Food as Liberation, Shreya Kaipa, BArch’ 23
July 12, 2021
This is a long overdue update as I have been caught up meeting people and getting my hands and mind busy! My priority this summer is to build meaningful relationships with as many growers, vendors, and other Sankofa members as possible; while finding small and large moments for my art and design orientation to support their needs.
For the first few weeks, I plopped myself in the main Sankofa Garden, which is surrounded by Sankofa Apartments (affordable housing from the West Elmwood Housing Corporation). Whenever someone would come out to water their plants, I’d start to weed with them, and ask about the vegetables they were growing. One such woman I met was Ana, a Dominican woman who immigrated alone to Providence at 18 years old. When I first met her she was grieving the recent loss of multiple members in her family, yet finding time to nurture her plants in between calls from relatives. Ana is an English-learner; she pointed to weeds, demonstrated how to pluck them correctly, and directed me to do the same. Her gestures, directness, courage, and patience reminded me of the warmth I often feel with Indian aunties or women in my family. They see you as their own, and are always thinking of you. After only an hour or two together, Ana playfully pushed me inside her home for some home-cooked beans and rice. On another occasion, she brought out popsicles and had me rest inside to stay out of the heat. This generosity is seen among all of the growers. Everyone is an immigrant or a refugee from a multitude of places; such as Liberia, Rwanda, Dominican Republic, or Cambodia. Growing vegetables from their home countries, and then cooking culturally specific dishes for their families is a healing practice for them; as they are celebrating who they are.
So onto my greatest reflection of this internship: regardless of what country they come from, if they are wealthy or not, or if you have already eaten lunch, immigrant women will always force you to eat their home-cooked food!
The Sankofa Market opened June 23rd, and has been running every Wednesday 2-6pm outside Knight Memorial Library since (it’s open through October, so if you’re in town, you should stop by)! At the market, I have been helping vendors wherever needed, and as a result, getting to know them and their work better. Every week, I help set up tents, write out the prices of their produce, and spray cold water on vendors on sweaty days! On the first market day, a Cambodian vendor immediately rushed as he saw an African older woman struggling with her tent. Although they couldn’t understand each other’s words, the Cambodian man used body language to suggest an ideal placement of the tent and table. I find this kind of camaraderie between different immigrant groups pretty rare. Oftentimes, each community is struggling to meet their own needs in this country, and are pitted against each through capitalism and white supremacy. I saw this small act as a larger representation of mutual aid; which is critical in order for communities of color to move towards liberation and independence from discrimination.
Market sign before 2. Sketch for painted sign 3. Painted sign in progress at the Market
Growers often struggle to describe a vegetable on their table with its English name (especially if it is native to their home country). This usually isn’t an issue as their clientele are usually immigrants from the same region as them. However, learning about different foods, how to prepare them, and what the dish means to someone, is one of the most beautiful aspects of this community. I find it’s also a fruitful way to connect through care with someone from a different background and story. When I am struggling to communicate my questions about the produce or even themselves, I find drawing is a universal language. I sketch to ask questions, and also to communicate to other customers about the produce vendors are selling.
There’s no doubt that the gardens are a healing space for growers and vendors. For me, the place brings me a sense of home and comfort, like a bowl of warm dhal my mom used to prepare when I was sick. However, conflict is bound to arise with language barriers, cultural differences, and miscommunication. As I move onto the middle of my internship, I am collecting the needs of different individuals in these spaces in order to design a spatial intervention with them. Stay tuned to hear more about these observations and plans!