideas are worthy to be shared.”
These days, those lessons have inspired Joseph to think bigger about the future of Fuel the People. She knows that one day the protests will slow down or come to an end, but issues like inequality, injustice and food insecurity will remain. She’s already thinking about new ways of giving back to her community and strengthening partnerships with Black-owned restaurants. “We don’t want to stop,” Joseph says. “It’s important to me to celebrate Blackness—because our lives should be celebrated—and to make sure that food is accessible to Black and brown neighborhoods, where fresh, affordable food can be difficult to find.”
Once again, Joseph returns to a lesson she learned at Smith about stepping up to meet a need: “As Smithies, we are taught to take initiative. When we are inclined to do something—when we feel called—we don’t think twice. We strategize and mobilize. There is no second-guessing us. We are the agents of change who will help set the world free.”