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.


  1. The response of the members of Mother Emanuel Church to the killings there--mercy instead of revenge--startled the nation. In a quieter but parallel way, Sweet Potato Comfort Pie offers profound wisdom to all of us from the African American experience. And it's wisdom that doesn't get stymied by fear. As Rose says, when she drove to Ferguson with that trunk full of pies, she didn't know "what to expect." Nobody knows "what to expect" when the conversation circles of CommonPlace gather, either, but the combination of listening and then eating "delicious sweet potato pie" strikes me as having a better chance than nearly anything else we could do "to respond to the hurt, the divisiveness, and the absence of trust" so prevalent today.

  2. I love the generational handing-on of giving, Rose. You are a blessing.