100 Strong: Connecting through the power of food

Artist and chef Maggie Lawson draws a clear distinction between ceremony and ritual. A ceremony is a way of formalizing an event in a community; a ritual can be inscribed within that ceremony, or it can be a mundane, everyday occurrence all its own. Ritual, so defined, is fundamental to Lawson’s practice: “Ritual is very important in my work. I like engaging with everyday rituals that have a lot of power.” Like eating. As a chef, this comes easy for Lawson: her recent project, The Takeout Window, was a huge success.  Staged in her North Oakland neighborhood, Lawson transformed her home-studio into a site for engaging passersby in the ritual of sharing food. Envisioned as a one-time event, it was such a success that she staged The Takeout Window a second time.

Food happens to be the catalyst in Lawson’s newest project, 100 Strong, a public performance with a meal at its center. The event will again be staged in Lawson’s neighborhood, a venue that she was inspired to re-use: “[The Takeout Window] made me feel like my whole neighborhood was my studio.” Lawson enjoys drawing on the resources nearest to her, and what better place to stage an art project than in your own backyard?

Maggie Lawson, 100 Strong

Maggie Lawson, 100 Strong, Oakland. Photograph by Steve Babuljak

When Lawson moved to Oakland in 2004 as an Americorps intern, the city had already undergone numerous demographic turns. These days the city’s longstanding African-American population is in transition. Thousands of transplants, many of them young, white locals from San Francisco, are moving to West Oakland for lower rents. Many fear not only that the white influx will displace traditional black residents but that amid all this change the vibrant history and the civic legacy— Oakland is the West Coast’s epicenter of African American civil rights —of the town will be forgotten.

Oakland’s history of demographic shifts goes back centuries. The indigenous Ohlone inhabited the region without interruption for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the 1770s, followed by an onslaught of Gold Rush immigrants and settlers in the 1840s. In the 1850s, jobs on the East Bay waterfront drew European, Asian, and African-American settlers; by the 1930s a vibrant African-American community had begun to take hold in Oakland—West Oakland, to be precise. That was one of the few places on the East Bay where African-Americans were permitted to own property; in 1966, black civil rights reached a new height on the West Coast with the formation of the Black Panther Party. Set against these decades, it is somewhat startling to see that in the last ten years, the number of white residents in some parts of Oakland has doubled, nearly equaling the number of African-Americans in certain traditionally black neighborhoods. (Lawson has observed a similar shift in her North Oakland neighborhood, which has not only affected black residents, but other racial minorities; Oakland is one of the country’s most racially diverse cities.) Oakland has a long history of displacement and revival, all viewable from multiples perspectives of identity.

Maggie Lawson, 100 Strong

Photo from 100 Mile Dinner in Canowindra, Australia (April 16, 2012), 100 Strong, Oakland

The city’s rich population history seemed to beckon Lawson; it fortified her interest in “the sense of place that already exists and the new aesthetic that’s being laid over it.”  Lawson understood that she was part of this new aesthetic: “I’m coming at this as a white, low-income woman, but still with a fair amount of privilege. What’s my role as an artist and an entrepreneur in gentrification?” These thought processes are what gave birth to 100 Strong, a project that would provide a space to acknowledge the history of her neighborhood, to connect with it, and maybe even to reconcile with it. “With this piece I think we’re coming up against the more dramatic repercussions of gentrification…. No one likes to feel like they’re the gentrifier or the gentrified. This project explicitly intends to grapple with that…to look for some sort of healing around it, bring in this more sacred element to it, of ritual and transformation.”

Since the conversation will develop around a meal prepared by Lawson and her chef collaborators, the menu is important. Whatever they make will reflect the history of the neighborhood. They are still in the process of determining their method (the dinner is six months away), but they’ve been brainstorming: a few ideas include collecting recipes from neighbors, researching dining establishments in the neighborhood from the last two hundred years, and using ingredients from different cultural groups that have inhabited the area. The meal will tell a story of shifting populations, of identities in flux.

Other artists in the area have tackled gentrification, like photographer epli. For her project “Here. Before. Art in a Contested Space,” she lent cameras to five traditional residents in West Oakland (those whose families lived there for multiple generations) to capture their realities. epli’s goal was to stage an honest conversation about the subject, an intention that matches Lawson’s.

Gentrification has a sting to it. It is Lawson’s hope that 100 Strong will encourage people to confront the issue directly; she wants them to ask questions and to reflect on the history of their neighborhoods and their place within it. A paramount concern of Lawson’s is how the value of one’s labor impacts that place. For this reason she has done some financial restructuring since The Takeout Window. Previously, the contributing chefs (her neighbors) were asked to contribute small amounts for the cost of producing the piece; most earned their money back from donations. This time around, Lawson wants funding to be a part of the process, a gesture deeply wedded to the project’s concern with value. (As she asked, “How do we value what we create? What is the value of the social impact we make with our work?”) She wants her collaborators to feel that their contributions are not only appreciated, but valued. A group of community members are helping to raise the funds. So far they number four, among them a food blogger and a graphic designer and illustrator.


A collaboration

100 Strong is a collaborative project. Lawson’s left-hand women are chefs Ikeena Reed and Keri Keifer, both owners of catering businesses in Oakland. Reed has strong ties to North Oakland: her family has been in the neighborhood for four generations. Her mother was a teenager in the Black Panther heyday and participated in their Free Breakfast and Youth Apprentice programs. (Lawson lives just blocks away from the community college where the party’s founding members held their meetings.) Keifer has lived in Oakland for eleven years since leaving her home state of Illinois to join California’s farming and farm-to-table movements. Lawson is also from the Midwest, lured to the culinary mecca that is the Bay Area.

Ikeena Reed, 100 Strong

Ikeena Reed, 100 Strong, Oakland

When asked how Reed and Keifer’s backgrounds inform the project, Lawson grew animated: “They’re both spiritual, self-aware people, and we’re negotiating the same dynamic among the three of us that’s taking place out in the neighborhood. I’m really inspired by their work. They create really beautiful things that speak deeply to who they are culturally and to the other folks they’re serving.” All three women are concerned with issues of food justice, and Lawson sees 100 Strong as an opportunity for herself and her collaborators to pursue the creative parts of their craft while also making a social impact.

The other members of Team 100 Strong are fundraisers—the community members mentioned above—and filmmakers. 100 Strong is also a story, and so documentation is fundamental to ensuring access to the project. This includes recording the event itself, but also the process, which is no less important to Lawson. She plans to coordinate with a local filmmaking duo whose company, Radiologie, produces content for small businesses. Lawson says they are masterful storytellers. Aware that there are other ways to document a process besides using video and photography, Lawson is considering other formats: a recipe book, maybe; even the very words you are reading now.

Ultimately Lawson plans to stage an exhibition. This will be her first time strategizing how to use the elements from a community piece to tell a story in a museum or art institution. Her goal is to engage audiences who weren’t present at the performance, but of course she hopes the 100 Strong dining audience will also attend.

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by Olivia Fales
in Focus on the American West

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