The Okra Project Founder Talks About Nourishing Black Trans People

It is impossible to declare that Black lives matter without reiterating the fact that Black trans lives matter. While much of the public conversation about police violence tends to overemphasize cisgender Black men, Black liberation isn’t possible unless all Black lives are valued and protected. More specifically, our society must reckon with the ways that transphobia and state-sanctioned violence—at the hands of police officers and civilians—continue to harm Black trans and gender non-conforming people.

In 2020 alone, there have been at least 16 incidences of someone murdering a transgender or gender non-conforming person in the U.S., with Black trans women bearing the brunt of these cases, according to the Human Rights Campaign. It’s worth noting that the true number is likely higher, as many of these deaths go misreported and unreported. Other times, trans and non-conforming people survive these violent attacks, as was the case for Iyanna Dior, a 21-year-old Black trans woman who, in early June, shared that she thought she was going to die when a group of people attacked her a week prior. Though these attacks can leave long-lasting physical and mental trauma, mainstream society ignores or forgets these crimes all too easily.

Right now, countless people around the world are activated—ready to push for the protection of Black trans lives—and that’s a good thing. But this fight didn’t start in 2020. It’s imperative to recognize and support trans organizers and trans-led organizations that have been consistently working toward change.

Below, SELF spoke with Ianne Fields Stewart, a queer nonbinary transfeminine actress and founder of The Okra Project, an organization that provides meals cooked by Black trans chefs to Black trans people experiencing food insecurity. By partnering with different chefs, The Okra Project has been able to bring in-home cooking experiences to Black trans people in New York City and Philadelphia. Since providing in-home services during the new coronavirus pandemic became increasingly difficult, The Okra Project now focuses primarily on distributing funds to Black trans people during this time. However, nourishment remains a core mission. “Growing up in the deep South taught me the value of taking things slow, of prioritizing community, prioritizing chosen family, and sitting around the table together and eating,” Stewart tells SELF. “It taught me the value that comes when someone chooses you and cooks for you.”

Below, Stewart talks to SELF about The Okra Project’s inception, how its journey reflects the lived experiences of Black trans people, and their long-term vision for the organization.

SELF: I can only imagine how stressful it is to take care of your needs while shepherding The Okra Project through this transition. It makes me wonder how you’re practicing self-care at a moment like this?

Stewart: Oh, I am wondering that, too. [Laughs] I have my own therapist, and that is pretty important to my self-care. And then the rest of it is trying to establish boundaries around when I work and when I won’t.

SELF: Can you take me back to the moment when you decided to start The Okra Project?

Stewart: Absolutely. It was December 2018, and I was sitting on a couch in a virtual organizing meeting with my friend Nyla Sampson, who created the Black Trans Solidarity Fund, a reparations group dedicated to shifting funds from the mainstream back into the hands of Black trans people. The idea just popped into my mind. I had been looking for something to do for the holidays because I have the privilege of going back home to a family that loves and supports me. So I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to create something that would help us move through a time that can be difficult for so many people? I proposed the idea to Nyla on a Sunday. On Monday, we had a meeting with our first chef, Meliq August of Zaddy’s Kitchen. On Wednesday, we released the project, and on Friday, we had raised $ 6,000.

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