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The People’s Kitchen Collective Is Feeding a Movement by Putting People First

Co-founder Jocelyn Jackson on how the Oakland group uses shared meals to spark discussion, connection, and long-term change

Jocelyn Jackson holding a microphone as she gives a speech outside.
Jocelyn Jackson speaks to the crowd at a People’s Kitchen Collective event.
Sana Javeri Kadri

Jocelyn Jackson cooks, but to call her a chef and leave it at that would be an error. She’s the co-founder of People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, California, an organization that shares the contrasting foodways of its three founders, while bringing the larger community together through dinners, workshops, and an annual free breakfast program. The free breakfast — inspired by the meals served to the black community by the Black Panthers — happens yearly at a park named for Bobby Hutton, a 17-year-old Black Panther recruit, who died on April 6, 1968, after he was shot more than 10 times by police. Oakland residents gather by the hundreds to pay their respects and enjoy the meal.

This rich layering of history, food, and celebration can be felt in pretty much every project Jackson is a part of. She also brings this energy to her not-quite-a-catering-company Justus Kitchen, cooking meals that connect ecology, spirituality, and food. During shelter-in-place, Jackson tells Eater that she’s started offering one-on-one virtual versions of these meals for women and femme-identifying black people around the country. In response to the near-constant news and imagery of police brutality, Jackson uses these events to create space for her guests to decompress and process as they cook and eat together. Whether dinner happens in person, or over a grainy video call, each of these events is a small protest, a therapy session, a celebration of black life. — Elazar Sontag

I’m from Kansas, a Midwestern girl who had the benefit growing up in a large family. My mom’s family is a singing one — and a large one too, she’s the eldest of 13 kids. Both of my parents’ families came from the South. In my mom’s case, it was a three o’clock in the morning train escaping Mississippi in order to survive, in the face of family members and friends of the family being lynched.

That’s part of the story of who I am, and how I developed. I have parents who humored my quirkiness. I was able to have so many experiences: raising sheep, spending years in a ballet tradition that was trying to erase my blackness with pink tights and pink shoes. These are typically white undertakings, and because of my parents I got to be a little black girl doing these things, and stealing all my freedom.

Fifteen years ago, I signed up for the Peace Corps, and I intentionally chose a country that was a colonized French-speaking country in West Africa. I went to Mali, and spent two years there as a natural resource management volunteer. That was a lightbulb moment: ‘Oh, my God, it’s the best thing ever to be surrounded by black people, finally.’ I was so grateful. It was a magical moment of seeing what the source of my lived experience in the U.S. was.

To spend two years in a small village, with less than 500 people, in the Sahel area was all the sadness and it was all the beauty, it was all the joy and it was all the sorrow. And being able to hold those things simultaneously was one of the biggest gifts of that experience. And I was also really clear that my education wasn’t quite done yet.

Back in the States, I got a M.S. degree in environmental education. I got to see so much of the world during that time. The Pacific Northwest. The Big Island of Hawaii. The Eastern Seaboard. This traveling, experiential, student-centered education had its own difficulties. These were primarily white undertakings. Whiteness was a surrounding theme, and it was hard to return to that after being in Mali; this beautiful immersion of blackness. I was overwhelmed by a sense that there was still something missing in my life, and how I was putting together all of my experiences. That’s when I came to the Bay Area.

In Oakland, I found the community of people that I resonated most with. I realized that food was that missing piece, a way to connect with the people I was with. It created a common thread amongst all the folks that were at my table.

A crowd sits at a long table outside, holding up signs with black panther illustrations on them.
Before the pandemic, hundreds of people gathered at the Collective’s yearly event, which honored the work of the Black Panther Party.
Sana Javeri Kadri

I started out as a volunteer at People’s Kitchen, the precursor to People’s Kitchen Collective, before I became a co-founder of the collective. This was the environment that I needed, to bring all of those other pieces of myself together: the art, the law, the environmental education, the sense of large family and being in that place of protection and cultivation. With People’s Kitchen Collective and with Justus Kitchen, the personal project that I started to care for other black women and femmes, there’s a real attention paid to this diasporic relationship. We are very clear that our liberation is bound up in this family of black and brown folks that are constantly in this place of survival and struggle.

One of the fundamental differences between what my work looked like before the pandemic, and now, is not being able to hold each other close, and see each other’s eyes, and see the pain that we collectively hold, as well as the liberation that we collectively hold. The experience of being up close and personal cannot be duplicated in this mode of physical distancing.

One of the largest events we did before the pandemic at People’s Kitchen Collective welcomed up to 800 people, sitting and eating family-style, serving each other with utensils, sharing those utensils, making sure we were taking care of one another as we enjoyed the meal and shared each other’s stories at that table. There’s an electricity and there’s a full-hearted presence that can take place in that setting. The same is true of my Justus Kitchen experiences, where I’m doing these one-on-one sessions. I’m able to look into someone’s eyes and really see the impact of a flavor. I’m able to do that in a way that’s not possible in this physically distanced and virtual world. We are very clearly mourning the anticipation of continued distance, a lack of togetherness. We look forward to gathering together, but we know that the length of time is going to have an impact. And how do we prepare for that?

During the pandemic, we’ve shifted to a food distribution model that’s similar to a lot of the mutual aid work that’s being done right now. This pandemic is part of our new lexicon. We are tasked with the responsibility of integrating this present moment of coronavirus and protest into all that we do. And, quite frankly, that also includes acknowledging the heartbreak of knowing these protests may create another coronavirus wave.

It is so heartbreaking that in a moment of pandemic, so much racialized violence is happening that we will die in order to prevent our deaths. We will die in order to prevent our deaths. And I don’t know if that has sunk in for the broader community yet. But that is the difficult non-choice at this moment. If not now, when? Our black and brown community is risking their lives.

We have never known ourselves during this level of uprising. So we need to be really gentle and tender as we get to know ourselves anew. I want us to meet the needs of this moment. And that includes a deeper relationship with our foods. That means with every bite acknowledging the source of it, going all the way through the entire chain of hands and hearts that bring this food, on this plate, to us. Being very real about the fact that there are so many people that don’t even have a plate. A basic need in humanity is not being met. It’s the work of everyone to reverse that tragedy. Our liberation is bound up with one another.

We all need to be offering social programs at this point. There’s no such thing as just saying ‘I have a product’ or ‘I have a service.’ I can’t even tell you what a disservice that is to our society during this pandemic, and during this mass realization that folks are having around the deep, oppressive nature of racism and white supremacy. We need a holistic, whole person response. If we’re not tending to the whole person, we’ve missed this opportunity. And quite frankly, it won’t be the forever-change that we need. Because if we miss our chance for change this time, oh, honey, we can’t. We can’t do it. This time has to be the one that counts.