Ashanté Reese is an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies. Her book, released in 2019, is Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. In this conversation, she discusses her research on food and food access, as well as how she helped mobilize resources for people in need during the winter storm in February.
What is your professional background?
I am trained as an anthropologist. Some days if you ask me, I say, ‘I am an anthropologist,’ it depends on the day. I think that means different things to different people, but what it means to me primarily is that so far, the majority of my career has been built around doing ethnographic research and working within and closely with communities. Broadly speaking, I’m really interested in questions around geography and place. Particularly I’m interested not just in what is happening in the physical landscape or in the built environment, but I’m drawn to questions around how people interact with, create, resist, push back against the built environment.
What that’s looked like primarily is doing research on food and food access.My first book was about thinking about two different levels, one how race and racism shape the food environment in DC. And the second part of that is how residents understand and navigate the inequities that racism produces.
What are we missing in discussions about food insecurity?
Language means things. Metaphors mean things. We shouldn’t just slap titles or phrases on a problem and think that they are doing the work that we expected them to do. I feel that way when we talk about food deserts. Part of my critique is that the work that was intended with the phrase, even if it had good intention, isn’t what’s happening. What is happening is that neighborhoods get painted with these broad strokes — that everything in low food access neighborhoods, many of which are predominantly Black, is characterized as bad or unhealthy. I think those broad strokes can be helpful on some level, like if you just want to see where supermarkets literally are across the city. But what isn’t helpful is that those broad strokes translate into how people are read and interpreted and labeled. And that becomes a problem. The landscape gets flattened and read and inscribed into people’s bodies.
How are those perspectives harmful to people struggling with food access?
In this case, I do work that’s related to Black people. So, what we miss are all the ways that people are making actual lives. And in so far as policy or even geographical change is important or can be sustainable, it has to be rooted in the lives of actual people. I think that sometimes there are assumptions that if you build it, they will come. If you just provide a resource, people will use it. But what do people want? How will they use this resource? What kinds of preferences do they have?
This is especially true when people are poor. There are so many ways that poor people get written out of being agents in their own environments. And I think the same is especially true in terms of the kind of work that happens in food, because the terms “health” and “healthiness” get thrown around and very rarely do people define what they mean by it. It becomes this lens through which people get surveilled or judged around the choices that they make that are totally taken out of context. They’re not read through the lens of not only the built environment, but also other things like class, income, and even just choice and preference.
I want to talk about the organizing work that you did in February to mobilize resources during the winter storm. How did that start?
It’s interesting. I did not wake up thinking, ‘let’s mobilize.’ That was not on my agenda that week. Partly the motivation was because my own power went out. My water went out just like many other people in the city. And I was fortunate enough to find a hotel before they were all sold out. I literally had friends around the world — that’s not an exaggeration — who were on Google, trying to find hotels that had availability. The reason I had a hotel was because my childhood best friend, who now lives in Honduras, was on the internet looking for a hotel and as soon as she found one, she just booked it. I think it’s these kinds of moments where you remember that none of this is about the individual. None of us make it without community.
Then I was thinking, all right, now I’m safe and I’m warm. I have a shower. What do I do with this information? And at the same time, I was hearing from my friends who were local, but also friends across the state, particularly Houston, about their own worries. So, I just went on Twitter and started posting stuff. ‘I know this person who has this need, can you meet this need?’ Other colleagues jumped in and also strangers on Twitter were asking to support. All in all, it was very organic. People were asking for help, people were offering help. And we [Bedour Alagraa and Ashley Farmer in African and African Diaspora Studies and Aaron Sandel in anthropology] opened a WhatsApp [group] to let people join if they wanted to help. We had this really nice spreadsheet that my colleague Aaron developed and we kept track of who our volunteers were, but also what requests were coming in and when they were completed. By the end of it, we had a nice little command center.
It really just started from this perspective for me, which I think is a guiding principle for how I live my life; we don’t get stuff done outside of community, even in the moments where we think we’re doing it all. ‘It’s just me. I’m doing this. I’m the lone wolf.’ That’s never true — someone else’s labor undergirds what we’re able to do. And in a similar way, whatever we’re doing also undergirds someone else’s possibility. I think things like crises bring home how interdependent we are and I think we should lean into that more.