My name is Dorian, and I've been working as an activist and ally of the food justice movement since I first started working at the Maryland Food Collective, which is a modest sandwich shop and coffee spot on a university campus. When I first began my work there, I didn't understand the politics around the food that we purchase, cook, and consume. I came to my local food co-op because, like many college students (both undergrad and post-grad), I was in search of a way to earn resources that I could use to sustain myself, and because I needed to be fed.
When I was growing up, my passion for cooking (and for food itself) was almost as large as my hunger for new stories to process and tell. I spent my free time spinning stories in crudely made booklets of printer paper and staples, trying to create space for histories sprouted in my mind’s eye. I created physical subjects from cloth and thread, formed stories of revival and revolution for spaces I hadn’t entered into yet yet, and imagined worlds outside my reach. As I entered organizing spaces in my late teens and early twenties, I clutched my rolling imagination for better ways of working together and coexisting as tightly as I held my own lived experiences as a person of color.
During my two years at the Maryland Food Collective, I came to realize how frequently disagreements were tied up in the histories that we didn’t feel comfortable sharing with one another. Once I learned about the possibilities for collectivity and organizing in our space, I was eager to connect and use my personal knowledge for our collective success. But, like others working in intensive co-op environments, my eagerness quickly fizzled into burnout. In places where I hoped to find overwhelming warmth and support, I discovered disconnection and scarcity. Where I looked for solidarity in organizing, I often found exhaustion and misunderstanding instead. Instead of cultivating a workplace where we actively supported and showed up for one another, the stress of running a business and tending to individual managerial responsibilities separated us.
Following the 2016 election, I began thinking about the power of collective spaces in relation to community support, the sharing of resources, and a space for organizing. My knee-jerk reaction to my initial fear for the future was to close myself off and conserve my own energy. I felt that I didn’t have the power to change the inequalities in our system, and I wasn’t sure how to find the resources to move forward. Activism was not foreign to me, but effective community felt hard to reach. In response to the rapid rise in hate crimes and injustice in our nation, I found myself looking towards my own community for strength and guidance for where to go next. Though I first thought that I didn’t have the power, as an individual to change anything for the better, I realized in our own collective space the sheer power of a single-minded group of determined individuals. When we come together in power, we can do anything that we set forward to do in unison.
The spaces we create for ourselves aren’t always perfect, but they can expand or collapse to our needs as much as we choose to make space for ourselves. When my fellow workers felt fear and hopelessness swelling around us on our university campus, we made space. I found the best support where it had been all along — at the center of our work.
My work with CoFED as a Racial Justice Fellow ignited my passion for storytelling and my desire to see support and community in our co-operative spaces, and my documentary work joined my passion for communication with my desire to organize. While I first set out to create an informational resource for those who felt powerless, I realized in the process that the spaces we create for organizing are very often sticky and complex.
“Transition is inevitable. Justice is not.”
During my travels and conversations with cooperatives, collectives, and young activists across the United States, I came to realize that the histories we carry with us in our bodies will always come with us in our spaces. To move forward in power, we have to be willing to acknowledge the histories of colonialism, racism, injustice, and inequality that we carry with us. That’s not to say that we should continuously evoke the pains of our past traumas — but to support one another and move forward, we must be willing to give space for the experiences and boundaries of our fellow workers and activists. In acknowledging where our roots are, we can further support one another and empower ourselves in where we are planning to go. I learned that we have the power to work as a larger group to push back against the problems we see in our systems, and when we don’t agree with the way things are being handled, we have the power to change our circumstances to fit our needs. While transition is inevitable, justice is not.
“When we are able to sit together, we are so much more powerful in movement.”
I was inspired to film a documentary about the stories and communities weaved together in collective spaces. The title of this project is called Through Word of Mouth, and the work is organized with the intent to provide education about community organizing and facilitation of collective liberation. My intent was to create a resource that focuses around the histories we bring with us into our collective spaces, the ways in which we can address our own need for healing within our communities, and how we can use our relationships with one another to create a better system to fit the needs of everyone. In my desire to create a resource that was both inclusive and specific, I began thinking about the properties and points of power in collective spaces. From my experience, a collective space is a safe space built by community members for the benefit of their community: this can be a workers’ union, a yoga/meditation club, a community gathering, or a tiny food collective nestled in the student union of a college campus.
In my past few years working in food justice, I have learned that powerful stories are built anywhere where good-hearted people come together in earnest. While working and after shift, bonds are created between members that are very rarely ephemeral. The weekly meetings, though sometimes frustrating, are critical to the collective success. In these spaces, you learn how to work with others to create a machine of efficiency, in which every worker holds power and autonomy in the space we build together. In the spaces before and after shifts, you hear histories and stories passed down in jest and in wisdom. You learn how to work with intention and care for your community and your fellow workers, and you collect histories passed down through word of mouth.
Lastly, one of the most important truths I found in my journey is that we have to understand where our goals don’t align with the goals of others in our spaces. We are not all working towards the same form of liberation, and we aren’t all coming from the same place. That isn’t to say that we don’t have the power to work with those coming from a different place than we are — but like all organizing, it can get frustrating and messy. Our ideologies, like our histories and our passions, are carried with us into our spaces.
At the Maryland Food Collective, we begin every meeting by sitting together at the ground, close to the earth and to one another, and passing our collective pulse from hand to hand. The act of interlocking fingers in a workspace to mimic the power of a collective heart, pulsing and thriving despite our individual pains and misunderstandings, is a memory that I will always carry with me. When we are able to sit together, and work together in unison, we are so much more powerful in our collective movement.
Through we come into spaces with walls up around our histories and our dreams, we can always give support and break through them together. After all, a wall is just a wall — and whether it be built in physical or emotional space, we have the collective power to tear walls down.
“I have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know anything at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.”
— “Affirmation,” Assata Shakur
Follow Dorian’s continued documentary project, Through Word of Mouth, on Facebook and Tumblr! For more information on how to get involved, partner with their project in the future, or donate, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.