Tea with the People, The Podcast: Episode 2

photo credit: argenisphoto

In response to the pandemic, the undocumented family behind La Morada, a beloved and award-winning Oaxacan restaurant in the South Bronx, created a soup kitchen to feed and deliver meals to the most vulnerable people in its community. We speak to owner Yajaira Saavedra about the uphill battles of being working class and without status in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. Yajaira also shares why she believes the power of community and mutual aid is the biggest lesson we can take from the pandemic.

Resources & Links

Transcript

JUSTINE LEE

Welcome to Tea with the People, the podcast. This is a series of conversations with innovative leaders who participate in our democracy by responding to racial injustices and inequities in the time of COVID-19. I’m Justine Lee, the co-creator of Make America Dinner Again.

JEANELLE AUSTIN

And I’m Jeanelle Austin, the founder of Racial Agency Initiative. We engage leaders who work creatively to activate and support their communities. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire others to do the same. 

JUSTINE

In this episode, we’ll be speaking to Yajaira Saavedra, owner of La Morada, an undocumented, family-owned and operated Oaxaca restaurant in the South Bronx. Their goal is to preserve and share indigenous Mexican cuisine with their neighbors and friends. They love sharing culture, art and community initiatives, while actively participating in social justice causes. 

In response to COVID-19, they created a soup kitchen in the South Bronx serving an average of 1200 meals a day, Monday through Saturday, since April 16th. The people they serve include folks without gas or a kitchen in their building, and people recently released from detention centers and Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

YAJAIRA SAAVEDRA

Hi, thanks for having me.

JUSTINE

Yeah, thanks for being here.

So we’re, we’re gonna get started with a simple question just to warm things up.  I’ve never been to your restaurant but I’ve heard amazing things, and in a lot of the reviews I’ve heard that your guacamole is amazing and everyone’s favorite. But I wanted to see, or I wanted to know, what your personal favorite dish on the menu is.

YAJAIRA

Oh, that’s a tough one. I will say my most favorite dish on the menu is Mole Oaxaqueño. I choose Oaxaca Mole because it’s a traditional indigenous food. It’s a thick sauce similar to a curry, and it takes a minimum of six hours to make, it has over like seven different dry chillies as well as other seasonings. So I find this to be very, very important and my favorite, because not only because of the flavor, but because of its rich history. I don’t know the recipe for this mole. Only my mom and my sister and my grandma does, because only selected people are chosen to actually receive the gift, the traditional gift of learning the traditional recipes. So whenever I taste Oaxaca Mole I taste my family’s lineage.

JUSTINE

Oh, wow, that sounds really amazing. 

JEANELLE

That’s beautiful. 

JUSTINE

It is really beautiful. And now I really wish I could try it. Is that something that is still available on takeout at the moment?

YAJAIRA

Yes, we’re well known for our mole and we’re always offering our traditional food. Right now we’re just limiting ourselves to Uber Eats since our delivery and our staff is very limited and since we’re prioritizing our soup kitchen right now.

JUSTINE

Got it. Ok. Yes, speaking of – you brought up the soup kitchen – I’m curious to hear what inspired La Morada’s response to the pandemic.

YAJAIRA

Our response was very natural. It was rooted, rooted in our love and our responsibility towards our neighbors. We love our community and we always say that if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be open this long, and we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t be successful if we didn’t have their backup. It’s our community, which includes undocumented folks, it includes working class folks, includes people with the same ideals and principles that have supported us when the government and other big corporations have gone against us. So our soup kitchen is out of love and responsibility towards our neighborhood. So we could together be able to survive this pandemic.

JEANELLE

That, that’s beautiful and it’s always good to be able to have community and neighbors that have your back. Can you tell us more about this community? Can you describe them for our listeners so they can have an image in their minds of these people who have your back on a regular basis, and now you’re having their back during this time of COVID?

YAJAIRA

Sure. So La Morada is part of the South Bronx community.  To be more specific, the Mott Haven part of the South Bronx. Historically we have always been one of the poorest districts in the whole country. And in New York City we rank right now 62 which is like the last in health index of the city. We have also like one of the highest asthma rates in the country. We are often just used by big folks, famous folks, repping the Bronx but like everything seems to be just bypass through the Bronx, including the food – there’s a huge food apartheid in the Bronx where we have the biggest food depot, Hunts Point, in the nation. There’s not, there’s like, food scarcity and insecurity due to, like, the majority of that food just going to wealthier parts of the city like Manhattan and other gentrified sections of the South Bronx. 

Because our neighbors, our community, has been historically marginalized, and under-resourced we have often combined our resources and our privilege, including our platform within the restaurant, to make it into a community space and advocate for what is needed in the community. Let it be just human rights, fighting against gentrification, fighting against any incoming corporations that might increase the air pollution. Fighting against food injustice, of course, always being in the front line of immigration. 

My family has, my brother to be more specific, has infiltrated three detention centers, has self-deported during the Obama era, just to bring light on the mass deportation as well as the injustice, inhumane injustice treatment, that undocumented folks were receiving inside ICE detention centers. My community is always I guess, under-seen or, are just like, constantly having just politicians just like ignore us, or just take advantage of us. Or just like, we always say that they are poverty-pimping us. 

JEANELLE

Wow. Yeah right.

YAJAIRA

..The South Bronx title. And we’re always, we continue persisting, we continue… Yes, persisting,  it’s no longer resisting, it’s persisting because we are pushing back now and together as a force. And I’m in love with my community because I see their solidarity every single day. Last January, I was arrested inside the restaurant because I was filming what I thought was an unjust arrest and…

JEANELLE

Wait, you were arrested inside your restaurant? 

YAJAIRA

Yes, yeah.

JEANELLE

Like, okay, so and then you said because you were filming an arrest that was happening outside of your restaurant?

YAJAIRA

Yes. And I automatically started filming the cops because it’s my responsibility to always look out for my neighbors. It’s part of my Christian beliefs to always look out for your neighbor and knowing like about broken windows. So, so, I knew that we were constantly being racially targeted by the NYPD. So I started filming them and then the cops got upset and they put handcuffs on me and threw me on an unmarked black van. And I’m saying all of this because…the South Bronx community…if it wasn’t for them, I could have easily gotten something in my record and that could have led to my deportation because I’m also without status. So this is the community solidarity that the South Bronx constantly shows to La Morada, to myself and my family.

JEANELLE

Wow, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And thank you for your courage.

JUSTINE

I can hear the love and the care in your voice, and I’m just personally curious to hear if, if there’s like one story that kind of stands out in your mind of someone that you’ve been able to serve during the pandemic?

YAJAIRA

I think our actions speak for themselves and our neighbors have been very supportive. And sometimes we forget about ourselves. 

There was this one neighbor who we just had a lot of bananas and they were getting over-ripe. And she was like, can I have those? And we just gave it to her and did not expecting anything. And then the next morning, she just walked over with a warm loaf of banana bread. 

JEANELLE

Oh, yes.

JUSTINE

Oh I love that. Banana bread.

JEANELLE

That’s amazing.

YAJAIRA

Yeah, that was the best thing ever. I wanted to cry because it was like, it was so delicious. It was full of love. And it was just like, it just reminded me…It was our…it was self care through food.

It was full of love. And it was just like, it just reminded me…It was our…it was self care through food.

JEANELLE

Yes. Yes. Or I like to call it community care when you got your community caring for you.

YAJAIRA

Yeah.

JUSTINE

I’m curious what challenges have you faced during the pandemic and how have you navigated them?

YAJAIRA

Ah, Wow. So, we’ve always, like I said, the South Bronx has always been marginalized, under-resourced and just practically ignored by elected officials and folks that claim to be supportive of us and were in power. So, for the first month of the pandemic, we had to close the restaurant down due to health issues – my whole family was affected by Coronavirus, so we took a month off just to rest and recuperate physically.

And during this time, I started writing the grants. And of course, anybody who knows about grant-writing or loan applications, they know how lengthy they could be. So I attempted to. to apply to all of them to the best of my abilities and with help of friends who are saviors around this, but even though I knew chances are that I was going to get denied. So a really close friend of ours, out-reached to us while I was doing the process and told us that she is willing to do a GoFundMe, but I kept on rejecting that, because I wanted to try. I wanted to try to work things out for ourselves. There’s some pride on that, on always taking the hard route. I don’t know why. But that’s just the way that I was brought up. 

So we, so I applied for the grant and I was of course denied because my whole family is undocumented. So after I was denied of multiple grants and loans, my friend decided to open up the GoFundMe and within a matter of a week, we met our $45,000. And instead of, like, taking that money and, and taking the year off, we decided to open La Morada with the GoFundMe campaign money. And we, within an hour, we ran out of food. We served close to 200 people that day. The next day, we did the same thing. And again, within, within an hour we ran out of food. And we knew that we couldn’t sustain ourselves without any additional support. And then we were getting bothered by the NYPD because of the large quote, unquote crowd in front of the restaurant. So we decided to do home delivery meals, and to ask for help through certain organizations that we thought were going to be more helpful. 

And some of our initial problems then was just the lack of resources such as ingredients to cook, volunteers to work the soup line, and then enough space to actually, like, make sure that we had everything done in a safe manner.

JEANELLE

Thank you. Yeah, I really appreciate you sharing these stories and these sides of, of working to support your community. And that is not always easy. I think sometimes when people think that they’re going to respond to the community needs that they see, some people think that it’s simple and it’s easy, but it’s not always that way. So thank you for sharing those experiences.

So the work that I do, Yajaira, on a day to day basis, is racial justice leadership coaching. And so I work with people who are constantly trying to figure out how do they leverage their agency to practice racial justice within their scope of influence. Like everyday life kind of stuff. And from, from your story, I can tell that like that, that’s what you all are doing. It’s like the way race intersects with your story is deep. 

Can you talk about more how you feel the soup kitchen addresses the challenges of race that you all see whether in the U.S. or within your context in New York City? Do you have any thoughts on the intersection between this work that you’re doing and the problem of race in the United States?

YAJAIRA

Yeah, I mean, I don’t, I don’t understand people who claim to be colorblind. Right? Or to not see color. I think race is very… racism, is very visible and every single day of our lives, especially because this country, we could talk about how it was founded on slavery and genocide. As an indigenous woman I’m constantly reminded that I don’t have the same privileges as a white cis-male. So yes, I I do understand that how race is is constantly a factor and the amount of resources that are neglected to us, again, because we’re located in the South Bronx, in one of the poorest congressional districts in New York City and also in the nation, and also with the highest population of African American and POC in general and working class POC people. 

So I feel really frustrated, seeing how the resources right now with the COVID-19 response has been delegated, seeing how resources has been floated to the wealthier parts of the Bronx, and the wealthier parts of New York City. By the wealthier parts of the Bronx I mean, like the gentrified areas, compared to the poor sections of the Bronx. 

Before we opened our soup kitchen, World Central Kitchen had already established in the South Bronx for over a month. They decided to work with Beatstro, Mott Haven Bar and Grill and other restaurants that are in the gentrifying section of the South Bronx. All of these restaurants are like less than a block away from each other. And these are restaurants that have been in existence for less years than La Morada. Most of these restaurants are notoriously known to receive money from developers. So they’re, they’re linked in so many ways to the gentrification force that has been displacing us and destroying the South Bronx prior to the Coronavirus.

So it was very alarming to see how World Central Kitchen, instead of choosing smaller restaurants through 138th Avenue who have been longer, for more years, moms and pop shops than La Morada, they were just ignored. La Morada has always been in the spotlight for, for many like throughout the media, like there is no way that folks could go through the South Bronx and not know about La Morada. So I don’t understand why is it that instead of having to work with somebody who has been already well established in the community, they chose to go with the developers and with restaurants that were in the gentrification area, and with restaurants that work closely to the corrupted democratic machine of the Bronx. And chose to like work directly with Michael Blake, and the Arroyos with Mott Haven Bar and Grill rather than with people who have always put the community first. 

So that is one way that we can see how race plays a big part in the South Bronx. It’s not only race, but it is also socio-economic difference where people with power, people with wealth are always chosen over people who belong in the working class.

It’s not only race, but it is also socio-economic difference where people with power, people with wealth are always chosen over people who belong in the working class.

JEANELLE

It’s so political, right? It’s not… And, and I love how with the story that you painted, you painted this picture of how race becomes tied and marbled and twisted into the politics and into the decisions that, that are being made. And it’s not just, “Oh, I don’t like you because of the color of your skin.” It goes deeper than that, and with the power structures and the policies that are made, and decisions that are made behind closed doors. And when, when restaurants like your own, are overlooked and it don’t make no sense. Like it’s all a part of the system of racism.

YAJAIRA

Yes. And who was it? I think it was Malcolm X? Or I would like to say it was Malcolm X who said, “Not all skinfolks are kinfolks.”

JEANELLE

Come on now! Hey!

YAJAIRA

Well that can be heavily applied right now through gentrification. So it’s not only about race, like I said, it’s also just a socio-economical standard. And holding people accountable, including myself. And that’s the reason why I always try to be transparent and to have deeper connections with my neighbors and with my community. Because I know that I’m also human, and I will always need somebody to check in on me.

So, at least when we talk about race and social economics, we also see how people work closely with our neighbors, with the people, the day to day folks. And if that’s not happening, then there is a missing link. And there’s often a lot of corruption as we experienced in the beginning of COVID-19. So it was a very uphill battle in which we had to fight to establish our soup kitchen, which mission was to just serve hungry people, people who didn’t have, who don’t have gas, who don’t have kitchens, or who have lived in faulty buildings, like the projects and can’t go down 20 flights of floors, because they, the elevator is broken, and therefore they’re not going to do a line for food distribution, and carry up groceries 20 flights. So we started ranking up volunteers to help us deliver hot meals and make things a little bit easier.

So it was a very uphill battle in which we had to fight to establish our soup kitchen, which mission was to just serve hungry people, people who didn’t have, who don’t have gas, who don’t have kitchens, or who have lived in faulty buildings, like the projects and can’t go down 20 flights of floors, because they, the elevator is broken, and therefore they’re not going to do a line for food distribution, and carry up groceries 20 flights. So we started ranking up volunteers to help us deliver hot meals and make things a little bit easier.

There’s days where I just feel like it’s always either a battle between hunger and the Coronavirus or asthma. Like there’s so many factors and I see a hot meal as another resource, another way that we could actually use to survive another day. And at least I have that clear conscience every day where I say, like, “Hey, maybe the system didn’t help us today, like every other day, but at least I was able to feed this amount of folks.” 

And it’s sad because, like, I was talking about Beatstro and World Central Kitchen and Mott Haven Bar and Grill. Most of the folks that, that we started serving in our soup kitchen didn’t even know that this was in existence. And this was like already a month into the Coronavirus. So, again, who were they serving? Was it the gentrified area? Was it the middle class? The wealthiest part in the Bronx?

So it’s sad and like even see with race-wise on how the South Bronx has also the highest death rate in the city. And again, it’s mostly Black and Brown folks. Working class folks. And we’re not even given the title or the recognition as – what do you call it? Essential workers. 

JUSTINE

Yeah. Yeah, a lot of this has just made me think about, we’re learning so much right now from this pandemic. And I think we’re all hoping that what we’ve learned will actually make matter, you know, is, is something that can actually take and make change, make things better for, for working class folks, for people of color for the community in South Bronx.

So I’d love to know, like, as a result of operating the soup kitchen, what are you hoping changes about how people engage government in New York City?  I mean, from what I’m hearing, there’s not a lot of trust in government.

YAJAIRA

From this pandemic, people could see that it’s not only a matter of democratic or republican.

I think that we should hold our elected officials accountable. And our elected officials should be rolling their sleeves not only during election year but throughout the whole year as well. 

And our elected officials should be rolling their sleeves not only during election year but throughout the whole year as well. 

I feel that from this pandemic, we could allocate resources to other departments, rather than cutting off resources, right on the budget cuts. We could talk about budget cuts in education, health system, like, and how the NYPD has the least amount of cuts. So, like, we need to allocate resources better into departments that are actually going to help our community and our city prosper, rather than get persecuted. I think that’s the biggest lesson we can learn from the pandemic.

JEANELLE

Thank you for sharing that. In listening to your story, Yajaira, it sounds like you, you get so much motivation from the people in your community. I mean, you’ve said over and over and over again, it’s the community. It’s the people that you’re working for and who are working for you. I think that’s so beautiful.

And so we want to create an opportunity as we wind down to hear from you in terms of what help do you need right now and for the people who are listening to this podcast, how can they follow you and kind of keep track of y’all? 

The one caveat we say is that we have to leave money off the table because everybody needs more money. So outside of additional funding, what, what help do you need right now, and, and how can people follow you all and just kind of keep tabs on La Morada?

YAJAIRA

Sure, so you can follow us through Instagram on @LaMoradaNYC, We’re also on Facebook and the worldwide web on LaMoradaNYC.com. And for personal help, my brother is still fighting his deportation case. So if you can sign his petition for him, for our family to stay together, which is, the link is in our Instagram bio, that will be much appreciated. 

Also, you can read our statement about what we believe being an ally should look like.  And what we expect from allies now in the COVID-19 epidemic. All of this can be found in our statement as to why we broke off with World Central Kitchen, and that is also posted in our Instagram and website.

JEANELLE

Thank you.

JUSTINE

Thanks, Yajaira. Yeah, I was wondering also, this is a final question for the evening: Can you share with us a word of wisdom as a parting gift to our listeners?

YAJAIRA

As a family, we have always moved forward through faith and prayer and through community. And I believe that there is strength and community in mutual aid, rather than in any larger corporation or amount of money or powerful people. I think there’s power within our community, which we have to endorse and continue supporting in order for us to move forward together.

JUSTINE

Hmmm. I love that. 

JEANELLE

Thank you, Yajaira, for sharing those stories. Thank you for joining us today and for sharing all the insights into your community, into your work and into your passion. We really appreciate it.

YAJAIRA

I appreciate you giving me the time and the platform to share.

JEANELLE

Of course. This has been Tea with the People, the podcast.

Tea with the People, The Podcast: Episode 1

As part of a national reckoning, faith leaders in Washington, D.C. are calling for the city to reinvest 20% of Metropolitan Police Department funds into community healing work. We spoke to Pastor Delonte Gholston on what drew him to this work and why the time is now.

Resources & Links

Transcript

JEANELLE AUSTIN

Welcome to TEA WITH THE PEOPLE, the podcast. This is a series of conversations with innovative leaders who participate in our democracy by responding to racial injustices and inequities in the time of COVID-19. I’m Jeanelle Austin, the founder of Racial Agency Initiative.

JUSTINE LEE

And I’m Justine Lee, the co-creator of Make America Dinner Again. We engage leaders who work creatively to activate and support their communities. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire others to do the same.

JEANELLE

In this episode, we’ll be speaking to Reverend Delonte Gholston, senior pastor at Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. Here’s how they describe their organization. The mission of Peace Fellowship Church is to develop disciples of Jesus Christ, east of the river, who love God and love their neighbors. Pastor Delonte is currently organizing a coalition of congregations in D.C. to divest from the Metropolitan Police Department, and to reinvest in community healing work, violence prevention and intervention, and housing. He stands by the work of community-police dialogues called, “Trust Talks,” which he helped start in Los Angeles, California. However, in this season, Delonte is more interested in conversations with the police that lead to concrete, systemic change. 

Welcome Delonte, thank you for being here.

DELONTE GHOLSTON

Thank you. Thank you so much just for having me. I really am honored to have a chance to talk to you again my old friend. I’m really glad you can have me.

JEANELLE

Yes! Wonderful. Well, we’re excited to have you here. So just to kind of kick things off, we just want to ask, how are you feeling as we continue to navigate this national civil unrest? I mean, this has been going on for like three weeks now in all parts of the country. How are you feeling? How are you doing?

DELONTE

Well, I’m tired. I’m tired. I’ve been tired. You know, when this uprising began, I was already exhausted. Just the week prior, I had to bury a colleague of mine, Reverend, Dr. Ron Minor, who at 52 years old, succumbed to this virus. You know, brother who was with us when we first started doing peace walks in our community and first started really organizing in our community. I was already tired because my best friend… my best friend’s mom, sister, niece, nephew, they all got the virus. Most of them recovered. But his sister passed, you know? So I guess, I guess I would say that in our city already, just like every other major city in America, we were already seeing, although we only represent about 49% of the population here in DC, we represented over 70% of the cases of COVID. I know in Milwaukee, it’s closer to 80%.

So yeah, I’m tired because it was like, OK, here we go again. But then, the exhaustion and the tiredness and the weariness gave… started to give way to like a sense of… hold up this feels similar, but this… something about this feels different. And I started to wake up to the possibility that maybe, possibly, potentially, that God was up to something, that the Spirit was up to something. So yeah, it wasn’t lost on me that the uprisings, that the fire in the streets coincided with in the Christian tradition, remembering Pentecost, the fire that burned by the Holy Spirit to to bring people together across race across class, and that ultimately led them to start giving their money away, giving their…selling their houses and feeding the poor. Ultimately led to to women and men and eunichs, who were the queer folks of their day, being a part of this crazy Christian coalition. So I started to get energized. I went from being totally exhausted to then getting energized and figuring out OK, what do we got to do? Let’s move. Let’s rock. Let’s figure out how can we lean in and really mobilize our people in a different and a new way this moment requires.

JEANELLE

Wow. Well, first I want to say I’m sorry for your losses, and the grief that you all are carrying, because that’s something that we all recognize is that all of this civil unrest is happening with the backdrop of COVID-19. We’re still navigating the pandemic, and the impact the pandemic has, especially on the Black community. That’s still part of our reality too, in addition to the police violence that we’re trying to navigate across America. So I’m sorry for your losses. And my prayers are with you and your community.

DELONTE

Thank you. I really appreciate that. Thank you so much.

JEANELLE:

Of course, of course. Before we get too much into the work that you’re doing now, in the context of DC, we want to do a little bit of history… you to give us a little bit of history on your work in Los Angeles in co-creating Trust Talks. Can you tell us a little bit more about Trust Talks and when and why did you start it? Because I think it’s integral to the story of where you are now.

DELONTE

It’s one of those things where it’s like one of those “Where were you when,” right? You know, for the Millennial and Z generation, it’s where were you when that 9/11 happened, or were you born? For others, it’s where were you when the Challenger exploded? For our parent’s generation, it’s where were you when Dr. King was assassinated or where or maybe when Malcolm X was assassinated, or JFK was assassinated. And for me, it was where were you when Trayvon Martin was killed? And, it was 2013. I was in seminary in Pasadena. I had moved from DC to go to LA to attend seminary and I was in a white Evangelical seminary with folks from all over the world. But in a space that definitely centered whiteness, and that considered, you know all others as just that—an other—an optional aspect of a curriculum, a recommendation on a reading list and not something that was seen as vital to education or to Christian discipleship.

And it was in that context of sort of the beast of white Evangelicalism that I and others began mourning. And I remember I was with, actually one of our mutual friends, Jeanelle, I was with Tamisha Tyler who is a writer and a PhD candidate and an activist in their own right. I was with her and I was with my then friend now wife, Claire, and then Wiggins now Claire Gohlston, Claire Wiggins-Gholston. And we, we decided that we would take our mourning out into the streets that we got in the metro went downtown to Pershing Square where people were gathering to protest and we said his name, we mourned, we grieved. And that was the beginning of sort of a reawakening in me of a passion that I had when I was in college when I used to organize. 

And I just hadn’t done organizing in a long time. And so as part of seminary where I went, you had to do an internship and so I did my internship at this church in downtown LA, and I’m from DC, I’m learning about LA I know the history of the riots, or they call it the riots, we call it the uprising in ‘92, but I was still learning. And so I tried to take that posture of learning into one of the ministries at the church called New City Church where I was doing my internship that they had, and they were a part of this Clergy Council. And what I learned was that, that Clergy Council was actually formed by the LAPD. That the LAPD as a result of the riots, started these, what they call Clergy Councils, where their whole thing was we’re going to get pastors together with the community and do regular updates and build a relationship.

You know, there was a brother who was leading it. He’s an outstanding officer, his name is Deon Joseph, he’s got a heart of gold, he loves people. You know, really, truly, just just an amazing guy, whether he’s a cop or not, you know, he’s the kind of dude you say, this is a good human being. You know, he’s also a believer in Jesus, we connected on that. And, and, then, you know, sitting with all of the grief of Trayvon Martin. Here, comes Mike Brown, okay. Just like, I can’t finish grieving one one loss without having to grieve another loss. Oh, here comes Freddie Gray. We had a prayer vigil. And what happened is there was a African brother. He went by his name was Charlie Koornang. But he went by brother Africa. And he was an unhoused brother actually from Cameroon. He had a mental health crisis in downtown. He was in recovery. And people knew, you know, sometimes, you know, every now and then, you know, he would he would, you know, he would he would self medicate, right. And people knew and people knew what people loved him. But the police were called and eight officers tried to rather than de-escalating a situation with brother Africa. They surrounded him it’s on it’s on… the video went viral, they surrounded him. And there was a struggle. And, and they killed him.

JEANELLE

Wow.

DELONTE

That was in March of 2014. Whenever anyone died in the streets of our city, we held a vigil. So we held a vigil. But this vigil had to be different and I was asked to organize it. And we brought in activists we brought in people who are unhoused from the community we brought in also officers. At that vigil, I saw officer Joseph and his partner. They were in tears. They were holding the candles in their hands and we were singing a Christian… an old hymn and, and they were weeping with the community. And they were just saying, you know, this is, you know, this is not what should have happened here, we’re here with you, we’re here to weep with you. And I don’t know, to see black officers. You know, Officer Deon grew up in Long Beach, you know, he’s from LBC. You know, he, you know, he, he’s a brother, you know, he goes to Antioch Baptist Church, you know, what I’m saying he’s an ordinary brother, and I saw an opportunity that there might be a possibility of collective healing that could come out of, some serious tragedy.

And so he and I, we started talking and a couple of the couple sisters who had experienced homelessness. We got together and we started talking in the weeks after brother Charlie, brother Africa died, was killed. And we said what we need is to create a space where we can hear from each other and we can begin to collect community ideas around how to make policing better In downtown LA, and we called it theTrust Talks. We brought in facilitators from the Human Relations Commission in LA that I trained. We used an appreciative inquiry approach, which is an approach based on asking first what’s working and then what’s not working, we sort of used that approach as opposed to, you know, just leaving people in a tinderbox, you know, and just letting dynamite explode, you know.

JEANELLE

right.

DELONTE

We decided to, you know, really have a facilitated, you know, process. We used art so folks can write stuff. We used music, because I’m a musician. We brought in pastors from across the city. We coordinated with Black Lives Matter, even though they didn’t formally endorse it. And so we would bring in different activists as well, and you know, we would try to stack the deck really as much as possible so that the LAPD narrative wouldn’t be the only narrative that people heard. And we talked about mental health. We talked about housing, homelessness calls that they get, we talked about the fact that when you actually listen to the officers, they will tell you, “Look, I’m, I’m doing the best I can, but I’m the only person that comes when there’s a homelessness crisis or somebody is having a mental health crisis.” When you listen deeply to the officers, they will tell you that, you know, “I’m a human being and I’m… and there’s too much that’s being asked of me.” 

And we did that work, you know, over three years we held sessions in downtown LA. We coordinated with East LA, the police department in Boyle Heights. We did sessions in Inglewood with some black Muslims, some of whom had been part of the fruit of Islam that the security for Malcolm X back in the day, and it was a movement that was growing to train people. We would do trainings of the community first before they went into the trust talk so that they knew, hey, here’s a systemic frame. Here’s a systemic analysis for how policing can change. So when we have this Trust Talk, I want you to come prepared, you know what I’m saying? I want you to really push our rank in file officers around a change agenda. And so we, what we did was we brought students from UCLA, we brought soci-ethnographer students who would come in and then like, take notes at each of our tables. And then we coded those notes and collected sort of the raw data of the conversations and then presented that data to Councilmember José Huizar. We actually had staff from his office to also come and we, you know, compiled the data, gave it to his office to the mayor’s office and, and, and then it became part of an overall platform overall agenda in LA County, to, to transform, to at least to try to transform policing.

And so we tried to do both right. We tried to be at the tables having conversation, but then lead our people to be out in the streets with BLM turning up, you know, holding down space for 58 days as we did. We held, we held space for 58 days out in front of City Hall, holding Mayor… Mayor Garcetti accounts accountable for the death of Wakisha Wilson. So that’s sort of how the Trust Talks started. And then I left LA, and left the work in the hands of pastor Danny, but I grew, I grew weary. I grew tired of having conversations with the police and not seeing real systemic change, right. I grew weary of sitting at the table with the people that oppress you, that traumatize you. You already making yourself vulnerable to even do that, right. And then, you know, after you do that over and over and over again, we’re still rehearsing the same “liturgy of death.” We’re still rehearsing the same liturgy of pain and of grief, of black grief. I just, I don’t know, there’s only so much of that you can do without just having to do something else, you know. So that’s, that’s really what is behind the work that we’re doing right now. 

“I grew weary of sitting at the table with the people that oppress you, that traumatize you… After you do that over and over and over again, we’re still rehearsing the same ‘liturgy of death.’ We’re still rehearsing the same liturgy of pain and of grief, of black grief.”

JEANELLE

How have you transitioned to your work in DC?

DELONTE

Y’all have told us over and over again, you’re not a social worker, you told us we’re asking too much of you. So OK, let’s take some of the money that you’re currently putting toward new cars and new rocket launchers and new equipment to surveil black people and black bodies and let’s put it in what actually works. You know, let’s take you out of our school system, and, and put counselors in that we got schools that have more police in our schools than we have, counselors, school nurses, you know.

This is a time where, you know, we… It’s not like we haven’t done a deep listening to officers, we, you know, we listen, I listened to the commander of the police district where I live and I go to those meetings and I hear her out. And I have respect for her. She’s an African American woman that I deeply do respect and I believe that she does have the heart of the community in mind. And when I listen to her, she says, Pastor, we need you out in the streets. We need y’all, we need you.

And so the proposal that we put together is to take, you know, 20% of the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget, and to… and the language we use is a refund, you know, it’s our money belongs to the people. And so we basically said it’s time for us to get a refund. You know, nobody continues to… I used to work at Safeway. And you know, I used to work at the customer service counter. And, you know, black folk, we don’t come to the store after we done… you know, you don’t buy rotten chicken, right and come to the store, you don’t do it two times three times and keep coming back to the same store and saying I want I want an exchange. You know, after you done exchanged, you know, one pack a packet of rotten chicken for another packet of rotten chicken, you just say naw, I got receipts, give my money back, you know?

JEANELLE

Yes.

JUSTINE

Yeah.

DELONTE

You know, I may I want my money back. And you know, from our perspective, we got 401 years of receipts as a people. 401 years of…

JEANELLE

401

DELONTE

Come on, how many more? You see, it’s a long… It’s a long… It’s one of those receipts they used to tell us to collect…

JEANELLE 

We have CVS receipts that just keep coming!

DELONTE

You know, so we, you know, we said it’s time for a refund. It’s time for re-imagining policing. And, it’s time to reinvest.

“It’s time for a refund. It’s time for re-imagining policing. And, it’s time to reinvest.”

JUSTINE

Yeah, thank you for sharing all that Delonte. I am wondering if you could tell us more about the people you’re serving. And if there are any stories that stand out to you as encouraging moments as you’re doing this work in DC?

DELONTE

Oh, yeah. Well, it’s always been both-and for me, the work against state violence has always been integrally connected with the work against community violence. They’ve always been both-and. I grew up in this city in the 80s and 90s. I’m very familiar with the reality of gun violence. And so, in many ways, I’m a survivor of gun violence. My nephew was shot five times. Within two months of my moving back to the city. I moved back to the city in October 2017 and December of 17. He was shot. He survived, he was 16 at the time and by God’s grace, even though he was shot in his thigh and it hit a major artery. But my nephew was able to survive.

And, I learned that my father when he got shot. I learned that my father got shot, right. My father didn’t talk about it. I had seen the scar on his arm and, you know, and I thought he had got burned. I didn’t know what it was because, you know, he didn’t talk about it, right. But it took my nephew to get shot and almost leave here for me to learn then that my dad was shot. And it explained a lot actually about him actually. It explained a lot about some of the ways that my dad relates to the world as a black man that I really didn’t understand until I was almost, I just turned 40 this week. I was 38 years old when I found out you know that my dad was shot, you know?

It was kind of a weird, kind of a weird homecoming because when I came home, and when I noticed where the church is located, it’s a block away actually, from where I lost one of my one of my friends in 2014. He was shot and killed coming home from the metro, and so I was already sitting with that, and like processing that, at the time when my nephew was, was shot two months after moving back here.

And so I just felt the Spirit saying you can’t wait. You know, that was 2000 at the end, 2018 and 2019, the very beginning 2019 there was a triple homicide up the street from one of my colleagues’ church and I called him and I said, Pastor, we got to do something. This is this is an epi- this is an epidemic. You know, I know we’re in the middle of a pandemic now. But 2019 was when I kind of called clergy together to say look we’re in we’re experiencing a gun violence epidemic in our city. Like we’ve seen gun violence go up by 55% since 2012. And that’s just unacceptable. And you know, we’re a city that has more police, per capita, more police per citizen than any other city in America, DC has more police let me say it again, DC has more police per capita than any other city in America.

My point in saying that is that if the answer to you know, an epidemic of gun violence was solved by more policing, then like DC, you know, DC should be good. 

JEANELLE

Right 

DELONTE

You know, it should be, it should be like, you know, children running through fields of grass all over the place and just you know, but that’s not that’s not our reality. You know, the majority of the shootings that happened in my ward, in Ward 7, they happened right around the corner from the police station, you know what I’m saying so… But let’s not even, let’s not kid ourselves about thinking that police continue to… that police actually keep us safe. You know, in DC, Our rallying cry with BLMDC is “We keep us safe.” We keep us safe. Community checking on each other, you know, social workers, mental health workers. You know, teachers,  porch aunties that know everybody on the block, know everybody since they was a baby…

“Our rallying cry with BLMDC is ‘We keep us safe.’”

JEANELLE

Yes.

DELONTE

You know what I mean? That really keep us safe. And so, so we started organizing peace walks, in 2019. And we, over seven months, we did 14 walks where we just targeted communities that are most impacted by gun violence. And I think one of the real moments that really stands out to me is, we were in Kenilworth. It’s a public housing project. And we rolled up on, on a young brother who was 14 years old. And it, was it was like August, and he was in a wheelchair. And, we asked him, “Hey, man, Why are you in this wheelchair?” 

And he was like, “I got hit.” He’s like, “I got hit back in May.” 

…I don’t know… Beautiful chocolate, young, brother with his entire life ahead of him, sitting in a wheelchair. And we, when we came up on a… he was actually on a playground, you know, talking to his friends. Just this, this, this, this notion of a baby, you know, who can’t, who can’t even play like on the playground anymore, you know? And we were with a young, we were with another brother at the time who was going out with us.

We always went out… whenever we go out, we try to go out with somebody from the Department of Employment Services to be able to offer job opportunities. And we always had to go with somebody from Department of Behavioral Health to offer Mental Health and Counseling opportunities. And we always had to go out with somebody from the Office of Neighborhood Safety to offer like they have a program for returning citizens so we never go empty handed. We try to always go out with not only clergy and community, we also try to go out with like services that people actually need. Sometimes, we even also go out, like we’ll hold a fish fry and invite people to come to the fish fry after we finished doing the walk as a way to this like doing engagement.

But brother, Boon is his last name. I’m not gonna give his full name because I don’t know that he necessarily want his full name out there, but he pulled up his shirt in that moment. He was like, you see all these all these all these scars? He said that’s how many times I got hit. He got hit five times when he was 16. And he said I want you to know a little man you can do this you know, he said you know how long it took me to learn how to walk again. You know how long it took me to learn you know how to use how to use my extremities again, he was like keep fighting You know, he was like, keep fighting young brother keep fighting. You’re gonna make it you’re gonna make it. 

JEANELLE

Wow.

DELONTE

You know…

JUSTINE

Hm.

DELONTE

And I just had to sit with that like, you know, I just I don’t know, we sometimes realize how much like we are our own healing. Like, I don’t know how to say this. But it’s not lost on me as a pastor that like when God just I’m just gonna just in the Christian tradition when God finally decides to come, God comes in human flesh that ends up being mutilated and tortured, but ultimately, glorified and healed and like God in Christ, like goes around showing like scars to be like, Hey, have you seen what I’ve been through? You can make it, you know, I’m saying there’s no pain that you can go through that I hadn’t already overcome. And that’s what I heard in that moment. You know, I’m saying for my brother, and I heard him like literally pointing to his wounds, pointing to his scars and being like, you can make it because I’ve overcome, you know what I’m saying? And I, and I heard I heard the gospel in that, you know, so it was just powerful. You know, I don’t know, this is powerful to know that in the black community like we, we have, there’s healing if we just tell them, you know, if we just show up, we get out the church and like go to the people and like, share that with them.

“I just I don’t know, we sometimes realize how much like we are our own healing… There’s healing if we just tell them, you know, if we just show up, we get out the church and like go to the people and like, share that with them.”

JEANELLE

Yes, that is an absolutely powerful story. And what I’m hearing through your storytelling is that you all are taking a route in your city in your local context of addressing the challenge of racism through healing. So when you talk about divesting from the police department and reinvesting in your community healing work, it’s addressing directly racism in dismantling it by healing the people, by healing black people and giving them the capacity to thrive in who they were created to be. I think that’s beautiful. so that’s on a very, very local level. How do you think that this kind of work can potentially have a national impact? Right, because I think the pain of racism that you are identifying in DC exists in other spaces and communities throughout the United States. Do you think that this work has national implications?

DELONTE

I appreciate this question. I hesitate sometimes to try to nationalize local work. So that’s what that’s why that’s where I have pause. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t I can’t say that what’s happening in one place should happen in another place. But I guess I can say that what’s happening in one place can possibly inspire contextualized work in another space. You know, I’m saying like I would hate… You know what I’m saying? For somebody from, you know, Kalamazoo to come and try to tell me that what’s happening in Kalamazoo…That’s a real place. I sometimes use that as a placeholder, but it actually is a real place. No offense to those who are listening who are actually from Kalamazoo, my bad.

“I hesitate sometimes to try to nationalize local work… But I guess I can say that what’s happening in one place can possibly inspire contextualized work in another space.”

JEANELLE 

You can say, Minneapolis, I’m from Minneapolis. I’m here.

DELONTE

Like black folk in DC, I mean we want to hear from black folk in Minneapolis. You know what I’m saying? We want to hear from black folk in Milwaukee. We want to learn from black folk in Oakland like this work that we’re doing—real talk—came from work that passes we’re doing in Oakland. I’m saying like, I didn’t make this up. You know what I’m saying? I learned from what my brother, Pastor Mike McBride, and my brother, Pastor Ben McBride. You know, I learned from them. And in fact, when we first started, I actually had both Pastor Mike and Pastor Ben to come out and train our clergy around what this ethic can look like. I had Erica Ford come out from Life Camp Inc., from New York who works in Brooklyn, doing similar work, I had her to come out. I asked for the fam, who are on the ground already doing creative work to come and like speaking to our context, but at the end of the day, we had to wrestle with it ourselves and say, “Okay, how is this going to really speak to our context?”

And so… I’m… You’re right. This is work that is about healing. In fact, the foundational sort of Scripture that I come back to over and over again around this work is Jeremiah 8. God says to Jeremiah, “You have treated the wounds of my people as though it were not serious.” You know, and then he cries out, “Is there a balm in Gilead, right?” And so I reflect on that, like, and I’m just not down anymore with solutions that don’t take the wounds of our people serious, you know what I’m saying? I just can’t rock with that anymore. I’m just not at that point. I done turn 40. I’m a grown… You know, I’m a grown “bleep” man now, you know what I’m saying? I’m a grown man now. I can’t just keep talking, you know, saying and not and not having conversations that actually lead to change. But it would be wonderful if our work might help to inspire other work in other places. But everybody’s gonna have to figure out you know, how… you know what this work, what this kind of work can look like and you know, in their own context.

“I’m just not down anymore with solutions that don’t take the wounds of our people serious.”

But you know, broad parameters, broad frame… Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, deep healing work is going to take fundamental reinvestments in, you know, having clergy being on rapid response teams, so people are calling 911 or 211 or 111, or whatever, whatever you want to call it 311 that, that somebody who was a member of the faith community should come out. You know, along with the social worker, along with a mental health professional, along with some sort of a peer. I think those are the kind of approaches that I’m really interested in exploring. It doesn’t mean that, you know, there’s a bomb scare, you know, of somebody or somebody, you know, hold somebody at gunpoint that somebody isn’t gonna have to be called, you know, I’m saying to deal with that. But, but the vast majority of the calls as you, as you, as we listen to most police officers, they’ll tell you the vast majority of calls, they get are noise complaints, mental health crises, and you know, and people who experience homelessness, and that’s just they’ve already told you, I’m not trained in that so we’re like OK, good. Don’t worry about it. Let’s find folks who are.

JUSTINE

Mm hmm. I mean, you’ve described some of the change that you want to see in your community. I’m curious if you can expand on that and focus specifically on what is your vision, or your hope for how people engage government? In DC?

DELONTE

Yeah. Thank you for asking that. Um, so we just last week, we just had a series of hearings, that the Charles Allen who was the Chairman of the Committee of the Judiciary and Public Safety, held, and just as a frame of reference last year, we came to that we held hearings and we came out to those hearings as well and testified but there were only about 25-30 people that testified. This year, there were 15,000 people that signed up to testify. And only 90 of 15,000 were actually able to present their testimony live, most of us had to actually email, you know, letters or testimony in to be submitted as part of the public record. So I just want to say that there is a groundswell of momentum around this issue. So, so that’s huge. That’s major.

I was just on a call at five o’clock today, where our local council member who came out with us and did trust talks with us. He has proposed putting forth a policing commission gathering folks who are doing this work to actually compile all the best practices and make recommendations to the council. And I challenged him about this on this call because I actually think that commissions are actually moves that politicians frequently make, to to put a pin in or to take air out of out of out of out of a movement you know, you establish commission, you write a report, you know, you make recommendations, but I’m like, OK, now this ain’t the time. You know, I got to challenge him. You know, I mean, if he hears this is fine, but I told him, I told him this afternoon I’m not trying to be on no commission. He was like, “Yeah, Pastor Gohlston, we’d love to have you on the commission, I put your name up to recommend you on the commission.” I was like, OK, but that’s not what that’s not what I’m talking about. You know, I’m not trying to be on nobody’s commission to write no report is gonna sit and collect dust nowhere. I’m not about deflecting from the energy, no momentum of this moment. 

But I mean, we organized clergy, over 100 clergy and faith leaders from across the city, churches, synagogues, faith communities of all sorts, to send that letter to the council. We’ve already received a response from a couple of council members already saying, “Hey, I’m with you, I support let’s figure out specific details.” I’m not waiting for a commission to be established. You know, the time is now the budget is going to be approved by the end of this month. So we got to if we’re going to make moves, you know, we have to make moves now. And so our document is called “The Time Is Now” happy to share it with anybody and we’re just calling for, like I said, a refund to reimagine policing and policing accountability. And for and for reinvestment. We also started by repentance because I felt like it was necessary that the church say, “Hey, look, the black death has occurred under our watch and we haven’t been as faithful as we should be.” So I didn’t start you know what I’m saying with calling for for Donald Trump to repent. I didn’t start with calling for the Minneapolis PD to repent. No. I started with saying to faith communities to repent for being too close to power, trying to preserve our relationship with the Mayor, And trying to preserve our relationship with the City Council and all type of stuff and not actually being about it, you know for our people.

JUSTINE 

How can people get involved? What help do you need right now?

DELONTE

Yeah, here, here in DC, we need folks to call Councilmember Charles Allen’s office. We need folks to email him. He’s the Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. We need folks to call and email Mayor Bowser, We need folks to email Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue who’s the Deputy for Public Safety, we need folks to call their offices, flood their phone lines, flood their email addresses. That’s Mayor Muriel Bowser. That’s Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue. And that’s Charles Allen,who’s the chairperson of the Committee on Public Safety here in DC Because we can’t just have a city where we paint Black Lives Matter in the middle of 16th Street and rename, you know, out in front of White House Black Lives Matter Plaza, and we still proposing budgets that give $18 million increase to the police department.

JEANELLE

Okay, come on now. 

DELONTE

So that that that would be the, that would be the call is to flood their flood their phone lines, flood their email addresses. And hold them accountable to this document. The time is now. The document is called “The Time Is Now.”

JUSTINE

The time is now. Okay. Yeah, we’ll be sure we’ll be sure to share a link to that and get that call to action out to our listeners. Thank you.

JEANELLE

And Delonte, how can people follow you or follow this movement? Do you have handles? hashtag? How can people keep up with what the work that you all are doing and organizing?

DELONTE

The handle is his PeacewalksDC on Instagram, it’s PeacewalksDC on Facebook as well.

JEANELLE

Delonte, thank you so much for all the golden nuggets that you have shared with us throughout this podcast.  One final question we have for you: Can you share with us a word of wisdom as a parting gift to our listeners? 

DELONTE

Now

JEANELLE

Mm

JUSTINE

hmm. Yeah. I feel that.

JEANELLE

Thank you.

JUSTINE

Yeah, thank you so much Delonte, for joining us today and for sharing your stories. They were deeply powerful, and, and for sharing some of what you’ve learned from all the work you’ve done both in in LA and also the ongoing work you’re doing in DC. Really appreciate your time.

DELONTE

I appreciate you all. Keep us. Keep us in your prayers. I appreciate y’all having me.

JEANELLE

We will. Thank you.

JUSTINE

Well, this has been TEA WITH THE PEOPLE, the podcast.