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Jessika Hepburn: A fundamental aspect of Black food sovereignty is liberation

Jessika Hepburn. Photo Facebook

For those who have yet to encounter Jessika Hepburn, she introduces herself as a community organizer and entrepreneur of Black and Jewish descent, working to craft a culture of care and decolonization, abolish white supremacy, redistribute wealth, and replace capitalism/colonialism with community goodness. 

Jessika is the owner of the Biscuit Eater Cafe in Mahone Bay, and an active member of BIPOC South Shore and at SEED (South End Environmental Injustice Society) in Shelburne.

Late last year Jessika spoke at a panel on Black Food Sovereignty Perspectives from Across the Food System, part of Food Secure Canada’s conference Cultivating Change. That panel discussion was a jumping off point for the following conversation. Amongst fancy cakes and laughter, Jessika and reporter Paul Wartman dug deeper into the topic of Black food sovereignty.

Paul: For people who may be new to the concept, what are some main points of food sovereignty?

Jessika: To me, food sovereignty means that people and the community have rights to determine their food and food production, especially to have local control and access to their food system instead of having food systems imposed on them from outside. That’s definitely the number one piece, and this expands to having access to controlling the tools of production on all levels, not just food but economic sovereignty as well.

Paul: How does Blackness inform food sovereignty and what does that look like with your business, The Biscuit Eater Cafe?

Jessika: For me, Blackness informs everything. The deep ancestral roots that connect us back to the Middle Passage and beyond to our communities that we’ve been taken from is an undercurrent that informs our food systems, our culture, how we form relationships, to how we build political or anti-political systems. A fundamental aspect of this is liberation, the ability to create our own food systems, access to economic security to be able to grow and curate those foods. 

Most Black communities exist in food waste lands where there is no food production happening and even when we try to solve these issues they often become highly politicized and are violently suppressed. The fact that we live in systems that are anti-Black really highlights how much harder all this work is–we can’t just plant some seeds, we have to undo all of this learning. 

An example here at The Biscuit Eater Cafe was the creation of a community garden in partnership with the United Nations Association Green Spaces Program, with the idea of having these conversations about food security and sovereignty, and access to food culture. Unfortunately there’s a lot of barriers to wanting to farm and grow food, especially in Black communities. So the more we can have those conversations the better and to show people that they’re involved, that community gardens are available to all people, not just folks with disposable time and income. 

Of course, another way we strive for Blackness-informed food and culture at the Biscuit Eater is prioritizing and hiring Black people in rural Nova Scotia. I’m profoundly excited because right now there’s a majority of Black staff who are making decisions, guiding recipes, and having control of the kitchen. People with societal privilege and power are still part of the process but they make space and take the back seat. This is what sovereignty looks like.

Paul: People may not associate themselves, as individuals, with white supremacy or Black sovereignty. Could you speak to Black sovereignty as a systemic culture and how people from all backgrounds can fit in?

Jessika: We often disassociate ourselves from movements for liberation and sovereignty instead of recognizing that all of us white-passing and white people benefit from oppressive systems, like white supremacy and white privilege. Similarly, not everyone sees how they will benefit from Black sovereignty or Indigenous sovereignty. I think that neither of them are systems, although they have the potential to become systems, but right now they are movements resisting suppression. There are active forces trying to keep Black people from achieving not only equality but freedom. The same thing applies for Indigenous sovereignty. So in these terms, if we recognize Black people as sovereign, if we recognize Indigenous people as sovereign, we have to talk with them as if they have equal rights and equal power to determine how things happen–how systems develop, how we create food systems, etc. 

Currently, because we don’t want to recognize these things systemically, they continue to be movements that are happening on the fringes. I believe they are growing more capacity as people realize that we’re all oppressed when any one of us is oppressed, we’re all at risk when people in our community don’t have what they need. We see when people don’t have access to basic needs–housing, food, health care–that this fuels populist movements, and they become stressed by other people’s freedom and become more willing to participate in oppressive systems like we’re seeing in America. 

It’s going to take a lot of humility to recognize that our western colonial systems are damaging and wrong, and a willingness to go towards the people who have held onto the abundance of resources, knowledge, teachings of their ancestors, the land, of community, and their cultures of how to be good humans in the world.

Paul: The Cultivating Change panel asked: “What do listeners do now?” and you answered: “Go to people who are doing the work and ask them how they’d like to be supported”. You are doing so much work for community members, how would you like to be supported in these efforts? 

Jessika: The number one thing that would support me and the community in general would be for white folks to address their own internal racism and bias. This is work that I’m doing on an ongoing basis. I can’t even imagine how much more time and energy I would have in life if I didn’t have to deal with these things ongoingly and institutionally. If other people would ask “Hey Lunenburg, why don’t you recognize your Black history or do more than cut and paste the proclamation that the province wrote?” Things like that. I’ll keep doing it, but it would be great to have more voices that support that work and do it in their own communities and homes. It’s both easy and hard. 

Another really tangible way to support is to donate to the Buy Black Birchtown campaign. We’re starting a retreat and learning centre that’s by and for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, so that we can rest and organize for Black liberation and Indigenous Sovereignty. This place would be outside of the space where we do this work constantly, where we can do whatever it is that we want to do, whether that’s to laugh really loudly or nap, whatever is necessary. Lastly, people can come to The Biscuit Eater Cafe, eat biscuits, buy books, hahaha.

To see how spectacular cakes combine with Black food sovereignty on the South Shore, like The Biscuit Eater Cafe and Bookstore on Facebook

See also: Spring Tide Farm’s Jessie and Rebecca MacInnis – “Indigenous solidarity is part of the business we want to grow”