Food & Liberation: Reflections from Gabriela Alvarez, Environmental Leader in Residence

by Gabriela Álvarez
Common Ground’s 5th Annual Environmental Leader in Residence

Gabriela Álvarez, Common Grounds 2018 Environmental Leader in Residence.

I arrived in New Haven on Monday morning and was welcomed to Common Ground High School by a group of students. They gave me a tour of the campus, while sharing about their experiences working on the farm. A few of them spoke to me in Spanish about how the chickens remind them of their homeland in Puerto Rico. What a gift to have that reminder of home where you spend most of your days. I felt instantly connected. I’d just returned from Puerto Rico myself some weeks prior.

The planning committee for my visit was made up of teachers, students, a farmer, and a youth organizer. The students in particular insisted that I meet as much of the student body upon arrival as possible. So I did just that! I visited students in their guidance groups, repeating the same quick intro. “Hi my name is Gabriela. I’m a chef. I cook health-supportive, Puerto Rican and Caribbean foods because that’s where my family comes from. My company is called Liberation Cuisine, which cooks for social justice work”.

On my final afternoon at Common Ground I received my favorite piece of feedback. A student approached me and said “you were a great Environmental Leader in Residence because you actually spent time with us.” And this is precisely what I love about food. It has the power to create space for quality connection and in turn helps build stronger communities. Throughout the week we cooked together, shared family recipes, planned a menu, broke bread, and even broke out into a dance party!

Gabriela cooks Gandules en Escabeche with Common Ground students and staff on the first day of her residency.

The first workshops I offered was called Wellness Like My Ancestors. It was a cooking class where we made Gandules En Escabeche (Pickled Pigeon Peas) together and talked about reclaiming our own cultures’ foods as both healthy and worthy of including in food justice work.

My last session at Common Ground was cooking with a group of the seniors for their peers during Global Youth Service Day. One student shared his family Feijão recipe and it was a hit! We also made a salad with kale from the farm and three flans – each with different eggs: chicken, duck, and turkey (this is where the dance party popped off).

In addition to cooking with students, it felt important to spend time with Fathiya and Theresa in the cafeteria, where the students eat nearly half of their meals. We collaborated on a lunch that included my own recipe for Garbanzos a la Criolla (Chickpeas in Creole Sauce). The response to this vegan Caribbean dish was very positive.

Outside the kitchen I got to talk with teachers, the farm staff, and the Environmental Education team about how their programs can further integrate the farm and food justice in a way that is thoughtful of the historical and political context of their students’ backgrounds. I had the honor of facilitating a workshop with Youth Organizer, Z . During this intergenerational session, we used role-play to explore Restorative Justice in the student-teacher relationship. Role-playing allows us step into one another’s shoes and try on anti-oppressive practices, so that it becomes more ingrained in our everyday lives.

I also sat down with three cohorts of students to hear about what would make their experience at Common Ground more inclusive and loving: the Young Activist Club, LGBTQI and gender nonconforming students, and students who are English learners and/or migrants from other countries. We had beautiful conversations about what supporting one another cna look like, the power of solidarity across identities, and how to make specific requests of one’s community.

Gabriela encourages students to find the opportunities to which they want to say “yes” during a school-wide POWER assembly.

Reflecting on the week, I’m amazed at the wide range of ways in which food and cooking organically created access points for transformation. And once the space is opened up, we get to decide what we Say Yes to (check out clips from a Power Assembly to the student body about my own journey becoming a chef, where I inviting students to think about what they want to say yes to in their lives).

I personally have been saying yes to decolonial responses to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. During my week in New Haven, I got to spend time with some of the amazing activists and organizers based in the New Haven area. I shared about my recent work cooking for and supporting grassroots efforts on the island, we cooked together, and broke bread.

So much gratitude to Common Ground for making it possible for me to meet so many beautiful people in New Haven. Thank you for opening your doors to me, sharing your community and the land you reside in with me.


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