In 2018, Ianne Fields Stewart, a Black, queer, transfeminine storyteller, was getting ready to go home for the holidays when they realized most of their queer family here in New York couldn’t afford the same luxury of traveling and home-cooked meals. Already searching for a way to give back to their community, Stewart decided to start a collective focused on spiritual and physical nourishment of Black trans folks.
The Okra Project began by simply pairing Black trans chefs with Black trans folks to offer at-home, culturally specific meals and food training. A year and a half later, Stewart is now running one of the most prolific organizations to be popularized as part of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. The Okra Project is routinely included among Black-operated funds to donate to, and Stewart recently co-organized the 15,000-person Brooklyn Liberation march for Black trans lives.
Though Pride month is over, Stewart is not slowing down their work. In the past few months, they’ve grown Okra’s services to include mental health and therapy funds in response to increased donations as COVID-19 limits at-home services. Here, Stewart tells me about rejecting the nonprofit industrial complex, providing Black trans folk with culturally specific meals and relying on a community of activists instead of going alone.
What spurred you to start the Okra Project collective in 2018?
It was around the holidays. I was recognizing my own privilege to be able to go home to a family that largely supports me as me. Many of my siblings don’t possess that. I was searching for a way to give back from a place of love and kindness. It just turned into something much larger than that.
Devin Michael Lowe of the Black Trans Travel Fund also told me his individual goal grew into this large project. As an organizer, how is it operating on the local level when the narrative is often these big nonprofits?
Certainly, we have grown over the past month in a very real and tangible way that’s required us to figure out how best to maintain who we are at our core. While changing what our outside looks like, we have intentionally avoided seeking 501 c3 status because we recognize that the nonprofit industrial complex comes with many twists and turns. We’ve wanted to have as much control to determine how this goes and how this money is used. We are redistributing into the community. We’ve always said the money of the Okra Project is the money of the community. Anyone who is Black and trans has a right to ask for what’s theirs.
Can you tell me about the programming? It started with providing meals, but it’s grown.
Our original founding was on the principle of hiring black trans chefs to go into the homes of Black trans people and cook healthy, home-cooked, culturally specific meals. With COVID, we were no longer able to do that work. So we switched our focus to the Nina Pop and Tony McDade mental health recovery funds, which hooks Black trans folks up with one-time, 100 percent free mental health therapy sessions with Black therapists.
Our work in many ways has always been about mental health. We’re not just feeding bellies; we’re about feeding souls. Part of that work has always been to make sure that our people feel comfortable with who is working with them, who is serving them and making sure that all those folks are Black and trans. This is sort of a further endeavor: While we are not able to go to homes, we can bring them some peace of mind, bring our people peace of mind.
Why is it important to have culturally specific meals in terms of what you provide?
Our very name, the Okra Project. The okra has long represented solidarity within the Black community. The okra seed would be woven into our hair when we were abducted and taken to this continent during the transatlantic slave trade. The okra was used as sustenance as a way to feed ourselves and our community. That is the nature of what we do here. We don’t want to feed people any old thing. We want to feed them food that they recognize and that makes them think of home. We all have those meals — there’s nothing like my momma’s cooking — and we want to recreate that feeling as much as possible.
I was just reading an interview with Salon where you mentioned part of your organizing is “interrupting the exclusivity of luxury.”
I find it outrageous that so much of what we consider to be luxurious — such as someone who cooks for us for free, or therapy, or being able to live near a grocery store that has healthy ingredients — is in many ways considered a luxury. It’s a luxury to live in a certain area where you can provide yourself with whatever you need. And I don’t think that should be the case.
It’s like, for someone who is incredibly poor, for someone who is Black and trans or someone who’s existing at the intersection of many marginalities, or lives in a food desert, it is incredibly difficult to get out of that food desert to get food. Whereas for someone who is incredibly wealthy, or has a lot of access, or is white, it doesn’t really matter where you are. You can have those things shipped to you. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous we would make things like mental health and food a luxury when they should be a necessity and requirement.
What inspired you to create the Nina Pop and Tony McDade Mental Health funds in their honor?
Well, it happened very quickly. I woke up at 9:00 a.m one day, and by 9:15 a.m. the idea had come to me. We as a collective have talked a lot about how there’s so much pain at this moment as well as this rightful rage. We were so emboldened and joyful to see the continued presence of organizers in the streets. People [are] not taking their feet off the necks of those who seek to oppress us. [But] that work, that effort and that righteous rage come at the expense of our mental health.
How is it handling the intense, sudden interest in your organization these past few months? Is it overwhelming?
You nailed it on the head. It’s incredibly overwhelming. But it’s also humbling, and it’s good to know the community believes in the work that we’re doing and wants us to continue to do it. What is requiring of us in this time is to re-engage, look within and examine. We’ve had to say, okay, we’ve gotten through Pride month and we’re going to take this week to catch up on the many, many emails that we are behind on. It’s about asking for grace. It’s about asking for time. It’s about asking for all the things that we need to ensure that we can do this work in a way that is caring, loving and takes care of people.
I was at the Brooklyn Liberation march here in June where you spoke as one of the co-organizers. From the outside, it looks like the Okra Project, the Black Trans travel fund and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute have all come up together. Is that how you see it?
Devin [Michael Lowe of Black Trans Travel Fund] is a dear friend. So is Black Trans Femmes in the Arts and Elle Hearns over at the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. All of these folks are people I know and spend time with and [we] enjoy each other very much. We’ve all kind of come up together right now as the rallying cry for Black trans lives has increased.
Even within that, though, there are murders. Three trans women, including a 17-year-old girl, Brayla Stone, have still been murdered in the past week. As I said as the march, it is my intention and my every belief that this work must continue into 2021, 2022 and far, far beyond. I hope that all of this incredible energy that we’ve seen in June is the promise of what is to come in the future and not lip service for now.
Since this is such an overwhelming experience, has it been nice to have other people that are going through the same sort of experiences as you?
Absolutely. Very nice to have that experience. We can call each other and just be like, “Girl, you doing okay? How you doing?” I know this is wild over here. It’s been good to know that we’re not alone in this.