Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rose McGee - Sweet Potato Comfort Pie - It's More Than Just a Dessert!

Rose McGee is a pie philanthropist, storyteller, educator, author, and a Program Officer at the Minnesota Humanities Center. She is founder of the convening concept: “Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Approach: a catalyst for caring and building community,” author of the book Story Circle Stories and the play Kumbayah the Juneteenth Story. She is featured on the national PBS documentary A Few Good Pie Places and her TEDx Talk: The Power of Pie.

Racism! There. I put it out there and said the “r” word. Does it exist? Without hesitation some vehemently say, “Oh hell yeah!” as others deniably respond, “Of course not!” Despite the controversy, pain is real, dialogue is critical, and healing is essential. What does sweet potato pie have to do with this? Well, keep your eyes on the pie, for there is power in the approach and it sort of goes like this…

I grew up in the rural South with my grandmother and great-grandmother, referring to them affectionately as ‘My Mamas.’ I grew up witnessing My Mamas bake sweet potato pies and then give them to neighbors who were in need of comfort or encouragement, and in celebration. In my adulthood, I came to recognize and pay homage to the sweet potato pie as being the sacred dessert of black culture and grew to understand that My Mamas had made them with tremendous empathy and unconditional love. Each recipient gained a nurturing feeling of joy that helped ease their sorrows or added to their celebrations. Wasn’t that a simple and basic act of humanity?

August 9, 2014, triggered a violent, hot summer in Ferguson, Missouri. From my living room in Minnesota, I grew frustrated watching the repetitive coverage on television: ‘African American, 18-year old Michael Brown, dead from bullet wounds fired by a white police officer!’ Faces on my screen were filled with anger, confusion, and hopelessness. Saddened, I felt compelled to do something other than just sit there. By early September, instinctively, I went into my kitchen, baked about 30 sweet potato pies, and packed them into the trunk of my car. Not knowing what to expect, I drove to Ferguson. What I had not counted on was how much people just wanted to be heard.

During my drive home from Ferguson, I pondered how my own community of Golden Valley, Minnesota could proactively begin strengthening relationships among its residents. In less than three months, we implemented an action – the 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service that featured “Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Approach: A catalyst for caring and building community.” On the Saturday before that Monday holiday, over 25 community volunteers baked 86 pies (the age Dr. King would have been on January 15, 2015). Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley generously donated their certified kitchen and also their community room for Sunday afternoon when about 100 people convened in circle and listened as each shared their own authentic stories. The round format was more than just sitting and chit-chatting, but required each participant to be totally present, be receptive to listening without interrupting, and be non-judgmental as stories were shared. To conclude the event, participants decided among themselves who in the community ought to receive the pies. On the Monday holiday and days to follow, the participants delivered those pies to individuals who were ill or in mourning, in appreciation, or in celebration. Recipients included teachers, nurses, police officers, fire fighters, organizations, as well as Shep Harris, Mayor of Golden Valley, and Congressman Keith Ellison who was also in attendance. January 2017 will mark our third annual event.

Since Ferguson, over 150 volunteers have baked over 800 Sweet Potato Comfort Pies™ that have been presented as gifts in response to crisis or celebration. In August 2015, pies were taken to Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina after the murder of nine African Americans by a white supremacist. In November 2015, pies were delivered to the Fourth Precinct in North Minneapolis and given or served to protestors, as well as to police officers, community leaders, and family members of Jamar Clark. Then, too soon afterwards, pies were made for the family of Philando Castile who was killed in Falcon Heights in July 2016, also at the hands of a police officer. At the end of the 2016 school year, 30 pies (intentionally named after 30 diverse women educators alive and deceased) were baked at Shir Tikvah Synagogue in south Minneapolis by 15 diverse women who then delivered and presented the pies to Twin Cities’ students, schools, parents, and educators in special recognition for their successes in educational endeavors. In October of this year, pies were made with an Indigenous Circle of Grandmothers in Omaha, Nebraska and then delivered to the ‘Water Protectors’ at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

Across this nation, there is an urgency to respond to the hurt, the divisiveness, and the absence of trust. The Minnesota Humanities Center recently received a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities to creatively host such critical conversations called CommonPlace. These dialogues will focus on race in a way aimed to help participants share actions that will lead to healthy solutions. Sweet Potato Comfort Pie™ is proud to partner with the Humanities Center in launching CommonPlace. Join us on December 12, 2016, as we engage in authentic story circles, respectfully listen to each other, and yes, eat delicious sweet potato pie prepared in solidarity by 20 participants comprised of community leaders, youth, Veterans, and police officers.

Learn more and register.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

On this Thanksgiving day, the Minnesota Humanities Center wishes all of its blog readers a very happy Thanksgiving holiday. 

We hope your day is filled with meaningful time to reflect, give thanks, and connect with family, friends, and community.


“Rest and be thankful.” 
William Wordsworth

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sharon Day - What Will You Do For the Water?


Sharon Day, Bois Forte Ojibwe, is the executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, and the leader of 12 Nibi walks including the Mississippi River, the Ohio, the Minnesota, the James, the Kettle, and the Chippewa. She will lead a Potomac River walk this fall. 

“Gidaw izhichigaye na nibi?” This question in the Ojibwe language is, “What will you do for the water?”

This question was asked of me back in 1998. I responded by trying to help save Camp Coldwater Spring. Since then, I have led 12 or 13 Nibi, or water walks, to pray for the health of the rivers.  First, we determine which of the many rivers or lakes on Turtle Island need our prayers the most – which rivers or waterways are severely impaired by pollution or are facing immediate threats by new mines or pipelines running under them. Then we go to that river; we make an offering and state our intentions to walk along this waterway to speak to the water spirits. This is our responsibility as Ojibwekwe, indigenous women, to care for the water. 

Since the beginning of time, Ojibwe women have gathered the water every morning for the needs of the people. We are, like the water, life givers. As we bring our children into the world, they live in our womb in water for nine months. This is a most sacred place. We all need water for nourishment. We need water to bathe, to nourish our plants, and to cook or preserve our food. No human living on this earth can live without water. No one.

When I was a young girl, I would get up in the morning and get the water pail and head to the well to gather the water for the day. It was the last thing I did every night before I went to bed. When one gathers the water and carries it, one develops a relationship with the water. You are careful with it and you use it more than once. Today, we just turn on the faucet, use it, and pour what we don’t need down the drain. On the Nibi walks, women gather the water at the headwaters or source of the river and carry the water to the mouth of the river. There we give the water back to the river. While we carry it, we sing, we pray, we speak to the water spirits. We give thanks for the Nibi, we express our love and respect. These are the teachings of the Ojibwe people.

All the Nibi water walks follow these protocols and more. It is our intention to make sure there is water to nourish our great-great-great grandchildren seven generations into the future. We do this because someone did this for us. My ancestors knew that one day I would be here. They sang the songs and offered the prayers so that I would be able to enjoy life, mino bemadiziwin. To them I am grateful and it is due to the love they had for me that I am able to answer the question, “Gi daw izitchigay na nibi?” What will you do for the water?

“Ngah bimosayaan nibi ohnjay.” I will walk for the water.

Visit the Water/Ways traveling exhibit in Sandstone at the Audubon Center of the North Woods from November 19, 2016 – January 1, 2017.